Pencils down, everyone. Enough with the history lessons, time for some whitewall fun! The 1960s were a time of unprecedented cultural change, and that is reflected even in something as mundane as tires. While there was essentially only one style of whitewall tire in the 1950s, by the mid-60s manufacturers were going crazy with variation in sidewall stripe sizes, colors, and number.
As I did with my 1960s vinyl roof post a few years back, I’m going to try my best to catalog every variation, so buckle up.
As we saw last time in Part 3, in 1962 most manufacturers switched over from tires with a 2-3/4″ white sidewall tires to a 1″ white stripe (both numbers were slightly smaller for smaller tire sizes). But things didn’t stop there. Much like hemlines in the same time period, the white stripe quickly shrunk over the next several years, going to 1/2″, 3/8″, 5/16″, and even as small as a slender 1/8″. Let that sink in – over the course of just three years (from 1961 to 1964), white walls went from the entire sidewall to a thick stripe to a pencil thin stripe. Tire fashion was evolving rapidly.
Unlike body styling, which requires years of advance planning, tires are consumable items that are regularly replaced. Manufacturers took advantage of this fast-changing environment to slap the latest in tire fashions on their cars to generate interest. Some cars even had tires that were exclusive to a single model, as we shall see. Note that you may need to enlarge many of the sample photos below to the details of the tires.
First up, the red stripe tire, perhaps the most iconic “whitewall” tire to come out of the 1960s. The look actually originated in Great Britain and was commonly seen on period Jaguars, Triumphs, and Austin-Healeys. In 1964, Pontiac offered red-line tires as an option on the GTO, becoming the first American car to offer them. The look proved popular and soon spread to performance models from every manufacturer.
In 1965, manufacturers started using these rapidly changing tire styles to offer specialized tires exclusive to a single brand or even a single model. Every car needs tires, so these exclusive specialty tires were an inexpensive way for automakers to add perceived value to their wares. Chevrolet offered gold-striped tires as an exclusive option on the Corvette starting in 1965. This option was available only for two years, through 1966. Such are the fickle winds of fashion.
In 1965 and 1966, Dodge and Plymouth offered Goodyear Blue Streak tires as an option on their high-performance models. This was not a heavily marketed option – I could not find a single period ad showing a car so equipped. The fuzzy image from the 1966 Barracuda brochure above was the best I could find.
Fortunately, Coker Tire makes reproductions of this incredibly rare bird, so we can get a better idea of what this tire looked like. Not only did the Blue Streak feature a single eponymous 3/8″ blue stripe, but it was also one of the first street tires to feature raised white letters, a look that wouldn’t become popular until the early 1970s. The look must have been too daring for even period Dodge and Plymouth customers – by 1967 they switched over to red stripe tires for their performance models, like everyone else.
Also in 1965, Ford entered into an exclusive deal with US Royal Tires for dual red stripe tires for the Mustang. For 1965 and 1966 these tires were standard on 289 HP K-code Mustangs (optional on others). Again, I had a surprisingly hard time chasing one of these down, but if you enlarge and look closely at the image above, you can just make out the two red stripes on the fastback Mustang in the middle.
Once again, Coker Tire comes to the rescue for is with a reproduction for us to get a better look.
But Ford wasn’t done with exclusive tire offerings. Also in 1965, Ford leveraged their close ties with Firestone to produce a version of Firestone Deluxe Champion tires with dual stripes (one red, one white) exclusively for the Ford Thunderbird. If you enlarge the ad above, you can just see them.
For a better look, here’s a picture I found on the interwebs of a Thunderbird sporting a 50+ year old NOS set of these Firestone tires (hopefully for show purposes only). These tires were offered as options on Ford Thunderbirds from 1965 through 1969, outlasting every other vehicle-exclusive tire options.
By 1969, red stripe tires were pretty much on their way out, which is unfortunate because I’ve always liked the look and red is my favorite color. Stepping up to indicate high-performance tires were raised white letters, which would be the new signifier of high-performance tires for the next decade or two, until they were taken over by truck and offroad tires. But we are here to talk about whitewalls, not white letters, which will undoubtedly be covered in a future post.
Be sure to read Part 5 for the exciting conclusion to this series! (Spoiler alert – things don’t end well for whitewall tires).