Early automobile tires were made entirely of natural white rubber, but that white rubber compound didn’t offer sufficient traction and endurance, so carbon black was added to the rubber used for the treads.
Using carbon black only in the tread produced tires with inner and outer sidewalls left showing the original white rubber base and brother, you had whitewalls.
Only later in the game came entirely black tires. Manufacturers simply covered the visible white with a thin, black colored layer of rubber.
Wide whitewall tires reached the apex of their popularity by the early-1950s. The 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham was fitted with whitewalls which featured a sidewall strip reduced to a svelte 1″.
But wide whitewalls were completely 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″ stripe whitewalls.
During the mid-1960s 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 1950s and 1960s, as well as in the replacement market, and in some cases, whitewall tires were a “must have” to get the right look.
For those who couldn’t afford the real deal, add-ons could be installed over the rim of the wheel. Though the look was ideal, they had an unfortunate tendency to produce leaks if pressure was too high.
Full-fledged wide whitewalls had made a return within the modified car culture. The resurgence of traditional hot rods, customs, retro, lowriders and resto-cal cars have also contributed to the resurgence in whitewall tires.
“(It) goes back to the early 40’s when guys were using ‘porta-walls’ and the like just so they could get the widest whitewall possible. They would just stick these rubber inserts in between the tire and the wheel and go. As far as customs? There were hardly any without whitewalls – they were the “in” thing. I had black walls on my roadster, but I had white walls on my ’36 because it was custom. Tires and wheels were important to us. They were probably the first two things that we started to customize. Before you bought a new car you already had an idea of what you were gonna use for wheels and tires.”
– George Barris