Farm Collector

Whitewall Tires

On a hot night a few weeks ago, after a supper of corn on the cob and the lovely Miss Nancy’s delicious Swiss steak, I was sitting on the front porch enjoying a slightly chilled glass of Pinot Noir and watching the traffic on Route 45. Do you know, I saw absolutely zero cars with whitewall tires!

Sixty five years ago, if your car didn’t have whitewalls, you were a stodgy old stick-in-the-mud (like my Dad). At 16, my first car, a well-used 1940 Dodge didn’t have them, but somehow I organized a set of Port-A-Walls, that, although they stood a little proud of the tires at speed, simulated white walls pretty well.

My next car, a 1948 Nash, had real whitewall tires and I spent a lot of time with a brass-bristled wire brush and, although I bought Bleche-White, which was especially good for cleaning white walled tires, I found that cheaper Old Dutch, BAB-O or Comet cleansers worked just as well. Even in the winter, when it was difficult to wash the whole car, my buddies and I still managed to keep the wheels and tires of our cars pretty clean.

In the earliest days of rubber tires, the whole tire, tread and all, was white. Most of us think of rubber as being black, but natural rubber is sort of off-white. So when tires first began to be made from the stuff, they were white as well. The white rubber, however, was very susceptible to sun deterioration. Chemists discovered that by mixing carbon black into the natural rubber it increased durability and traction, and turned the rubber black.

At first, only the tread of the tire was made of carbonized rubber and both the inner and outer sidewalls remained white. But, all black tires came to be thought of as more durable, and the white sidewalls were covered with a thin layer of black rubber making them more desirable and much easier to keep clean.

Sometime during the early 1920s, balloon tires, which afforded a softer ride, were developed. The much wider sidewalls of these tires made them more prominent and, while they looked good on a light colored car, the owners of darker painted machines began to ask for white sidewalls again in order to contrast with the dark paint and gleaming chrome that became prevalent in the late ’20s and 1930s.

Then, during the 1930s, cars were lowered on the chassis, fender openings were made smaller and fender skirts were introduced by automobile designers, making the inside sidewall difficult to see. This led to single sided whitewall tires which were quite popular until World War II. During that conflict, when the supply of natural rubber from the southwest Pacific dwindled, and the military made heavy demands on the rubber industry, most people were just happy to have any old tires on their cars. So long as they held air, the color of the sidewalls mattered not a bit.

I mentioned my Dad earlier as not being a whitewall enthusiast. As long as I can remember, until he bought a new car sometime in the 1960s, he never had a whitewall tire on any of his cars, except once. I remember his old Cadillac, which had huge tires – 7.50X16, I think – wore a single whitewall during the early ’40s; he had picked it up used somewhere and it was all he could get during the wartime tire shortage.

After the war, tires and cars became plentiful again and the demand for the decorative tires boomed, even though they were a little more expensive. Those who couldn’t afford new tires, made do with the porta-walls, or even white tire paint – which wasn’t very satisfactory at best.

Remember curb feelers? The biggest bugaboo to whitewall tires was parallel parking – scrape a sidewall against a curb and there was an ugly black mark on the pristine whiteness of your tire. To prevent this, many people, including me, installed curb feelers – thin spring wires about 6 or 8 inches long that clamped to the lower edges of your right fenders and (hopefully) scraped the curb – to give an audible warning when a tire was close enough.

Sometime around 1960, in an effort to make cars look lower, a new tire was introduced that had a white stripe about an inch or so wide in the center of the black sidewall. Most even had a raised ridge of black rubber around the outside of the white stripe to protect it from pesky curbs, although a good hard hit could still cause damage. Other variations included two or three even narrower white stripes, or a red and a white stripe or a lone red one.

By the 1980s, whitewalls had fallen out of favor and are rarely seen today, except on antique or classic cars. Most folks in these hurried days can’t find the time to scrub scuffed tires and besides, whitewalls just aren’t cool anymore.

– Sam Moore

This 1929 ad for Budd wheels shows the wide whitewall tires that were becoming popular about that time. (From the June 29, 1929, issue of Automotive Topics in the author’s collection).

  • Published on Sep 1, 2016
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