Modern Vehicle Graphic Design - That's a Wrap!

The colorful graphics seen on automobiles today are much more complex than the racing stripes or identifying numbers from which they evolved. It isn’t just the designs, either. The materials from which they are made and even the ways in which they are applied have changed.

The first automotive decals were simple numbers and stripes. In 1951 a racer named Briggs Swift Cunningham fielded his team of white cars with two parallel blue stripes painted down the centerline, from front to rear. In the 1950s and 1960s other racing teams also began to apply racing stripes to their paintwork, and in the early 1970s they also began appearing on sporty models of consumer cars.

Modern racing vehicles bear little resemblance to their predecessors in either body style or decorative finish. They still bear identifying numbers, but the finish is now dominated by lavish advertisements for each team’s commercial sponsors. Unlike Cunningham’s racing stripes, these colorful graphics have never met a single drop of paint.

Graphic designs on modern racing vehicles are called “wraps” and are produced by digital printers in special vinyl films. It’s a concept born from magnetized sheet signs that contractors and pizza companies once placed on delivery vehicle doors with graphics that have become larger and more ambitious as newer films and printing technology has emerged. Just as consumer racing stripes followed racing car designs, commercial and consumer “wraps” have followed the full-bodied advertisements on professional race cars today.

The key to modern vehicle wraps is vinyl, a material first invented by a German chemist in 1872. The material wasn’t patented, however, until 1913 when a new method of production was discovered. At the time it was considered to be a relatively useless substance. In 1926 a chemist working for the BF Goodrich Company discovered a means of making the rigid plastic flexible and moldable.

Vinyl soon became ubiquitous in the construction industry and is now the second largest-selling plastic in the world. The films for wraps are created by adding various plasticizers and additives and through either the casting production process or the calendering process. In casting, dissolved vinyl is poured onto a moving support and carried through a series of ovens which evaporate solvents. The end result is a solid, very thin, very stable film which is wound up into rolls. Because the support structure is pulled through the ovens and not the film, the vinyl film is unstressed and will not shrink when exposed to heat. These films are the highest quality of vinyl sheeting available and have a paint-like finish when applied to vehicle surfaces.

Calendered vinyl films are produced without solvent. Molten vinyl is extruded through a series of calendering rollers which squeeze and stretch it into a thin flat sheet. These sheets have a residual “memory” and tend to shrink back towards their original form and shape when exposed to heat. Calendered films are considerably less expensive than cast films, but they also have a much shorter useful life. The current market leader for the vinyl film material is 3M with their 180c series, a 2 mil thick gloss vinyl film with a 7+ year life expectancy and a pressure-activated adhesive.

Both types of film adhere seamlessly to complex curved surfaces and last from 1 to 7 years, depending on the type of film selected. They do not damage the underlying paint and can be easily repositioned before adhering to the vehicle surface. Calendered wraps for vehicles can be purchased for $1,000 to $1,500. Cast wraps can cost anywhere from $3,000 to over $10,000, depending upon the application and the type of vehicle. The involvement of professional graphic designers ups the cost even higher.

Even high quality cast vinyl wraps would look cheap without the application of quality inks from a quality printer. Variable-dot printing technology, combined with modern inkis, results in finishes that are indistinguishable from paint coatings.

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