Whitewall Tires Then And Now
words by Doug Dwyer
The use of white rubber for tires began at a small tire company in Chicago called Vogue Tyre & Rubber Company that made them for horse-drawn carriages near the turn of the 20th century. Early automobile tires were made of pure natural rubber which is more the color of chewing gum. Various chemicals were mixed into the tread compounds to make them wear better. The best of these was zinc oxide, a pure white substance that increased traction and also made the entire tire white. Whitewall tires or white sidewall (WSW) tires are tires that have a stripe, or in some cases the entire sidewall, made of white rubber.
These tires were offered by car manufacturers from the 1900’s through the 1980’s. The white rubber did not offer sufficient endurance as vehicles became heaver and faster, so, carbon black was added to the rubber to greatly increase tread life. Using carbon black only in the tread produced tires with inner and outer sidewalls of white rubber.
Later, entirely black tires became available, the still white sidewalls being covered with a somewhat thin, black colored layer of rubber. Should a black sidewall tire have been severely scuffed against a curb, the underlying white rubber would be revealed.
The status of whitewall tires versus black wall tires was originally the reverse of what it later became, with fully black tires requiring a greater amount of carbon black and less effort to maintain a clean appearance. These tires were considered the premium tire; since the black tires first became available, they were commonly fitted to many luxury cars through the 1930’s.
During the late-1920’s gleaming whitewalls contrasted against darker surroundings were considered a stylish, but high-maintenance feature. The popularity of white walls as an option increased during the 1930’s. On April 6, 1934, Ford introduced whitewall tires as an $11.25 (equivalent to $228 today) option on all its new cars. But automobile designs incorporating streamlining directed visual interest away from tire side walls. Wide whitewall tires reached their height in popularity by the early-1950’s. The 1957 production version of the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham was fitted with whitewalls that were reduced to a 1" wide stripe floating on the tire sidewall with a black breaker between this stripe and the wheel rim. The whitewall stripe width began to diminish as an attempt to reduce the perceived height of the wheel/tire. During the decade, increasingly lower vehicle heights were in vogue. During the 1950’s, fender skirts also covered up white wall tires. Wide whitewalls generally fell out of favor in the U.S. by the 1962 model year. They continued as an option on the Lincoln Continental for some time thereafter but most common were narrower 3/4–1-inch (1.9–2.5 cm) stripe whitewalls.
During the mid-1960’s variations on the striped whitewall began to appear; a red/white stripe combination was offered on Thunderbirds and other high-end Fords, and triple white stripe variations were offered on Cadillacs, Lincolns, and Imperials. Whitewall tires were a popular option on new cars during the 1950’s and 1960’s, as well as in the replacement aftermarket. In some cases, having whitewall tires are a "must have" to get the right look on a car. 50’s and 60’s Classics, and Lowrider genre, in particular regard whitewalls as essential for admission to the cultures.
New tires were wrapped in paper for shipping, to keep the white stripe clean, and for preventing the black of other tires from rubbing on the whitewall side. Maintaining a clean sidewall was an issue. Some motorists added aftermarket "curb feelers" that were attached at the bottom of the wheel opening lip to help reduce scraping the whitewall tire against curbs.