Aaron Widmar
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Whitewall Tires: Why the White Stripe?

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How whitewall tires are different from common all-black tires

classic car whitewall tire wheel vintage historic automobile
Photo: The News Wheel

Although all standard car tires today are entirely black, whitewall tires used to be trendy in decades past. You may have seen whitewall tires attached to the wheels of a vintage hot rod or classic luxury sedan at a local cruise-in or historic film. Are the differences between blackwall versus whitewall tires purely cosmetic? Or are there underlying distinctions beyond mere fashion?

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The origin and appeal of whitewall tires

You’re correct in assuming that there’s something different about whitewall tires beyond just their appearance. That white ring isn’t just ivory paint across a black tire — it’s actually zinc oxide, which is totally white.

In the early age of the automobile, as they became more widespread throughout the nation and became increasingly heavy, many tire manufacturers experimented with “filler material” to strengthen rubber tires. The raw rubber would wear down easily, so it was necessary to supplement it with a durable material that would help it withstand wear, pressure, and punctures. Zinc oxide became a widespread substance used for this purpose.

The white-on-black contrast became popular for aesthetic purposes, and some automakers like Ford started offering whitewall tires as optional upgrades. The height of their popularity was from the late 1930s to the late 1960s, after which whitewall tires eventually went out of fashion.

Today, the raw rubber is melded with carbon to them a tougher, stiffer form. Plus, ply cords further bolster them.

Because of their distinct appearance and vintage popularity, whitewall tires are still fashionable in the hot rod and classic car communities. If you go to a cruise-in car show, you’ll probably see a lot of them.

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