Sunday, November 28, 2010

Why White Tires?

by Nancy DeWitt (with some help from Willy Vinton)

Yesterday I was admiring this photo of our 1907 White Steam Car taken by Troy Bouffard, and it reminded me of a question we are often asked: why are many of the tires on our oldest automobiles white? Quite simply, the natural color of rubber is white because of the zinc oxide in its composition. It wasn't until 1910 that the Silvertown Tire Company of London (followed by the B.F. Goodrich Company in the U.S.) added carbon black to tires, greatly increasing their durability.

Because white tires didn't last long, it's pretty rare to see an original pair on a car. Some think the tires on our preservation class 1910 Hudson are original, but they were made in England and added to the car about six years ago. In that short time these gray (not white) tires--which have been inside most of their life--have yellowed with age, giving you an idea how quickly these tires failed. 

White tires require a lot of care. Each time we drive a white-tired car the tires have to be cleaned before the vehicle goes back on display. Fortunately we have our Adopt-A-Car sponsors and wonderful docents (like Terry at right, who is using a toothbrush to scrub the tread!) to help with this task.

Not surprisingly, the next question often asked is: where do you get replacement white tires for antique cars? There are actually several companies that sell reproduction tires. I imagine we could find vintage tires too, but since we drive most of our cars we prefer less-fragile rubber between us and the pavement.

Perhaps some day I'll write about why the rear tires were larger than the front ones on many old cars and carriages.


  1. Really interesting, I didn't know it! But I have a question... some classic cars have tires with the interior part in white, and the exterior part in black (like your 1931 Cord Cabriolet). What's the reason? The same as these old tires?

    Thank you for the answer!

    1. At first, carbon black was only put into the tread, leaving the inner and outer sidewalls white. An all-black tire was more expensive since it involved more carbon black. The higher cost and sleeker look of all-black tires actually appealed to the wealthy at first; later, the preference was for bright whitewalls contrasting against a dark-colored car. The popularity of whitewalls increased through the 1930s and faded after WWII.


Blogging about the Fountainhead Antique Auto Museum's latest news, adventures and research