Spotlight on Pyrrole Red

Pyrrole Red

From the history of pigments to the use of colour in famous artworks and emergence in popular culture, every colour has a fascinating story. This month we explore the story behind Pyrrole Red.

Ferrari was founded by Enzo Ferrari in 1939. Born in 1898, he served in the army during the First World War, and on his return found a job in the car industry as a test driver. This led to him becoming a competitive race car driver for Alfa Romeo and later working in the management and development of race cars creating the Scuderia Ferrari team in 1929. The famous black and yellow Ferrari prancing horse shield that adorns Ferrari cars is a memento to the creator of the design, a fighter plane pilot named Francesco Baracca. When his factory was bombed in 1940, Ferrari decided to set up a company in his own name.

Ferrari led an interesting life, although he reportedly never got in an aeroplane or a lift, perhaps leaving speed racing as his only incalculable danger. He died in 1988 at the age of 90 and soon his company, and his surname, would be associated with the name of a colour: Ferrari red.

A classic red Ferarri, @sidneyramirez
A classic red Ferarri, @sidneyramirez

Italian race cars are customarily painted a red colour known as rosso corsa (racing red) which refers to the team’s national colour (French cars were painted blue, British cars painted green, American cars blue and white). Through the years a range of red tones from orange to burgundy has been amassed for the Ferrari palette (including rosso fiorano, rosso dino and rosso barchetta), but the one that is the most recognisable is Ferrari red, otherwise known as pyrrole red. Although Ferrari now customises cars in many colours, Ferrari purists will insist that this red exterior (with the classic tan leather interior) is the only true choice.

Pyrrole red, otherwise known as PR254 (Pigment Red 254), diketo-pyrrolo or Ferrari red, was discovered accidentally in 1974, in chemistry professor Donald G Farnum’s lab at Michigan State University. He wasn’t looking to produce this pigment, and little did he know at the time what value it would have for the automotive industry.

Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic in Pyrrole Red
Winsor & Newton Professional Acrylic in Pyrrole Red

Cars are an excellent test ground for a pigment’s durability – innovations in pigment development are often found in automotive manufacturing. There is a significant research investment in this area to try to understand the effects on colours of exposure to elements such as rain, snow, the sun and its UV light, as well as chemicals and wear and tear. In this instance a pigment was required to withstand all damaging agents and Pigment Red 254, being lightfast and stable, left the competition behind. In 1983 a manufacturing process was established for PR254, and the age of faded and chalky paint finishes was over.

In 2013 a 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO, painted in Ferrari red, would sell at auction for $52 million.  Like many pigments, its unintended discovery was in the residue of a lab flask – a humble beginning for what would coat the world’s most expensive car.