Plate tectonics is largely controlled by the buoyancy distribution in oceanic lithosphere, which correlates well with the lithospheric age. Buoyancy also depends on compositional layering resulting from pressure release partial melting under mid-ocean ridges, and this process is sensitive to pressure and temperature conditions which vary strongly between the terrestrial planets and also during the secular cooling histories of the planets. In our modelling experiments we have applied a range of values for the gravitational acceleration (representing different terrestrial planets), potential temperatures (representing different times in the history of the planets), and surface temperatures in order to investigate under which conditions plate tectonics is a viable mechanism for the cooling of the terrestrial planets. In our models we include the effects of mantle temperature on the composition and density of melt products and the thickness of the lithosphere. Our results show that the onset time of negative buoyancy for oceanic lithosphere is reasonable (less than a few hundred million years) for potential temperatures below ∼ 1500 ° C for the Earth and ∼ 1450 ° C for Venus. In the reduced gravity field of Mars a much thicker stratification is produced and our model indicates that plate tectonics could only operate on reasonable time scales at a potential mantle temperature below about 1300-1400 °C.