Up to your eyeballs in wrapping paper for those expensive gifts you know that your nieces and nephews are just going to destroy in a week? Hey, it could be worse—you could have an entire car to wrap.

With Christmas less than a week away, let’s take a break from the festivities, put away the tape and the scissors for a couple of minutes and learn about a different type of wrapping.

Photo credit Axion23/Flickr

Whether it’s for street cars or race cars, catering vans or four-wheeled advertisements, car wraps aren’t all that uncommon these days. In fact, they seem to be pretty much everywhere. But despite the fact that modern car wraps tend to seek attention—the metallic schemes on expensive sports cars and the sponsor logos plastered on any car that will accept them—they actually started rather under the radar, by making taxis fit for the streets of Germany.

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As for the history of vehicle wrapping, it’s fairly young. It started in the early 1990s, according to design company JMR Graphics, when the German government required all taxis to be the same beige hue. Because it was cheaper to do so—which is logical reasoning for most things in this life, like perhaps some of your Christmas-gift choices this year—folks began to wrap the taxis in vinyl rather than painting them.

As you can probably guess, the wrapping came in handy for resale. Paint wasn’t ideal when it came to selling these vehicles once their service to the general public ended—a beige taxi paint job doesn’t exactly scream “Make me your street car!” But the vinyl was a different story. Peeling away wraps revealed the original, undamaged paint, allowing the taxis to be sold in far better condition (and a more attractive exterior color) than when painted.

Advertisers in the U.S. caught on at about the same time as those in Europe, and the business grew over the next 10 years. But prices had to fall from the early days before the tactic could spread too far. From JRM Graphics:

At that time, vehicle wraps were expensive because of the technology necessary to produce them. Most car wraps were found in specific industries like NASCAR and music promotions. Then, tractor trailers and buses began displaying full-color graphics.

The commercial approach of vehicle wrapping seeped over into consumer vehicles. With the wrapping technology came the chance for everyday vehicle owners to create some outrageous, non-factory color cars for their own garages.

Wrapping Street Cars

From the lower-end cars to the ones that cost more than many of us have in our retirement funds, there are plenty of businesses willing to put a wrap on anyone’s car. They range from crazy metallic jobs to the slightly more understated matte finishes. (Though if you’re going to wrap a street car with this kind of price tag on it that this Lamborghini Gallardo has, you may as well just make it metallic purple or something—not a shade of silver. Go big or go home, right?)

Photo credit WillVision/Flickr

Vinyl wraps even help to make public tests of development cars possible (without having to throw a paper bag on the car and cut some windshield holes—wait, that might add some extra aerodynamic drag), since the mind-dizzying patterns keep everyone around from knowing exactly what the car looks like.

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When test mules first roll out, engineers tend to cover them in bulkier padding of plastic and soft foam to camouflage the new bodywork. But that becomes a problem when certain aspects of testing begin, since most folks won’t be driving around with extra material all over the car—unless you’re like this guy, who decided to strap a giant teddy bear to his Lamborghini Gallardo.

Hiding new cars is a big deal in the industry, as Dave Pericak, chief engineer for the 2015 Ford Mustang, told Autoblog about the time a photographer snapped photos of the car headed out for track tests. Once the photos made it to the web, Pericak got a call into the vice president’s office to explain the situation.

And that car was supposed to be behind closed doors. When testing progresses and mules make it out onto the street, they’re open to the public—that’s when vinyl has to step in and keep them hidden from many more eyes, as Pericak told Autoblog last year:

When the new bodywork is fitted, at first engineers cover it with hard plastic and soft foam, to bury it out of sight. Later, that has to be peeled off for more realistic testing of things like aerodynamics and wind noise, so carmakers apply checkerboard-patterned adhesive vinyl to try to “fool the eye into not seeing what is there,” said Pericak.

That early bulkier padding hides the car effectively, but it also interferes with testing, especially for a fast car like the Mustang. “I can’t drive 155 miles per hour with the camouflage on the car,” he noted.

But think of all the material flapping that would occur at that speed. It could be fun.

Wrapping Race Cars

We’ll keep the discussion about race-car wraps confined within the NASCAR realm, just to narrow our scope a tad.

The first full wrap made its way onto the NASCAR scene in 1997 with Darrell Waltrip’s chrome scheme, and this ESPN piece from back when wraps were the “wave of the future” and only made up about 50 percent of the cars on the Sprint Cup Series circuit—which was less than a decade ago—is a pretty cool step back in time.

Vinyl wraps allow teams to peel a sponsor off of one car, slap a new one on and run it again with a quick turnaround if need be. It wasn’t an ideal method at first, since thinner material caused wrapping to take a few days. Once materials improved and wrap times came down to several hours, the method caught on.

But probably the strangest reason for using wraps at their inception in the sport came from the Wood Brothers team. From ESPN:

The most unusual use of body wraps is with the No. 21 Wood Brothers car, sponsored by Little Debbie. Because the sponsor is run by members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the logo is not allowed on the car on their Sabbath day from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday.

So Little Debbie is wrapped over after the final practice on Friday and not unveiled again until Sunday morning before the race. If it’s a Saturday night race, such as this week, the team will go with Motorcraft on the hood.

“That may be the most convenient use of wraps,” McKenzie said.

A similar approach occurred this year, when a the Tri-Star Motorsports team had an unexpected outcome in Xfinity Series qualifying at Daytona International Speedway. The Florida Department of Transportation worked a one-race sponsorship deal with the team, with money paid out so long as the car sporting the scheme made the race.

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But naturally, it didn’t. Oops. Perhaps its driver, Scott Lagasse, was just trying to go the speed limit; after all, it is a car sponsored by the Department of Transportation.

So, the team threw the sponsor wrap on its other entry—an unsponsored, start-and-park car that did make the race—in an hour and nine minutes. The team had to get creative with decals when changing the car from the No. 19 to the No. 10, but it all worked out. Think of the mess that would’ve been with paint.

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Though the Tri-Star Motorsports crew put its wrap on in a rush, the process does get quicker—kind of. Joe Gibbs Racing has its own website tab for sped-up videos of car wrapping, and the whole thing goes down in about 90 seconds.

Here’s a pretty sweet wrap from Matt Kenseth’s Call of Duty scheme for the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway back in 2013:

Somehow, an idea that started by preserving the paint jobs underneath the unappealing German taxis became a way to make street vehicles and race cars look unique—for better or for worse—just about two decades later.

More Time-Lapse Videos Of Car Wraps, Just Because

Perhaps it’s just the artist in me, but watching the attention to detail put into a vehicle wrap is mesmerizing—especially when it’s condensed into a few minutes. So, for your enjoyment...

Matt Kenseth’s GameStop and Tritton car from 2013:

Blue Chrome on a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder:

Fair warning: this last one is a bit frightening, and you may want to mute your volume to watch it. But, it’s so weird that it had to be included.

Ferrari 458 meets the Minions:

Well folks, that’s a wrap. Yes, I’ll see myself out after that one.


Contact the author at alanis.king@jalopnik.com.