Friday, May 26, 2017

Whitewall Tires

One of the more interesting footnotes in Automotive History is the rise of the whitewall tire and its successor the raised white letter Tire.

Most people don't think about it, but tires don't necessarily have to be black.  In fact, if you look at early photographs of automobiles you will see many with white or gray tires and quite a few with black tires.  Black was sort of settled upon as a color for tires probably due to the lowest possible cost of coloring the rubber with carbon black.

In recent years, manufacturers have experimented with different colored tires, but they have yet to catch on with the public, other than for bicycle tires.  One tire manufacturer proposed making tires in a variety of colors.  One ridiculous objection made to this concept was that "street gangs" would use colored tires to lay patch marks to "mark their territories."  This seems like a ridiculous reason not sell a product, but all the car mags dutifully reported it.  I think the real reason was that customer demand simply wasn't there.  Who wants red tires with a blue car or vice-versa?  It would also have been an inventory nightmare - having to stock tires not only in all sizes, but all colors as well.

Odd colored tires are making a comeback in the bicycle arena, with beach bikes and the like, and even with more serious bikes, with colors such as red, blue, yellow, tan and whatnot being offered. However car tires remain stubbornly black - at least for the time being.

Whitewall tires are a prime example of a status object attached to automobiles.  There really is no reason for a tire to have white walls other than for appearance purposes.  For my father's generation, whitewall tires were sign that you had made it.  Only poor people had blackwall tires.  Thus, my father always insisted on having whitewall tires on his car, even as they fell from favor in the mid-to-late 1970s.

But another trend started to arrive about the same time that whitewall tires fell from grace.  Raised white letter tires or "RWL" with the name of the tire company emblazoned on the side of the tire, became popular.  Why would this become a thing?  It started in racing, as so many automotive trends do, based on marketing, not performance.

Tire manufacturers wanted their names emblazoned on the side of race car tires so that when viewers watched the races they would see the manufacturer's name slowly spinning around as the race car approached or left pit row.  This raised the level of awareness of the brand names such as Firestone and in particular, Goodyear.

Young men across the country like to ape the characteristics of performance cars and race cars in their own more plebeian rides.  Thus, in a monkey see - monkey do fashion, they would see tires with raised white letters on race cars on television and then decide they would be a nice addition to Dad's old Oldsmobile they had inherited.

Thus, raised white letters became a thing.  They were seen as an indication that the buyer was sophisticated and performance-oriented and moreover, had spent the money on expensive performance tires as evidenced by the raised white letters.  Of course, raised white letters do nothing to enhance or detract from the performance of a tire.  They are merely add a moderate amount of increased cost to the tire, and have a free advertisement for the tire manufacturer on the sidewall.

(It should be noted that for a brief period in the late 1960's, "redline" tires were a thing - serious performance tires were marked with a thin red line on the sidewalls.  However, it never took off as a mainstream trend.  In recent years, some luxury car tires have been marketed with gold bands on them, but this seems to be limited to the urban markets).

The raised white letter tire lead to the outlined white letter or "OWL" tire which gave the tire company greater real estate to advertise their name and logo.   Since the lettering was larger, it was more prone to wearing off if you rubbed up against a curb, which often exposed an entire layer of white beneath the white lettering of a time.   In fact, one fellow on YouTube has shown how to "make" whitewall tires by scrubbing off the outer black layer from OWL or RWL tires, although it probably is not recommended by the tire companies.
Oddly enough, by the 1990s blackwall tires were making a comeback.  Many manufacturers, critically low cost Japanese manufacturers, were putting blackwall tires on their cars in a bid to save money and offer lower prices.  Also, and a nod again to racing heritage, blackwall tires were seen as more "serious" tires than raised white letter tires which were viewed as something more and more shod on such gaudy pretentious vehicles as a '79 Trans Am or the like.

Suddenly, just as whitewalls marked my Dad as an aging lamer, raised white letter tires marked you as a pretentious wannabe racer. The new wave of German performance sedans from Mercedes and BMW came shod with oh-so-serious blackwalls.  Only idiots and lamers had whitewalls or RWL tires!

The common denominator, course is status and marketing.  Whitewall tires were sold during my Dad's heyday as a means of distinguishing one owner from another as being from different social classes or having different status levels.  If you had the money, you bought whitewalls or the "deluxe" model which came with them.  Poor folks had to make do with blackwalls.  The raised white letter and outlined white letter tires were designed to enhance the status of the owner by marking them appears to be serious performance drivers.  Coming full circle, the blackwall tire is now seen as the serious tire for performance or luxury car drivers, with whitewalls and RWL or OWL tires being seen as redneck accessories or limited for use on pickup trucks.

Of course, the problem with blackwall tires is no one can see the brand name of them, and moreover there is little difference in appearance between performance tires and basic economy tires for mom's old grocery-getter shitbox.  Tire manufacturers will have to come up with some new way of distinguishing their tires.

And in a way, they already have.  Many manufacturers are resorting to using various forms of rippling and patterning on the sidewalls of their tires to create visual effects distinguishing them from other tires and to make logos more visible.  Even as blackwalls predominate, the manufacturers come up with new ways to market status.

Perhaps down the road we will see this come full-circle, as tire manufacturers once again try to distinguish their brand from others and offer different levels of marketing to different consumers. Again, tires can be made in almost any color of the rainbow, so it doesn't seem that the tire manufacturers have fully exhausted their options yet.

Perhaps in the near future we will see the resurgence of interest in colored tires or at least tires with colored stripes or inserts.  Of course the problem with this approach is that one color of tire may clash with the color of the vehicle body and thus a manufacturer would have to offer an array of colors, which would create inventory problems.  And maybe right there is why the colored tire never took off.   Basic black does go with everything!

The point is, and I did have one, this is yet another prime example of how we are marketed to and asked to pay more for a product, merely for appearance's sake.  Most of us, other than antique car or hot-rod enthusiasts, never cared much about what color our sidewalls were or whether they said things on them.  And yet, the majority of us paid extra for whitewalls back in the day without really understanding why we were doing it.

We bought "whitewalls" in the 1940's through the 1960's because we were sold on the idea they were upscale.   We bought RWL or OWL tires for the same reason in the subsequent decades.   Blackwalls came back into fashion in recent years as "seriousness" and "quality" became selling points for cars.  In an era where gas was rationed and cars fell apart the day after warranty, people started to look at quality as indicia of status.  You wanted to look smart by buying a Camry or Volvo - only a doofus would buy some lame American car with whitewalls or RWL tires.  Seriousness was the new status in a more serious world.

So maybe colored tires or whitewalls won't make a comeback - unless somehow they can be marketed as upscale, serious, sporty, intimidating, or imbued with some other status hook.