A History Lesson: National Racing Colors

As the shiny new orange and black McLaren-Honda Formula One Car was unveiled in Woking, UK, many around the world questioned out loud why the famed F1 constructor would paint their car in such an unusual color — yet many genuine fans knew. Petrol heads and racing history aficionados will recall that when Bruce McLaren raced the cars of his own manufacture, previous to his death in 1970, testing the M8D Can-Am car at Goodwood, in bright orange livery.


(Honda Motor Company)

The teams of the day, back when McLaren founded his company to compete internationally, ran their cars in what was known as “National Racing Colors.” Several would assume that orange is the National Racing Color of New Zealand, McLaren’s homeland. It isn’t. While the modern McLaren team is giving a figurative nod to its founding racing colors, McLaren orange was meant, by its namesake, to “stand out from the crowd” on track. In reality, the national racing colors of New Zealand are, in fact, green and silver in combination.

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Chaparral Cars founder Jim Hall talks about his early entry into racing for the team. It’s a Ferrari, but painted in American racing colors.

Have you ever wondered why Ferraris and Alfa Romeos are substantially produced in Rosso Corsa Red? Jaguars in British Racing Green? Porsches in silver? Shelbys in blue and white? There is a tradition of national pride that goes back more than a century that flowed into the modern age of motorsport, before cars were painted up in “sponsor” livery as we observe today.


The beautiful Maserati 250F Formula One Car — painted in original Rosso Corsa

From the very beginning of motor racing, until the mid-to-late 1960s, competing teams in Formula One, sports car racing and other forms of motorsport, painted their cars in national racing colors that identified the country of origin of the car — or the driver. Many OEMs still honor that tradition, though consumer demand and aftermarket paint and wraps have erased the concept from many a memory. It is, however, a wonderful tradition!

The concept of National Racing Colors supposedly all started in France — considered ground zero and the spiritual home for international motor racing — in 1900. James Gordon Bennett Jr., principal of the New York Herald, offered the newly formed Automobile Club de France (ACF) prize money and the “Bennett Cup” to organize an international competition beginning with a Paris to Lyons race. ACF would go on to organize and sanction the very first Grand Prix (also in France) and the first 24 Hours of LeMans at Circuit de Sarthe.


The pale blue on these Bugattis were the original French National Racing Color.

Count Eliot Zborowski, a New Jersey-born heir to a French European title and father of famed pre-war racing driver Louis Zborowski, made the clever suggestion that each national entrant run with the cars painted in a color unique to each country. For the first Bennett Cup race colors were assigned by ACF. Based mainly on primary colors reflective of each nation’s flag, blue was given to France, yellow given to Belgium, white given to Germany and Red given to the United States. These would change in subsequent years, but the idea of national colors was implemented — and stuck! The Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA), founded in 1904, would also recognize and adopt the use of national racing colors within its rule book.

This pre-war British Lagonda sports British Racing Green.

This pre-war British Lagonda sports British Racing Green.

More colors themselves were added and some changed slightly as more and more new entrants joined the fray. When Britain first competed in the Bennett Cup in 1902, the red, white and blue colors of its flag were already being used, so driver Selwyn Edge’s winning Napier was painted olive green, based on the color of the country’s locomotives and machinery, paying homage to Britain’s industrial domination in the 19th century. As per the Bennett Cup rules, the previous year’s winner’s country hosted the race. So Great Britain hosted the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup on a closed course at Athy in Ireland. The British-entered cars used “Shamrock Green,” which would become known, in a slightly different shade, as “British Racing Green”. This would be the color of choice for Vanwall, Aston Martin, MG, Triumph, Jaguar and so many other British manufacturers moving forward. British racing green Bentleys dominated the Le Mans Grand Prix d’Endurance until 1930.


Alfa Romeo, the original marque of Scuderia Ferrari, has classically run in Rosso Corsa.

Italy would not adopt its famous ‘Racing Red’ until an Itala, painted red, won the Peking to Paris race in 1907. So prevalent on the Maserati’s, Early Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeos, and later the signature color of Ferrari, “Rosso Corsa” might be the single most identifying color in racing. To this day, the Ferrari factory teams run with the famed crimson-like shade. Ferrari sponsors have traditionally been respectful to the red racing color — and some have even adapted.

The United States would vary between blue with white stripes (as displayed on Dan Gurney’s Eagle racing cars and Carroll Shelby’s Cobras, Daytona Coupes and GT40s) and white with blue stripes, famously used on American Briggs Cunningham’s Corvettes and bespoke race cars.

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Dan Gurney is the only American to win a Grand Prix in a car of his own manufacture. Naturally the Gurney-Westlake sported the American blue with white stripe.

Bruce McLaren and Jack Brabham, both competing in Formula One and sports cars, based their teams in England, where they were far closer to technology and the best building and engineering talent of the day. While McLaren did not adhere to national colors of either the UK or New Zealand, many of Jack Brabham’s cars were run in Australian-Green-with-yellow stripe.

Germany, was assigned white originally in those first Bennett Cup races. That changed, too. In developing the dominant pre-war Auto Union cars (now Audi) and Mercedes-Benz, the German engineers decided that removing the paint from the car saved weight and further streamlined airflow. So the cars ran in polished bare metal. The nickname “silver arrows” quickly flew around with fans and the press. Ultimately, Germany adopted the color for its national representation. Porsche used it too in the 1950s and 1960s. The national color was still used when Mercedes powered McLaren and also ran silver cars under its own marque in Formula One in recent years.

BMW, has maintained the traditional white on most of its factory efforts. Who can forget the beautiful CSL ‘Batmobile’ race cars in base white with the swooping blue, purple and red stripes.

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BMW generally stuck with the “original” German white as seen on this CSL.

Many appreciate the beautiful Bugatti F1 and the sound of the famed Matras. Generally you will find the French makes in blue. Even in the late 1990s, when Alain Prost founded his short lived Formula One team and managed to score a Grand Prix win with driver Olivier Panis at Monaco (incidentally he is the last Frenchman to win a Grand Prix), his cars, and the Renault team that ultimately took over, ran in French Racing Blue.

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Porsche adopted the silver color as pre war German cars ran in polished bare metal.

Japan’s Honda, then called Honda R&D Company, entered Formula One in 1964. They had only produced their first road car in 1960. In what was a very ambitious program, the team hired American drivers Ritchie Ginther and Ronnie Bucknum. Ginther would take the team’s maiden win in Mexico in 1965. John Surtees would then win the 1967 Italian Grand Prix. The cars were painted white with a red “rising sun” circle on the bonnet. Sadly Honda would withdraw from Formula One for more than a decade when driver Jo Schessler was killed in the 1968 French Grand Prix. In 1993 Honda, with its engine-tuning partner Mugen, came back into F1, but only as an engine supplier.


Rosso Corsa got brighter as the years went on as displayed on this Ferrari 250GT SWB.

When Emerson Fittipaldi, with brother Wilson, founded the ill-fated Coperscar-sponsored Formula One entry, they painted the car in the national colors of Brazil — pale yellow — which matched the flag of the South American country. Ayrton Senna, several years later would come to be recognized by his yellow and green helmet, again, duplicating the flag.

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Lotus traditionally ran in British Racing Green until Colin Chapman changed to sponsor livery.

In the late 1960s, the paradigm shifted to sponsorship, which allowed teams to compete at a much higher level with money beyond the winnings and appearance fees originally paid by promoters. In the United States, Champ cars had been running in sponsor livery for many years, but in Formula One, the series seemed slow to adopt. The pioneer in F1 has classically been seen as Colin Chapman’s Lotus Team that ditched the traditional British Racing Green for red and gold Gold-Leaf Cigarette Livery. This livery was well known as these were the colors that appeared on the car from 1970 when Jochen Ridnt became the first ever posthumous Formula One World Champion after his death in practice for the Italian Grand Prix.

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Mercedes and Auto Union were known as the “Silver Arrows”

Turns out, however that the first F1 team to use sponsorship livery was South African Team Gunston in 1968, privately entering a Brabham for Rhodesian driver John Love. Gunston Cigarettes were the first sponsor-based Formula One livery. It would be the following race in Spain, that Chapman would reveal the Gold Leaf colors for the first time. By the early 1970s, with the exception of Ferrari, who would always run their cars in Scarlett, national racing colors largely disappeared throughout all racing in favor of big business livery.

Many driver helmets, however, for many years to come, continued to display national pride with national liveries. It would be 2005, before determined use of national racing colors re-emerged with the short lived World Cup-styled A1 Grand Prix Series.

About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives in vintage road racing events.
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