by Bob Blake

Where did all the chrome go? For those of us old enough to remember the 1950s, today’s subdued automobile colors and lack of chrome is a severe contrast!  Let’s review the history of chrome.

Automobiles with shimmering bumpers and accents did not appear until the 1920s. The shiny finish of chrome requires layers of the element Chromium (Cr) to be deposited on bare metal. Chemist George Sargent formulated the process in 1900 but it was not commercially feasible until the mid-1920s. Colin Fink and Charles Eldridge from Columbia University later refined the chrome electroplating process to cover large parts such as grills and bumpers. 

About the same time, compressed air spray paint guns were developed for automobile finishes. The combination of improved painting techniques and chrome metal plating ushered in an era of striking colors and shiny metal finishes. This reached its zenith during the raucous 1950s when flashy chrome and flamboyant automobile colors were in vogue.

The 1950s weaved an interesting era of people, politics and culture. The “50s” vehicles exceeded the imagination and flare of any motordom era. These cars had flash, speed, color, chrome and fins. They appeared fast sitting still! Seventy years later they are easily recognized. So what happened to all the vivid hues, fins and glistening chrome? The answer is found in a confluence of events, not the least of which is the fickle taste of automobile buyers.

The “Fifties flare” began to fade during the more conservative ‘60s with our concern for the environment. Chrome plating has always been a wet and dirty business – both the process as well as the disposal of the residual wastes. Creeping and necessary government regulations added layers of constraints. 

The gasoline shortages in the 1970s demanded lighter, fuel efficient cars. Eliminating two hundred pounds of glistening bumpers was a good place to start. An unfinished steel crash bar, covered by a feather light plastic bumper cover, was a lighter alternative. 

To maintain buyer appeal, designers combined colors, shapes, flares, and curves. Suddenly, however, all cars looked alike! Then another option joined their tool box. Almost magically, they were able to achieve the “chrome effect” without the weight, pollution and environmental concerns.  

A South Carolina company, Soliant (a division of Danish company AkzoNobel) developed Soliant Fluorex. This product provided a thin film with the same chrome shine but no environmental issues. 

Their durable, thin bright film is supplied to manufacturers who thermoform it over the plastic shapes of bumpers, door handles and trim. This achieves the “chrome look” with durable, high-quality finishes. Better yet, this surface does not pit, rust, or decay like conventional plating. 

By use of such technology and design, our cars maintain their shine but weigh hundreds of pounds less. Hmm…just maybe Soliant can make me have my shine and weigh less too!