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2 July 2024 · Tips N' Tricks

Mazda's Red | A Red History

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MAZDA'S RED: A CO-EVOLUTION WITH TECHNOLOGY AND BRAND STRATEGY
BY JANE JOHNSTON

A RED HISTORY

The colour red is at the beating heart of Mazda’s identity, but why so? And how and why did Mazda develop the colour Soul Red Premium and then evolve it, to arrive at the astonishing beauty of the current Soul Red Crystal and Artisan Red? At Mazda’s headquarters in Hiroshima, I was honoured to find out in conversation with Mr Keiichi Okamoto, Senior Creative Expert in Mazda’s Design Division.

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The past shapes the present, so Okamoto-san swiftly talks me through the history of Mazda’s most momentous reds, starting from its first 4-wheel passenger vehicle – the R360 Coupe, launched in 1960. This came in mint green, sky blue, and an endearing bright red. “When Mazda introduced this first red-coloured car, it was a smash hit in the market,” says Okamoto-san.

There were deluxe R360s too, in two-colour combinations. The burgundy and white option that’s currently displayed in the Mazda Museum in Hiroshima was referenced in the special edition MX-5 sports car that was released in 2020, for Mazda’s 100th anniversary. Reusing historic colour is one way that Mazda draws from and celebrates its design history.

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“But the biggest smash hit was born in 1980, the fifth generation Familia,” says Okamoto-san. Like the R360, this model was valued for its range of attributes, but Okamoto-san notes that this Familia’s powerful Sunrise Red was ‘a huge attraction for buyers’. It was the most popular colour of this model, and Okamoto-san vividly recalls it from the 1980s, when he was a student. “The Red Familia was a car that you could see everywhere in Japan! Its influence was so significant that I have heard that the proportion of red in all Mazda vehicles in Japan has increased in the following years.”

Next, Okamoto-san points out just some of the other later models whose success embedded red in Mazda’s identity – the 1989 MX-5 first generation (called Eunos Roadster in Japan) in Classic Red, and the 1991 RX-7 third generation (called Enfini in Japan) in Vintage Red. He especially points out the 1999 second-generation MPV minivan, also in Classic Red. “Such a vivid colour was non-existent in the minivan market then. It became very successful for sales.”

Each red was designed to suit the models and target markets. “The staff were always very particular about the red colours. And there is a history of Mazda continuing to develop red cars, and of success with them,” says Okamoto-san.

“The result is that when we ask, ‘what is the colour that symbolises Mazda?’, people say red. Recognising that, we decided to challenge ourselves to create a new red colour.’ This decision followed Mr Ikuo Maeda’s commencement (in 2009) as General Manager of the Design Division, and his initiation of Mazda’s bold KODO: Soul of Motion design theme to evoke the dynamism and beauty of living creatures in motion, which was initially realised in 2010 with the Shinari concept car.

SOUL RED PREMIUM

Mazda wanted to create a distinctive red that would contribute to and complement their KODO Design aims. Okamoto-san remembers Maeda-san directing that the new red must accentuate the quality and sensual beauty of the KODO curves, emphasising Mazda’s design principle that ‘colour is an element of form’, in the sense that colour influences the visual perception of form.

“The vibrancy of the red, and the depth of the red – strongly satisfying both elements became our target,” says Okamoto-san, but they were disappointed with their initial trials. “But the more depth we tried to show, the more we lost the vividness!” says Okomato-san, of their attempts to add depth using light-reflecting aluminium flakes with a paint structure usual for the time – three layers with the light-reflective layer at the top.

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KEIICHI OKAMOTO, SENIOR CREATIVE EXPERT

And then they envisaged something different. ‘What we did was put the reflective layer at the bottom,’ says Okamoto-san. The new structure comprised a clear top layer, a middle translucent layer with red pigment, and a base reflective layer with regularly arrayed light-reflecting aluminium flakes. This structure meant that light could well penetrate down to the base layer and reflect up from the flakes, past the pigment; the pigment’s vividness was strongly expressed while achieving the impression of depth.

After extensive experimentation to finesse the metallic paint’s composition, Soul Red Premium evolved in 2012 and debuted on the third generation Mazda6 (called the Atenza in Japan) to great success. And when automotive fan clubs usually form in admiration for certain models, Okamoto-san was told about something unusual. “I was so impressed, so touched to find a fan club created just for the colour Soul Red!”  

Also new in 2012 was Mazda’s Takuminuri paint application technology, first developed to deliver Soul Red Premium at mass-market volume. As takumi means ‘master craftsman’, and nuri means ‘paintwork’, both the word Takuminuri and the precise, high-quality finish that it produces create the impression of hand-spraying by a master craftsman. However, the spraying is actually done on a production line by robots that work within Mazda’s eco-friendly paint system, that are programmed to simulate the movements of master craftsmen.

SOUL RED CRYSTAL

The incentive to create a new red arose soon afterwards. “We had started to migrate to a new design modelling with very delicate surface curvatures,” says Okamoto-san. “So, we decided that we needed a new red to better accentuate this delicate surface modelling.” The outcome was the metallic paint Soul Red Crystal, developed in 2016 and debuted in February 2017 on the all-new Mazda CX-5.

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Soul Red Crystal evolved from Soul Red Premium – it has the same three-layer paint structure, with several inspired developments. First – a new highly saturated red pigment in the middle translucent layer, for a richer red appearance. Second – light-absorbing flakes in the base layer (situated amid the light-reflecting flakes) for intensified shadow areas. Furthermore – aluminium flakes of fine and more uniform size, with advancements in paint consistency and decreased paint volume, for more even and smooth coverage of both flake types.

The combined effects of all these developments on the absorption and reflection of light are what enable the exquisite looks of Soul Red Crystal. In highlights, the hue is reminiscent of transparent rubies or red glass and that’s deliberate – Okamoto-san showed the team a ruby-red drinking glass during the early-stage work, which helped to shape their design concept. A strong interplay of highlight and shadow does show the nuances of curvature more fully than Soul Red Premium. And, Soul Red Crystal Metallic has, ‘20 per cent greater colour saturation and 50 per cent more depth than Soul Red, for a fresher, more lustrous transparency.’

Soul Red Crystal was welcomed enthusiastically. “Thanks to people’s support in the Japanese market, among Mazdas, the ratio of red became the top,’ says Okamoto-san, referring to sales for all car companies in Japan.

Mazda is proud of Soul Red Crystal’s extraordinary visuals, and of the Production Engineering Division for attaining them in three paint layers, rather than using a fourth layer for light-absorbing flakes under a layer with light-reflecting flakes. By innovatively resolving how to combine light absorption and reflection into a single base layer and, so, using less paint than they otherwise would have, the Division managed to maintain the high environmental standards of Mazda’s Aqua-tech paint system, one of the world’s most environmentally friendly automotive paint systems.

ARTISAN RED

What happened next? Mazda looked ahead to 2022 – a milestone of ten years since Soul Red Premium and Takuminuri were born. At this time Mazda was starting to produce high-class cars with large body sizes, and they made a brand-led decision to create a new, mature-feeling red, in contrast with the sporty, passionate feel of Soul Red Crystal. The result was Artisan Red, Mazda’s latest red – produced in 2022 and debuted on the CX-90.

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“The highest quality of mature red wine, produced by the best craftsmanship – the colour of such a wine was our design concept,” says Okamoto-san. And a deeper shade of red than the ruby red of Soul Red Crystal was their ambitious target. “Soul Red Crystal was of course very difficult to produce, but sinking the shade even darker for Artisan Red, well, to achieve that but not lose vividness, brilliance… We did an extensive number of experiments before we could find the right balance,” says Okamoto-san.

From early on, they had an idea that they wanted to include black as well as red pigment, but lengthy R&D exploration followed before they achieved desired results with the idea. His voice expresses highs and lows as he describes their progress, complete with an early ‘dead-end’ – experimenting with black pigment in the top layer of the total three, which resulted in an unsatisfactory overall darkening of the paint’s appearance – before an innovative ‘masterstroke’ – trying black pigment in the base reflective layer instead.

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“Artisan Red is the first time that Mazda has applied black pigment to the reflective base layer. We tried having the black pigment there, and then tried again and again and again, many times,” Okamoto-san says, on their extensive experimentation to attain the very best visual effects.

Work included resolving an unexpected design challenge. When they first added the black pigment, they realised that its presence was making the flakes tilt haphazardly. So, the aluminium flakes reflected light diffusely, rather than in the mirror-like way that occurs when the flakes lie parallel to the car body surface. Again, this darkened the paint’s appearance in an unwelcome way, and they needed the flakes to lie flat amid the black pigment. “That required another innovation in paint technology, but Mazda engineers achieved it,” recalls Okamoto-san.

Specifics about materials were crucial. For example, in order to achieve deep black, “we chose a black pigment that absorbs light, and we were able to achieve depth without cloudiness or roughness," says Okamoto-san.

Fine balances in quantities were important too, to create what Okamoto-san describes as, ‘shaded depths in some areas and, at the same time, this red vividness in highlighted areas’.

“Increasing the amount of black pigment eventually hinders the reflection of the light. That means vividness gets lost. And if we increased the light-reflecting flakes too much, then we lost the darker shade. So, the balance was very important! But we were able to precisely control it, to deliver our vision for Artisan Red.”

WHAT’S NEXT?

No surprise: Okamoto-san smiles and graciously declines to share even a clue. Yet, some broad predictions are safe.

One: the future colours, whatever they are, will co-evolve with the Takuminuri application technology – the robotics need to suit the paint to be applied. Two: they’ll also co-evolve with Mazda’s brand strategy. Okamoto-san says that each new colour starts with setting brand-led design goals – the emotions and concepts that it will evoke and embody, once painted on the car.

He highlights their key question from this phase, ‘What should we convey to customers?’ and emphasises, “Deciding that comes first, and after that, we start to develop the colour and express beauty. That is what I like to do.” Concluding our conversation with those words, his voice conveys great satisfaction in the work that he and his colleagues have achieved.

As I leave headquarters, reflecting on our conversation, I see a red Mazda drive past in the dusk and venture another (safe) prediction: you can anticipate further innovative versions of the colour that is Mazda’s best-seller in Australia and Japan – the colour that is Mazda – red.

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