More often than not, whitewall tyres divide opinions. Some will claim that they are only ever appropriate on classic Yank Tanks. Others see them as the most logical and period attempt at giving any classic car a more stylish appearance.
My love of all things Citroën DS had me searching out period DS pictures. That’s when I came across the fabulous picture below of a DS wearing a set of whitewall tyres. There’s no denying that it does dramatic things for the elegant Citroën design. An acquired taste no doubt – a bit like oysters. Personally, I like both oysters andwhitewalls.
But in my opinion, whitewalls work on so much else than fifties Americana and French avantgarde. My continued search led me to other French classics – most of which are (by default) much more subtle than the Citroën. The Simca Aronde is hardly the most popular, ground-breaking and well-known classic on the market. In period, here in Denmark it was given the less than flattering nickname “Cod Mouth” – clearly due to its facial design. But hand it a set of whitewalls, and suddenly the rather ordinary fifties saloon presents decidedly elegant and upmarket.
During the mid- and late-sixties, tyres with whitewalls were often an optional accessory intended to impact positively on the style-barometer. But before that, at the very beginning of the twentieth century, white tyres were the norm. Back then, tyres were produced from 100% natural rubber mixed with various chemicals to achieve better durability. One of these chemicals was zinc oxide which is white as snow and contributed by giving the tyre better grip, but also made the rubber compound perfectly white.
Only later, to further improve durability, a residual product from the oil refinery industry was added to the rubber compounds. This product contains large amounts of carbon and thus the tyres became black. Initially though, the carbon was only added to the rubber compound around the tread pattern where a thin layer of black rubber was pulled over the white tyre, as this was of course where the enhanced durability was required. So the whitewall tyres remained despite of the added carbon. With time though, the all black tyres grew in popularity and won the over the market.
As a stylish statement, the whitewalls were at their prime during the early fifties, but already in the following decade, sales numbers started to decline. Design and fashion meant that cars were getting lower and lower, and the tall tyre walls didn’t do much to compliment this new look. The whitewalls simply appeared too tall. Initially this was overcome with white bandtyres taking over for a while. Here, the white section of the white band tyres was much narrower and there was a black segment between the wheel and the white band. This helped for a while, but eventually new technology and the arrival of low profile tyres led to both whitewalls and white bands loosing traction (pardon the pun)…
Still the whitewalls held on stubbornly, and right up until the mid-seventies there were still some marques who offered whitewall or more likely white band tyres for their most luxurious models.
What is your opinion of whitewalls? Should they only be applied to classics from the fifties? Or are they acceptable cosmetic tuning towards the stylish and elegant on any car regardless? Do you perhaps even have whitewalls or white bands on your own classic? And if you do, please reveal how you manage to keep them gleaming white…