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Maker of Jeep and Dodge plans to kill chrome on cars, citing risks to those who make it

Cars like this 1957 Chrysler New Yorker marked chrome's high point in American auto design. (Courtesy Stellantis via CNN Newsource) Cars like this 1957 Chrysler New Yorker marked chrome's high point in American auto design. (Courtesy Stellantis via CNN Newsource)
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Chrome’s century-long reign as that added bit of flash and glamour on new cars may be coming to an end. For least one major auto maker, environmental and serious health concerns are outweighing its aesthetic appeal.

Chrome has long provided an eye-catching sparkle, creating an upscale look while also protecting unpainted metal car parts from corrosion. It’s served as a by-word for (especially American) automotive opulence.

“Chrome on a car is the automotive equivalent of using jewelry on an outfit,” said Leslie Kendall, head curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

But Stellantis – the company that makes Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Fiat, and Maserati vehicles – among others, is committed to doing away with chrome on all its new models.

The plan even has a name. Inside Stellantis, it’s called “Death of Chrome,” said Stellantis’s chief global designer, Ralph Gilles. Stellantis vehicles, including its newest Jeep model, will sport badges and trim pieces that may not have chrome’s mirror-like shine but customers will come to like them even better, Gilles promises.

‘Death of Chrome’

“Death of Chrome” comes in response to chrome plating’s lesser-known dark side. Hexavalent chromium, or “chromium 6,” the form of the element chromium involved in the plating process, is an aggressive cancer-causing agent, according to government regulators in the United States and Europe.

“Hexavalent chromium is a carcinogen that is the second most potent toxic air contaminant identified by the state,” the California Air Resources Board said in a statement provided to CNN. “It is 500 times more toxic than diesel exhaust and has no known safe level of exposure.”

This does not mean that the chrome-plated parts on your car or motorcycle are dangerous. The metallic form of chrome that provides the mirror shine on a car brand’s logo or trim is perfectly safe. The risk to human health comes during the electro-plating process, regulators say, when the hexavalent chromium that is used can come into contact with workers or be released into the atmosphere.

Chrome platers have methods to contain the vapors and minimize human exposure. Southern California boasts the highest concentration of chrome plating shops in America and regulators in that state have been requiring those methods for years. But California is now moving toward an outright ban on chrome plating using hexavalent chromium while offering funding for chrome platers to transition to other methods.

Hexavalent chromium is used in a number of different industries besides automotive. It’s also used to increase the hardness of steel, for instance, and as an anti-corrosive agent added to paints, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. In 2019, green slime oozing out onto a highway near Detroit was found to be hexavalent chromium leaking from a nearby business. In that case, a Michigan environmental agency cleaned up the toxic mess.

The National Association for Surface Finishing, an industry organization representing chrome platers, among others, said their industry has made a lot of progress to keep chrome plating safe for workers and the environment but acknowledged alternatives are needed.

“Working collaboratively and effectively with EPA, OSHA, and state regulatory agencies, the plating industry has achieved an approximately 99.9% reduction in hexavalent chromium air emissions since 1995 to protect the environment, human health, and worker safety,” said Christian Richter, vice president for policy at NASF, in an email to CNN. “NASF is working in partnership with the automotive industry to ensure a transition to the safest and most sustainable alternatives and replacements.”

There are are less dangerous alternatives, Gilles said, but, for now, at least, they either don’t look as good as traditional chrome plate, don’t last as long, or are prohibitively expensive for mass production vehicles. For instance, trivalent chrome uses a different form of chromium and a simpler process.

Falling out of love with chrome

“The problem is the luster isn’t as good. It has a more yellow kind of finish,” Gilles said. “Whereas hexavalent is extremely good, very brilliant, very clear and that’s why people have come to love it. They don’t realize what they’re looking at, but they’ve come to love it. We have to make them unlove it.”

The best way to do that, said Gilles, will be to entice car buyers with styles and designs that don’t use chrome at all, or anything like it. There are the extremely popular “blackout packages” that are already available as an option on most Stellantis models. These replace all the exterior “brightwork,” like chrome badges and grilles, with matte black pieces for a dark, sinister look.

“Sometimes people go and personally convert their cars to blackout packages,” Gilles said. “They call it ‘murdered out’ on the street.”

Years ago, Gilles even did it to his own 2016 Chrysler minivan creating a look that eventually came to market as the Chrysler Pacifica S Package with a black grille and a black-winged Chrysler logo.

The dark look of this 2024 Chrysler Pacifica Limited S was inspired by designer Ralph Gilles' own blacked-out van. (Courtesy Stellantis via CNN Newsource)

Black’s not the only option, though. The “murdered out” look doesn’t work for everyone.

“Sometimes a vehicle can look a little bit ‘triste,’ as they say in French, sad, when it’s all black,” said Gilles.

Polished stainless steel looks a lot like chrome but it’s expensive. Satin steel with a dull finish looks refined and is less expensive. Mixing different tones and textures can be even better, Gilles said.

“Sometimes you don’t want a very holistic, black and white type of contrast. Sometimes a tonal contrast is even more attractive,” Gilles said. “So we’re using bronzes and silvers and graphites where chrome used to be, to create that offset.”

Stellantis has, for years, been trying out chrome alternatives on special edition models that, generally, have done even better than expected with consumers. It’s a good sign that car buyers are ready for something different.

The upcoming Jeep Wagoneer S electric SUV will be one of the first Stellantis models to sport some of these new looks. It will have no chrome at all, even as an option. The same will be true on all Stellantis’s other new models, Gilles said.

The new Jeep Wagnoneer S electric SUV will have no chrome. (Peter Valdes-Dapena / CNN )

A spokesperson for Volkswagen Group’s design department – VW Group operates various brands including Audi and Bentley – said VW is also looking at alternatives to hexavalent chrome as its use becomes more strictly curtailed in various markets, including Europe. VW designers are working with finishes of various tones and textures to accent different models.

“We are also using light as the new chrome,” VW said in a statement shared with CNN. “Light gives us more possibilities in both exterior and interior applications.”

Already, many VW models sport round VW logos that glow at night. Stellantis has also used glowing badges on some of its concept vehicles.

The Chrysler Halcyon concept used a lit brand logo rather than a traditional chrome hood ornament. (Courtesy Stellantis via CNN Newsource)

It helps that the use of chrome on modern cars is already much reduced from its glaring peaks. Chrome first started appearing on cars in the 1920s as a shinier and easier to maintain alternative to nickel and, before that, brass, said the Petersen Museum’s Kendall.

After a few decades, it reached a “more is always better” apotheosis around the same time cars sprouted fins, Gilles said.

“Chrome peaked in the ’50s with the big American land yachts and stuff with giant chrome bumpers and giant chrome grills. They couldn’t use enough chrome,” he said. “They threw as much chrome as they could at it, and we’ve been weaning ourselves from it.”

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