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Spare Parts: Horse of a different color

By Ernie Copper

One of the first things I learned as a kid trying to identify motorcycles was that early Indians had the shifter on the right side, while Harleys had it on the left. Other lessons in identifying vehicles were seemingly just as simple; a ’46 Ford had two horizontal trim stripes near the trunk handle, while a ’47 had one. Changes to cars from year to year were often minimal back then.

Of all the lessons on identifying things that move, mode of transportation was as easy as farm tractors. Tractors are largely distinguished by their colors. John Deere equipment is green and yellow even today. Olivers are green and yellow too, but it’s a different green and yellow and they have red wheels. Farmalls are red, old Fords are grey and red and newer Fords are blue, while International Harvesters are mostly red, but it’s a bit different shade of red than the Farmalls, while Massey Fergusons are red with silver grey trim. A trip to a county fair will prove this out.

While traveling one day, my wife and I found ourselves speculating as to why the simple “you can tell them by the color” method of identification never really caught on with other machinery. A vintage Farmall had just gone by on a trailer, sparking the conversation. We soon realized that motorcycles in the motocross arena are largely separated by color. Blue for Yamaha, red for Honda, yellow for Suzuki, green for Kawasaki, KTMs are orange, etc. Honda has “Red Riders” and KTM has a “Ride Orange” program, but the trend hasn’t really carried over to road racing or street bikes.

I can’t imagine the world of the street bike ever succumbing to the simplistic color identification system used for farm implements. All that talk of individuality and self expression would be for naught and we’d be left to argue what the proper hue of orange was for a ’56 K-series tank trim. To be fair, that probably still happens anyway.

In international circles, racecars did succumb to color profiling in the ’50s and ’60s, but they called it “colour” profiling. British Racing Green, Italian Racing Red, German silver and French blue were standard before the corporate sponsorship spectacle changed all that. And Nascar, well, it looks like the circus came to town. Good luck trying to tell a Chevy from a Ford by the color.

With tractors costing a lot more today than motorcycles, you’d think farmers would have a little of that creative self-expressionism in them too. I think I’d like to see a tractor painted in a nice plaid scheme.

Henry Ford took a shot at “one color fits all” and it worked—for a while. Ford reportedly said that customers could have a car painted any color they wanted as long as it was black. That strategy lasted from 1914 until 1925.

You can’t even be sure about the color of law enforcement and first responder vehicles anymore. Forget about “fire engine red” and a “black and white.” Fire engines seem to be shifting for conspicuity’s sake to that garish neon green and yellow, while it’s anyone’s guess what color a police cruiser will be these days.

With freedoms eroding daily, color may one day be the only choice left. When the day comes for someone to restore a barn-find 2013 Harley 75 years from now, it’s not going to be as easy to repaint the perfect match for nuclear sunset tangerine as it was to repaint a vintage Model T black.

Dogs are not immune to identification by color either. The Labrador retriever has been the most popular breed for the last 22 years, according to the AKC. The first thing I ask someone who tells me they have one is, “What color is it?” Labs come in black, chocolate, golden and yellow. You can tell them apart by, well, their color. Just like tractors. It is undeniably convenient. My dog is black. That’s one of the few things I do know about him.

If Harley-Davidson had an official color scheme it would have to be black and white with orange trim. The colors have a nice vintage look while maintaining an appeal to today’s riders. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to argue about that. That said, my own Harley is Birch White with Platinum Silver trim, thank you very much.

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