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It seems that (with some notable exceptions) bikes from about the '80s and earlier seem to have more pleasing finishes than later bikes-- is there a verifiable reason for this, either economically or technologically?

There are many older bikes in price ranges low to high which have very nice finishes, whereas it seems all modern bikes more or less look "cheap", gaudy or just dull: E.g. it seems that nearly all the bikes on Trek's site are bright red or have neon accents if they are not some shade of black/white/pewter/silver. Now, apparently some other people do find Treks to be ugly but some also say they make some pretty ones too, so a pure "pretty vs. ugly" comparison isn't so useful.

Case study: Bianchi

In order to try to make the contrast as clear as possible, I tried to remove as many confounding factors as possible. Unfortunately, there are very few bike models made now which have truly been in production for decades without being significantly changed. However, there is one manufacturer which is famous for its finishes --- Bianchi:

Old (1935 Bianchi Corsa)

1935 Bianchi Corsa

On this old road bike, Bianchi's famous "celeste" color has a pastel-ish hue and a metallic luster.

New (2015 Bianchi Specialissima)

2015 Bianchi Specialissima

Here, on a bike made nearly a century after the one above, the "celeste" seems to be slightly darker and also seems to have a soft-matte finish (however, the lighting in the photo makes it hard to determine). Now, of course, the exact shade of "celeste" has changed over the years. However, the luster of the finish is also noticeably different --- whether it was a deliberate change or not.

Conclusion

Despite the difficulties in finding absolute traits to contrast, what I have noticed is that many modern bikes have either the soft matte/satin finish seen above or a blindingly-high-gloss finish, whereas I've never seen these finishes on older bikes (not that all matte and/or glossy bikes are necessarily ugly). Likewise, very few modern bikes have the sort of "bright, light metallic" luster seen in a lot of older bikes: The closest I've seen is probably that of the Genesis Croix de Fer 10, but its finish still seems somehow "shallower" than those of older bikes. So, the question is: What changed between now and then?

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    Bike finishes have roughly paralleled automobile finishes. Originally an old-fashioned lacquer was used, then various other technologies. The colors are a separate matter -- some colors work better with some technologies, but ultimately the color chosen is what the manufacturer thinks will sell, and gaudy colors are usually preferred of late. – Daniel R Hicks Feb 4 '16 at 1:01
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    Output is a function of price - when single pot enamels replaced two-pot mixes, it was because the equipment cost or time cost to paint was lower, and the cost of the bike was therefore lower. You can have whatever you want to pay for, but most bike riders will not pay extra for a better finish. Even a crappy finish looks new, bright and shiny when it is new. – Criggie Feb 4 '16 at 6:18
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    If this can be answered it'd have to be a community wiki, but I think it's far too broad to be useful. "throughout history" covers an awful lot of bikes, and even right now there are five major technologies that I'm aware of and multiple variants within them (powder coating, painting, epoxy, plating and raw). Of those raw and paint were used on the first bikes, plating early 20th century, then powder coating was invented and used in the mid 20th, then epoxy in the late 20th. – Móż Feb 4 '16 at 10:25
  • Then perhaps the definitive answer to my mentioned "post-'80s" change is the epoxy?-- However, sleske's answer regarding powder coating is pretty enlightening as well. – errantlinguist Feb 4 '16 at 13:00
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    Voting to leave open because its an interesting question, but it really is broad and there's no one good answer, so community wiki sounds like the better solution here. – Criggie Feb 4 '16 at 18:59
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This is not a complete answer, but one factor certainly is that nowadays bikes often use powder coating as their finish, rather than liquid paint.

Powder coating has signifcant advantages over paint (more resilient coating, no risk of running, no solvents required), but the surface characteristics are different. In particular, the sparkle effect of metallic paint can not (easily) be achieved with powder coating, and I believe multi-coloured finishes are also more difficult.

So check whether the new bike has a powder coating - that may explain the difference in apperance.

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