The Swinging Sixties: A Rainbow of Wheels and Technicolor Tyres

James Kraus

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1967 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396 with Marina Blue metallic body-colour wheels and F70-14 special nylon Red Stripe Firestone Super Sports Wide Oval tyres

The majority of today’s cars today come equipped with black tyres surrounding wheels (or wheel covers) of silver, grey or black. This was not always the case; brightly coloured wheels were a common automotive styling fillip beginning with the 1886 Benz Patent-Motorwagen.  

Early cars featured colourful painted wheels with white (natural rubber) tyres. When it was found that the addition of carbon black to natural rubber greatly increased traction and durability, the tread and eventually the entire carcass of the tyre became black, with inserts of white available at additional cost.

After WW2, wheels of a contrasting or complementary colour became less common and were most often finished either in a body-matching or neutral colour, while Mercedes-Benz and Rolls-Royce fitted large bright-metal wheel covers with body-coloured inserts. By the 1950s, a number of manufacturers offered wheel covers with white or red painted accents, regardless of body colour.

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1958 Buick Roadmaster in Laurel Mist metallic with optional Seminole Red wheels

Some makes, including GM, Saab and Studebaker, offered red or orange painted wheels to add a dash of flash. On GM and Studebaker models the effect was more subtle as these were usually fitted with full wheel covers that only left a tiny circle of colour visible at the very edge of the rim.

By the mid-1960s, American manufactures settled almost exclusively on body-coloured wheels, while in Europe, most cars were delivered with neutral-colour wheels, usually white, ivory, grey or silver. Wheels were fitted with blackwall or whitewall tyres, with the white section growing narrower as the decade progressed.

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Porsche 911 Carrera 2.7 RS with Mexico Blue wheels

Coloured wheels and wheel covers survived into the 1970s, bolstered by the colourful forged aluminium wheels of the Porsche Carrera RS, the gold-finished wheels of the Lamborghini Miura S and a variety of body-coloured styled-steel wheels in the U.S.

There remains however only a single decade where one could have colourful wheels, colour-accented tyres and sometimes both: the 1960s.

Let’s have a look:

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1961 Cadillac Coupe de Ville with Fontana Rose metallic body-colour wheel covers. This was the final year the Big 3 U.S. manufacturers would use wide whitewalls that reached to the edge of the wheel rim.

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Jaguar XK-150 with body-colour British Racing Green wire wheels

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1961 VW 1200. Early in the decade, VW wheels were painted in two colours; the centre complementing the exterior paint and the rim coordinating with the interior upholstery. The wheels of this Turquoise VW with Ice Blue interior are finished in Sea Green and Turquoise White.

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1962 Cadillac Sedan de Ville with body-colour Newport Blue wheel covers. Here is the newer-style narrower whitewall that (with a few exceptions) would see out the decade.

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1963 Chrysler Turbine Car with body-colour Turbine Bronze wheel covers.

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Mercedes-Benz 230 SL with body-colour Blue Metallic wheels and wheel covers. If a Mercedes was equipped with a contrasting-colour roof or hardtop, the wheels would remain body-colour, but the wheel covers would be finished to match the colour of the top.

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1964 Imperial Crown with body-colour Royal Ruby metallic wheel cover centres

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1965 Chevrolet Chevelle Super Sport with Gold Stripe tyres. Gold accented tyres were introduced by Chevrolet as an option for the 1965 Corvette. A few months later they were also included in the Z16 396 package for the Chevelle Super Sport. Firestone was the sole supplier of the 14″ Chevelle tyres while the larger Corvette 15″ wheels came wrapped in either Firestone Super Sports or Goodyear Power Cushions.

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1965 Plymouth Barracuda Formula S with Goodyear Blue Streak blue stripe tyres.

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1966 Pontiac GTO with Red Line tyres and optional matching red polyethylene wheelhouse inserts. The first Red Line tyre was the U.S. Royal SS-800 Red Streak developed for the 1964 GTO.

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1966 Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray with Gold Stripe tyres on optional cast aluminium centre-lock wheels

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Jaguar 420 with body-colour Imperial Maroon wheels

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1968 Plymouth Road Runner with body-colour Matador Red wheels and Red Line tyres.

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Mercedes-Benz 280 SL with body-colour Moss Green metallic wheel covers. This new style one-piece wheel disc debuted on 1968 models and was the final iteration of the classic Mercedes-Benz painted wheel cover. The traditional M-B design rule still applied: cars with a contrasting roof or removable hardtop would receive wheel discs painted to match the top unless a customer specified otherwise.

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1969 Triumph TR6 with Michelin Red Line tyres.

Gold stripe tyres were offered only for 1965 and 1966, the Goodyear blue-stripe Blue Streak was discontinued after the 1967 model run, and 1969 would mark the final year for red line tyres throughout the U.S. industry. As the 1960s receded into history, so for the most part did coloured sidewall tyres.

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Red line tyres were occasionally the subject of Swiss artist Peter Stampfli. This is SS 396 N° 1. Oil on canvas, 1967

A notable holdout was Triumph. They began fitting Goodyear G-800 and Michelin ZX red line tyres to North American-bound TR6s just a few months before American manufacturers phased them out, and continued using them until the venerable TR-Series roadster was discontinued in 1976.

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