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
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
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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