Horse Drawn Carriagephoto credit: friskierisky via photopin cc
If you track the history of vehicle graphics, modern vehicle graphics can be traced back to the late 19th century when products and services were hand-painted on horse drawn carts and rail cars all over the world. It probably goes back further to carts in Greek city states announcing their wares or gladiators in Roman chariots advertising the local toga tailor. Vehicle graphic marketing isn’t new. The history of vehicle graphics goes back many years.

Horse Drawn Carriagephoto credit: amphalon via photopin cc

The 1880’s 

By the 1880’s, locomotives traveled America from coast to coast and crisscrossed everywhere between. Advertising on these rolling billboards helped bring recognition to some of the biggest brands of the period, such as Standard Oil (1870), Sears & Roebuck (1886), Ford (1903), and Kellogg (1906). Of course, this was before spray paint was invented and the advent of tagging trains with graffiti.

Ladysmith Railway Museumphoto credit: R J Ruppenthal via photopin cc

Turn of the Century 

Not much had changed with vehicle graphics when horse drawn carts were replaced by gasoline powered trucks, and trains progressed from steam to diesel. Lettering and logos continued to be stenciled or hand-painted. Most of what was painted on vehicles was more about identification than advertising. However, companies began adding tag lines, locations, contact, and all in larger readable fonts.

November 1939. Trucks loaded with mattresses at San Angelo, Texasphoto credit: amphalon via photopin cc

The 1940’s 

By the late 1940’s, a new trend began with vehicle graphics. Not only were companies advertising their wares and locations, but events and promotions were being marketed on vehicles.

1955 Pace Carphoto credit: McBeth via photopin cc

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s water transfer decals, commonly known as water slides, were the prevalent form of vehicle decal. Used mostly to advertise aftermarket products, limited editions, and modified cars. The decals were dipped in water for about 30 seconds before being applied. Larger graphics, such as lettering continued to be hand-painted.

The 1960’s and Beyond 

Even into the 1980’s much of what was considered vehicle graphics or identification was hand painted. As a 14-year-old boy, TKO President Tom “Tommy” Taulman II, rode his bicycle to a part-time job at Indiana Trailer Services. A jack-of-all-trades, Tommy mowed the lawn and performed various odd jobs for the small company. After a few years he began repairing and hand-painting trailers.

Next came screen print. Although difficult and expensive for printing multiple colors, screen print was effective for lettering and simple logos. However, before the development of modern adhesive vinyls, applications were mostly limited to flat surfaces, and decals often faded, tore, and peeled.

“A large milestone in the shift from small production vinyl lettering to a full vehicle vinyl color change took place in Germany in 1993. Manufacturer Kay Premium Marking Films (KPMF) was asked to produce a film to be used in place of paint for the purpose of converting cars into taxis. At this time, German taxi companies were required by law to paint their fleets in a government mandated color, beige. KMPF provided an alternative to painting, which allowed taxi companies to bring a large fleet of vehicles into compliance with German law while maintaining the future resale value of the vehicle.

Prior to this point, decommissioned taxis were heavily discounted or had to be completely repainted. With the use of vinyl vehicle wraps there was no need to repaint them or discount them as the vinyl could be removed without damaging the paint underneath. KPMF documented after 3 years of taxi service was complete, the vinyl was removed leaving a pristine and unscratched paint surface.” — History of Vehicle Vinyl Wrap

The First Commercial Use of a Full Wrap 

“The first commercial advertisement vehicle wrap is thought to have been created for Pepsi Co in 1993. Which used vinyl to wrap a bus promoting its Crystal Pepsi product. It wasn’t long before bus wrap advertising was everywhere. The new form of vehicle graphics trickled down to smaller businesses and consumers. Wrapping whole vehicles was still challenging. Majority of the difficulties came from premature adhesion and air bubbles under the vinyl. As technology improved, companies like Avery Dennison, 3M and Oracal developed the use of air-channels that made the vinyl repositionable and allowed for bubble-free installation.

An air-channel, created using microscopic glass beads was incorporated into the vinyl’s adhesive. This prevented the vinyl from fully sticking to the substrates surface thereby permitting air flow between adjacent sections. In addition, these beads allow for the vinyl to be repeatedly removed and reapplied until the beads are broken by firmly pressing the vinyl using a small hard squeegee. Once the beads are broken the vinyl will be firmly adhered to the substrates surface. Proprietary company blends of polymer in the vinyl allowed the material to conform to compound curves, recesses, and corrugations through the use of heat guns and torches.” — Wrap Advertising


1950 Volkswagen Transporterphoto credit: Georg Schwalbach (GS1311) via photopin cc

The Future of Vehicle Graphics 

It took the convergence of three technologies to bring us the state-of-the-art vehicle graphics we have today – digital print, compliant adhesive vinyl, and fade resistant ink. Using modern processes and materials, the sky is the limit for vehicle graphics. That’s the history of vehicle graphics but what of the future of vehicle graphics? As more and more organizations brand, promote, and advertise on their fleet vehicles materials and best practices will continue to improve. Manufactures will go green. “Milder solvents, greener inks, steam used to remove decals, and recyclable materials are in the future.

Artwork technologies will be vastly improved. We already have the WOW factor with digital printing, and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. This is going to be amazing. Holographic, illuminated, and dimensional imaging will not be uncommon.” — The Future of Vehicle Graphics

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