Origins of the Whitewall Tire

October 13th, 2015
Tires in Hanover, PAYou don’t see whitewall tires that often anymore. Most newer vehicles are riding on plain blackwall tires, without even the thin white stripe of years ago. It’s too bad, because for years the fat whitewall was a sign of class and elegance for many drivers. Did you ever wonder how whitewalls originated, though? 
In the days before nylon and other synthetic rubber compounds, tires were made entirely of natural rubber. Various chemicals were used in the tread formulation for longer wear; one of the best was zinc oxide, a pure white substance that turned the tire completely white. Early tire companies soon found, though, that white rubber didn’t have enough endurance (not to mention being impossible to keep clean), and carbon black was added. 
 
Carbon black is the material that’s left over when heavy petroleum products like coal tar are burned. This powdery substance is also used in laser printer toner, ink, paints, radar-absorbent materials and dozens of other industrial applications. It was originally used only in the tread area of the tire, resulting in inner and outer sidewalls that were still brilliant white. In later tire designs, the sidewalls were covered with a fairly thin layer of black rubber; when scuffed against a curb, the white layer would be revealed. 
 
Interestingly, at one point blackwall tires were considered more of a status symbol; they were more expensive and certainly easier to maintain and keep looking good. As production costs for blackwall tires went down, they became more popular and whitewalls were more prestigious again. 
The aftermarket “curb feeler” made its way onto many whitewall-equipped cars; these springs or wires mounted on the lower fender would scrape on a curb and alert a driver when he was about to scuff his whitewalls. New tires had to be shipped with a paper wrapping to prevent the black from other tires from defacing the whitewalls.
 
Availability of all tires was limited in the U.S. in the 40s and early 50s due to rationing and limited raw materials in WWII and the Korean War. Over the years, whitewalls became skinnier and skinnier, eventually diminishing to a 1” wide stripe or double stripe. Today, no new cars are available with whitewalls from the factory – the last was the Lincoln Town Car, which was discontinued in 2010. 
 
Whitewalls are still available in the aftermarket, though, and can lend a classy touch to a vintage hotrod or restored luxury car. Interestingly, white-letter tires for trucks and SUVs still use the same process, with their letters masked off from the black layer in the tire mold so the white can show through. 
At L & M Tire and Wheel, we thought you might find this little piece of tire history and trivia interesting. We want to be your go-to source for all your tire and wheel needs in Hanover, PA…so make an appointment with us today! 
  Posted in: Tires 101