How Did Racing Liveries Get Their Start?

George Kennedy

Reflecting on warmer times from last summer, I recall a visit to the Manhattan Classic Car Club. Sitting in the middle of the amazing collection was the iconic Ford GT40. They did not opt to set up the car with the standard navy blue paint scheme with white racing stripes, but went for the gusto– the instantly recognizable Gulf Racing livery. When you think about a modern NASCAR or Formula 1 car, their paint schemes are far more bright and complicated but do not have the same instant recognizability as the Gulf scheme. It’s just not the same.

There was once a time when racecar livery was spectacular, iconic, and simple. Just look at the Ford GT40 up there, in Gulf racing livery. Few other race liveries are as iconic as Gulf’s. What had happened? Where did it go so wrong? Perhaps we should start at a far earlier time to get to the bottom of that.

Ferrari Red
Ferrari Red

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Automotive historians place the origins or colors as an identifier in the George Bennet Cup, which was held from 1900 to 1905. In this competition, colors were used to indicate the country of each racing team. France was given blue, yellow to Belgium, white for Germany and red for the USA. These colors were locked in place by Gran Prix racing of the 1920s and 1930s. It was from these years that British Racing Green came about. For a time, Britain’s home race course was in Ireland– then part of the UK. The idea behind these colors was that out on the racetrack, you had to very quickly identify your team’s color. This was necessary for teams and organizers alike.

Lotus BRG
Lotus BRG

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As Formula 1 quickly became an expensive sport in the 1950s, teams turned to automakers for sponsorship, who were allowed to put their logo and colors on the racecars. Ferrari was lucky to have its previous national color as its team color, thus solidifying the color red as one of the perfect sportscar colors. Lotus was able to take advantage of British Racing Green as you can see directly above.

Dupont
Dupont

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Through the years, the costs of running a team has not ebbed, thus you get situations where modern NASCAR’s are covered head-to-toe with their plethora of sponsors. It has gotten so bad, to where there is really no room for a design, and even though the car has names emblazoned all over it, it is still indistinguishable (the Dupont #24 Jeff Gordon car is one of the few exceptions). Kind of sad, and perhaps one of the reasons why many auto enthusiasts prefer vintage racing or F1 to NASCAR.