Bright Colors Struggle to Bloom in South Korea's Silver-Car Nation Colors Struggle to Bloom in South Korea's Silver-Car Nation
Park Chang-min bought a white sports car two years ago and then had it painted pink.

Pink cars are rare all over the world, but they're a form of social rebellion in South Korea, where nine out of 10 cars are silver, black or white.

From behind the car's darkened windows, Mr. Park watches as people stare, point and sometimes take pictures as he drives around this industrial city on the country's southern coast. He has even found mothers taking pictures of their children in front of his car. "Kids love my car," Mr. Park says.
[COLORCAR] Evan Ramstead/The Wall Street Journal

Mr. Park with his pink Genesis

South Korean culture is becoming more prominent around the world, with its trendy teens catching notice in the fashion world, pop stars becoming known around Asia and movies winning awards on the festival circuit.

But at home, style often boils down to fitting in. A surprisingly rigid code of conformity is in place. And for many people, owning a colorful car is out of the question.

The preference is reinforced in resale values, which are highest for white cars. The color is associated with family use, and white cars are perceived to be cared for better. Colorful vehicles are typically bought and sold for about 5% less than comparable vehicles in white, black or silver, dealers say.

"A colorful car can be considered by young people…but it looks childish," says Shin Hee-jung, a 33-year-old manager at an electronics manufacturer who bought a white sedan in May. "I'm already married and planning to have a baby, so I thought a simple and neat car is better."
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Car colors around the world have been trending monochromatic. See proportions of black, white and silver cars for some countries and continents.

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Lim Myung-jin bought a red Volvo S60 sedan in 2004 after having owned black and white cars. He hasn't stopped hearing about it from friends and relatives, he says. "I think Korean people don't like drawing much attention. People like to conform rather than stand out."

For the past decade, car colors around the world have been trending monochromatic. In the U.S., for example, black, white and silver cars now account for about 60% of new-car sales, up from 38% in the late-1990s, according to research done by Hyundai-Kia Motor Co., South Korea's biggest car maker.

But no nation has as high a proportion of the three colors as South Korea does, the car maker's research shows. China and Japan are next, with just under 80% of new cars sold in the three colors.

Oh Suk-geun, chief designer at Hyundai, theorizes that the East Asian affinity for muted car colors is rooted in the monochromatic painting, calligraphy and printmaking of centuries past. Layered onto that tradition, older South Koreans remember the limits on self-expression, and even clothing, imposed by the authoritarian government that led the country after the Korean War of the early 1950s.

In those days, with the country rising from poverty, most people didn't own cars. For those that did, a color code arose: black for company cars, white for family cars. As car ownership spread in the 1980s and 1990s, silver captured about half the market.

Hyundai offers variations of silver on its larger sedans in South Korea, in part to satisfy its designers' creative desire for a modicum of diversity. Depending on the model, silver comes with bluish or whitish tints or with the flecks of mica and other metallic materials that intensify the reflectivity of the silver paint.

At the Seoul Motor Show in April, Hyundai and Kia—which account for about 75% of all car sales in South Korea—displayed about 40 cars and concept vehicles. Nearly all were silver or white.

One red car stood out: Hyundai's new three-door sporty hatchback called Veloster, which hit showrooms here in May and is slowly rolling out globally. The company has since put red, apple green, yellow and orange Velosters in its Korean storefront-style dealerships.

In the first two months that the sporty Veloster has been on sale, Hyundai said that white was still the most popular color, accounting for 28% of sales, but that red was in second place, at 20%. White, black and silver together accounted for 56% of Veloster sales.

Also at the motor show, foreign brands like Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW just displayed silver and black models. Harald Behrend, Mercedes's Korea chief, says the company puts red convertibles and SUVs in its Korea showrooms but sells few of them. "My personal theory is that, in the premium segment, it's about prestige, and when you have a black or silver car, it looks prestigious," Mr. Behrend says.

Indeed, few perks in South Korean corporate hierarchy are as sought after as a company car and driver. And the underground lots of corporate offices are lined with black sedans.

When his company car was upgraded last year, Ted Chung, chief executive of Hyundai Capital Services Inc., the financial services arm of the Hyundai Motor conglomerate, sought out a color that wasn't in the catalog—navy blue. Mr. Chung said he had to overcome the objections of his driver, who worried that they would stand out too much.

GM Korea last year rolled out a new version of its Spark compact car in several pastel colors, including a muted coral-toned one the company calls Monaco Pink. That color has accounted for half the vehicle's sales.

Later this year, GM Korea will import Camaro and Corvette models to South Korea for the first time, including one in muscle-car yellow.

"We want to lead the change in color trends," says Mike Arcamone, the Canadian-born chief of GM Korea.

On the streets of Changwon, Mr. Park said the comment he most often hears when he steps out of his pink sports car is, "It's a man!"

The 25-year-old Mr. Park, who studies architecture at a university, bought a white Genesis sport coupe. He decided to turn it pink after seeing a pink Mercedes-Benz on a highway in the nearby city of Busan. He says the car customizer who did the job asked him several times whether he was serious.


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