Whitewall tires are an interesting historical oddity, peaking in popularity between the 1950s and 1970s. As popular as they once were, I have not found an accurate, comprehensive online history of whitewall tires, so once again it falls upon CC to set the record straight.
The roots of whitewall tires go back much farther than most people realize, almost to the dawn of the horseless carriage era. Over the next several installments I’ll study the rise and fall of this styling phenomenon, but today we’ll start with the early origins of whitewall tires.
In the very beginning, all tires were milky, semi-translucent ivory color because that is the natural color of untreated rubber. Manufacturers soon discovered that by adding a little zinc oxide to the raw rubber they could get that bright gleaming white that we typically associate with brass-era tires, and nominally improve the durability as well.
But before we can get to true white sidewall tires, two innovations from the early days of 20th-century tire manufacturing would have to come together: carbon black tires and cord tires. Let’s take a quick look at each innovation separately, starting with cord tires.
Pneumatic tires date back to the bicycle craze of the late 19th century. At that time, tire carcasses were typically reinforced with fabric swatches (if they were reinforced at all). Around 1890, J.F. Palmer came up with the idea of a “puncture-proof” tire reinforced with cords (essentially threads or strings), which proved to be much more durable than woven fabric. Palmer patented the idea for cord bicycle tires in 1893 and licensed it to various bicycle tire manufacturers worldwide, including B. F. Goodrich.
Although the cords are now made of nylon and steel, this technique is still fundamental to tire construction today, to which anyone who has ever had a blowout or worn a tire “down to the cords” can attest.
Starting in 1904, Christian Gray at the India Rubber Company wondered if the Palmer principle of cord tires to be applied to the emerging market of automobile tires, and took out over a dozen patents for cord-reinforced automobile tires. In 1909, the Diamond Rubber Co. in Akron (maker of Silvertown tires, a brand we will return to shortly) purchased exclusive US rights to these patents. In 1912, B.F. Goodrich purchased the Diamond Rubber Co. and acquired these patent licenses. If you are wondering how all this relates to whitewall tires, hear me out.
Carbon has been used as a strengthening and reinforcing agent since antiquity, when it was discovered that when carbon was added to molten iron it forms steel. Over the millennia, experimenters have experimented with adding carbon to many materials in an effort to strengthen them.
B.F. Goodrich is often credited with inventing carbon black tires in 1910, but this is clearly not true, as we shall see. The earliest reference to adding carbon black (a fine, sooty form of carbon that is a combustion byproduct) I could find was in 1904, with Sidney Charles Mote using it at the London-based India Rubber Company. Even this reference doesn’t claim ownership of this process, claiming that adding carbon black to strengthen rubber was “generally known.” This is backed up by the fact that no one appears to have ever patented this process.
While carbon black certainly improves the heat dissipation and longevity of automotive tires, these benefits were likely academic at the speeds and distances that most brass-era cars were being driven. This is one of the reasons that all-white tires were still seen on cars into the late teens and early 1920s. Likewise, the longer wear life of black tires would be of little use if your tire was going to succumb to a fatal puncture long before the treads were worn out. The benefit of black tires (improved heat resistance and longer tread life) would not be fully realized until combined with corded tires (for better puncture resistance) and the faster, heavier cars of the teens and twenties.
So while BF Goodrich did not invent black tires (which were likely independently invented many times), they were among the first to commercialize them, since their acquisition of Diamond Rubber gave them access to the cord tire patents that made black tires practical.
Whitewall Tires – Putting it all together
You can’t have black tires with a white sidewall until you have black tires. Once carbon black rubber tires became available, they were generally all black, sidewalls and tread.
At this point, I’d like to debunk a myth about early whitewall tires. Some internet sources claim that whitewall tires were initially offered as a less expensive alternative to all-black tires, since only the treads required the carbon black process, but this doesn’t jibe with the historical facts. For starters, the cost of carbon black (basically soot) was essentially zero, since it was a byproduct of burning coal and would have been abundant. Any increase in the cost of black tires over white ones was the result of opportunistic pricing and perceived value, not because of increased manufacturing costs.
More to the point, if whitewall tires were ever actually sold for less than blackwalls, historical photos would be full of them, since as we all know Americans love a good bargain. But look at any urban picture from before 1930, and the vast majority of the cars are rolling on blackwall tires. If anything, whitewall tires likely cost more to manufacture than blackwalls, since you are now assembling the tire out of multiple pieces of different kinds of rubber.
No, whitewall tires were always a premium product, probably none more so than Diamond Rubber’s Silvertown tire brand. This continued to be the case under Goodrich’s ownership. Silvertowns were almost always advertised with white sidewalls, often with the two red diamonds as a throwback to the Diamond Rubber logo. The Silvertown brand would become synonymous with premium whitewall tires over the next half-century.
Just how premium were they? Check out the 1922 ad above. Wow! Look at those prices. And those are reduced by 20 percent! Those actually aren’t too far removed from modern tire prices – I bought a set of tires for my son’s car for $82 apiece not too long ago. Those Silvertown Cord prices would range from $448 to $1,131 in 2023 adjusted dollars. Yes, you can spend over $1,000 per tire in 2023, but it is pretty exotic cars that require that kind of expensive rubber.
So up until the 1920’s, whitewall tires were a niche, premium product aimed at the replacement tire market. But anyplace where the aftermarket is making money, OEMs are sure to follow, and it wasn’t long before manufacturers started offering whitewalls as original equipment, as we shall see in Part 2.