When we left Part 2 in 1942, whitewall tires were slowly starting to fade from manufacturers’ ads as part of the buildup to World War II. For today’s installment, we finally get to the good stuff, as we ply (no pun intended) the golden age of the whitewall tire.
The immediate end of World War II saw the United States at a critical junction in many areas, but we will focus specifically here on tires (obviously). Were whitewall tires just a passing pre-war fad whose time had passed? Or was it a look that would continue post-war? Surprisingly, the answer wasn’t obvious or unanimous.
As we’ve previously mentioned, automotive brochures weren’t just for selling. These were manufacturers’ efforts to present the definitive and best representation of their products, and to the degree possible, influence the tastes of buyers and automotive styling trends. Much effort is expended by marketers to ensure that their cars are presented in the best colors and from the best angles. This even carries down to the tires the cars are wearing.
In 1946, it was pretty clear that GM thought whitewalls were a fad that had played out. Of GM’s five divisions, only Buick featured whitewall tires in their brochures that year. And you could argue that post-war rubber shortages may have had something to do with this, but these are illustrations, which unlike photos are not subject to supply limitations.
It was a pretty similar story over at Chrysler, Ford Motor Company, Studebaker, and Packard – the vast majority of their vehicles in their 1946 and 1947 marketing materials were depicted with blackwall tires. It seemed that maybe whitewall tires were a pre-war fad that had passed.
But whitewall tires were not going down without a fight. Whitewall depiction started to rise dramatically in 1948, with Studebaker featuring most of their new postwar models wearing them. By 1949, virtually every domestic brand was portraying nearly 100% of their vehicles with whitewall tires in their marketing materials. This doesn’t mean that every car was sold with whitewall tires – many, if not most were surely still being delivered with blackwalls, but in terms of how manufacturers thought their cars were best represented in their ads, the pendulum had certainly swung back to whitewalls.
It is not hard to see why: The rise of Whitewall tires post-war tracks closely with the rise of chrome trim on cars, a trend that would continue throughout the ’50s. After all, what are white sidewalls but chrome for your tires? Maybe it is just how we are used to seeing them now, but there is something about the new chrome-laden postwar designs that look “right” with Whitewall tires (and look off with blackwalls).
The one curious holdout was Chevrolet. As late as 1952 (long after Ford and Plymouth were featuring almost all their cars with whitewall tires), Chevy was still showing most of their vehicles in their brochures (except sometimes for the Bel Air) wearing blackwall tires. After 1953, Luxury and mid-level brands typically showed all their cars in whitewall tires, while low-cost brands showed only their least expensive models in blackwalls, a pattern that the industry would settle into for the next several decades.
Narrow Stripe Whitewall Tires
The next innovation in whitewall tires would come in the late 1950s, with the introduction of white stripe tires, with the white section occupying just the middle of the sidewall, rather than the entire sidewall.
1962 is regarded as the year the industry changed over from white sidewall tires to white striped tires. While this is generally true, the switchover didn’t happen all at once.
The 1957-58 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham is generally recognized as the first vehicle to ship with white stripe sidewall tires, featuring a 1″ white stripe. These tires were specified by Cadillac exclusively for the E-B to reduce the perceived height and bulk of the car, which I think it quite effectively does (The rest of the Cadillac lineup stuck with regular 2 3/4″ whitewalls).
With the discontinuation of the Eldorado Brougham in 1959, the Eldorado Biarritz became Cadillac’s standard bearer, and the only Cadillac to be equipped with 1″ whitewalls.
Like all styling trends, what starts out upmarket eventually trickles down to lower models. So it was with narrow strip whitewall tires. By 1960, the had started to spread beyond Cadillac. While most of the 1960 Chevrolet Corvair ads were pictured with either wide whitewall tires or blackwalls, a few (like the Corvair Monza above) were starting to be pictured with narrow 7/8″ stripe whitewall tires.
The 1960 Valiant could also be spotted with narrow stripe whitewall tires as well. That Detroit’s compacts started getting narrow stripe whitewall tires before the full-sized models makes sense: Wide whitewall tires look especially bulky and awkward on smaller cars.
By 1961, GM’s new “senior compacts” were also sometimes (although not always) being shown with narrow stripe whitewalls, as shown above.
As most of us know, 1962 was the year that the whitewall stripe hit the mainstream. This year virtually every car for every manufacturer was now sporting the newly fashionable tires. I still have no idea how so many manufacturers coordinated such a change all at the same time, but this wouldn’t be the last time this happened.
Heck, even Rambler got the memo in 1962.
Yet somehow poor Studebaker missed the meeting where everyone else decided to use narrow stripe whitewall tires. They alone were still showing cars with 2 3/4″ wide whitewall tires in their 1962 ads and brochures. They would make the switch the following year, in 1963.
Virtually every 1962 car ad featured 1″ whitewall tires. However, if you look hard enough (like I did), you can still find a few straggler 1962 ads with wide whitewall tires, like the 1962 Ford ad above.
As the 1960s dawned, rapid changes were in store for the humble whitewall tire. Read on in Part 4.