In Part 1 of this series, I covered the early history of the whitewall tire, led by the B.F. Goodrich Silvertown tire. Whitewall tires were largely confined to the replacement market for the first few decades of the twentieth century, rarely offered as original equipment and therefore almost never seen in any carmaker’s advertisements. For Part 2, we are going to look at when automakers started featuring whitewall tires in their ads and offering them as factory options, which greatly increased their popularity.
Before we jump in, A quick note on my methodology that I will be using for the remainder of this series: Because tires are some of the most commonly changed items on cars, I did not rely on period photos or modern photos of vintage cars when researching this series. Instead, I will be using manufacturers’ ads and brochures to gauge the relative popularity of whitewall tires, given that these contain what manufacturers consider to be the “definitive” representation of their vehicles, and their best efforts to influence automotive fashion at the time.
As we discussed in Part 1, Whitewall tires started out as a very niche product: Although they were premium priced, whitewalls offered no real consumer benefit other than appearance. After having been trained on the benefits of carbon black tires over white ones, consumers were right to be skeptical about the durability of tires that were less than fully black, which further slowed the adoption of whitewalls.
It is no surprise that manufacturers were slow to outfit their cars with whitewall tires. Economy car makers like Ford didn’t want to jeopardize their budget bona fides on something as frivolous as whitewalls, which in any case seemed at odds with the pragmatic ethos that the company established with the Model T. Meanwhile luxury car makers didn’t want to offend their overwhelmingly conservative buyers with something as superficial and flashy (and with questionable durability) as whitewall tires.
One luxury carmaker whose buyers would not be put off by the expense and frivolity of whitewall tires was Duesenberg, purveyor of flashy luxury cars to the nouveau riche. Duesenberg was the first crack in the whitewall tire dam, featuring whitewall tires in their ads before virtually any other maker – the early 1920s. The 1922 Duesenberg ad in the lead photo of this piece was the earliest manufacturer photo showing whitewall tires I could find while researching this piece.
In contrast, traditional luxury automakers like Packard, Cadillac, Lincoln, and Peerless still featured blackwall tires in most of their ads throughout much of the 1920s.
One of the next luxury car makers to join the whitewall fray was LaSalle, Cadillac’s companion brand created in 1927 to appeal to less conservative and more style-conscious luxury car buyers. Whitewall tires were a big part of this mission brief, and most of the early ads for LaSalle feature whitewall tires, whereas Cadillacs of the same vintage were still largely shown sporting blackwalls.
Whitewall tires officially entered the mainstream in 1930, on both the high-end and low-end of the market. The 1930 Ford Phaeton ad above is one of Ford’s first to feature whitewalls (Although Ford wouldn’t officially offer whitewall tires until 1934, as a $11.25 option).
1930 also marked a breakout year for Cadillac, with many cars in the brochure from this year featuring whitewalls for the first time.
Despite the onset of the Great Depression, Packard also started featuring whitewalls in some of their ads starting in 1932 (although it should be said that in true Packard understated style, a majority of their ads and brochures still featured blackwalls).
Despite the depression, Ford continued to feature whitewall tires in many of their ads throughout the 1930s.
While Packard still featured blackwalls on even their most expensive models, such as the 1935 Packard Twelve shown above.
Still, more and more brands started featuring whitewall tires as the 1930s wore on. Even Plymouth started featuring whitewall tires in their ads starting in 1939.
Then a peculiar thing happened. With the onset of war in Europe and the transition of the US manufacturing base into the Arsenal of Democracy, frivolities like whitewall tires started slowly disappearing from manufacturers’ advertisements in the early 1940s. It seemed at the time that whitewall tires were a fad that had passed.
Starting in 1940, whitewalls had all but vanished from Ford’s brochures – virtually every vehicle was shown wearing blackwall tires. Same for Plymouth, Chevrolet, Pontiac, and even Oldsmobile. Only luxury car makers like Packard, Buick, and Cadillac would still feature whitewall tires in their ads right up until the war.
So what would happen to whitewall tires after World War II? The answer may surprise you – read on in Part 3.