It’s hard to describe a color like “pink chrome.” I saw a Mercedes SLK in that extroverted color on the streets of Beijing (of all places) and instantly concluded, “That’s a wrap!”
Car wraps are suddenly ubiquitous. It’s the latest fad, though it’s been happening quietly for years. With the price of a good paint job rising to $5,000 or more (whatever happened to those $89 Earl Scheib specials?) it’s no wonder car buffs wanting a color change are turning to wraps, which cost half as much.
I caught up with Ahren Kulas of Templar Auto Couture in Irvine, California to get the skinny. Wraps are bigger on the west coast than the east. Kulas is from Boston, where, he says, “The weather is terrible for half the year and people don’t spend as much time and money making their cars look nice. Out here it’s always summertime and you want your ride to shine.”
Wraps aren’t just for color changes, of course. You can get anything you want printed on vinyl, which is why wrapping is so popular for advertising. Wrappers like to point out it’s protecting your paint—just like vinyl siding!—and can be peeled off at any time. Just wait for a nice warm day.
“The vinyl film comes on a big roll,” said Kulas. “Think of it as a giant sticker, a few thousandths of an inch thick. We just cut off what we need and wrap it around the car.” Carefully, of course. There’s an art to it. The better shops remove door handles, headlights and door panels to get complete coverage. It’s also time-consuming to get right, so it’s best to leave your car for as long as a week. The lifespan is five years, as long as you wash the car every once in a while.
The history is interesting. Early commercial vehicles had their ad messages painted on, but that was expensive and time consuming. Vinyl chloride was invented in 1926 by BF Goodrich, and it was soon used for signage—but only customers like the U.S. Air Force could afford it. Production costs fell so much that by the 1980s small businesses could save money by using plastic panels for advertising messages. Customizers still liked paint better, and die-cut vinyl printing was expensive.
Now it’s cheap, thanks to piezoelectric inkjet printers and large-format design software meeting computers with big hard drives. At Absolute Perfection, outside Baltimore, for instance, customers meet with graphic designers who render your masterpiece on the computer. Want a dragon for your van? No problem. Once the proof is approved, the design is cut up into individual panels that conform to the vehicle’s styling. “We carefully match panel seams to the door gaps and add extra overlap for curves,” AB says.
Kulas, who started the business in his garage and now employs seven, says that adding black wrap to chrome is popular, as is window tinting, powder-coating wheels, and painted calipers (wraps don’t last long in that application). The most popular cars wrapped? “The Germans: BMWs, Mercedes, Audis,” Kulas said. “We also do a lot of high-end stuff, including Porsches and Lamborghinis. Not a lot of low-end cars.” Or Cambridge beaters, he might add. Wanna know how to wrap? Here is the process in stop-animation: