Two-tone cars are back in vogue

PARIS — Two-tone paint jobs, last seen hanging out at drive-ins across the U.S. in the 1950s, are back, this time with a distinct European flair.

In the past several years, about 20 models with the feature, largely with bodies and roofs in different colors, have hit showrooms across Europe, with more poised to come. So far the look is largely confined to compact hatchbacks and the surging SUV and crossover market.

Automakers say they are simply trying to give customers more choices, though the options typically appear as part of higher-content (and higher-priced) trim levels. Designers say it lets them play with color as a styling element and break up visual mass as safety regulations mandate thicker pillars and higher beltlines.

"Designers are cooking with the ingredients they have," said J Mays, retired head of design at Ford who oversaw the Ford Flex, one of the few U.S. nameplates with a contrasting roof option. "You can get a lot of bang for the buck out of two-tone paint."

Buyers of Citroen's new C3 Aircross SUV, for example, can mix and match three roof colors and eight body colors.

"It's incredible how people react to the bitone colors," said Alexandre Malval, head of design at Citroen, which offers two-tone options on four models. "If you give them two colors to assemble, immediately the car has different personalities. Red with a white roof is a little bit sporty; cream with a black roof is a little more solid and tough. One in pastel with a white roof could be a little more feminine."

The trend is not exclusive to Europe. In the U.S., two-tone versions of the Toyota Camry and C-HR have turned up this year. Also, several Land Rover Range Rover models and Kia's Soul are available as two-tone models, as will be Hyundai's upcoming Kona.

Today's two-tone palette can be traced to the 1920s and '30s, when custom coachmakers employed bold colors on Rolls-Royces or Bugattis to announce the wealth and taste of their owners.

In the 1950s, American design studios, led by Harley Earl at General Motors, adopted bold swaths of color divided by chrome trim lines to emphasize dynamic jet-age styling.

The current trend was kicked off by the neo-retro Mini that debuted in 2001, which picked up its white roof from the original Alec Issigonis design. One of its successors was the white-roofed Ford Fairlane concept of 2005, which went into production as the Flex.

"I would be lying if I said I wasn't influenced by the first-generation New Mini, which had beautiful wraparound glass and this lovely little skullcap in white and later in black," Mays said. The Flex's white roof "added a little bit of panache to the car and made it feel a bit like a modern-day woody, which is what we were trying to do," he added.

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