“Did You Know?” The Evolution of the Tire

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The tire is a very necessary component which directly impacts the daily safety and performance of any vehicle on the road. In the early days, tires were bands of leather, then iron (later transitioning to steel), placed on wooden wheels, for carts or wagons. Skilled workers known as “Wheelwrights” would heat the tire in a forge, place it over the wheel and quench it, resulting in the metal contracting tightly around the wheel strengthening the finished product. Later on solid rubber tires became available but they provided a rough ride and were widely considered a high wear item.

The first pneumatic (or air filled) tire was made in 1888 by John Boyd Dunlop in an effort to prevent his son from having headaches as he rode his bicycle. In October of 1888 Dunlop filed for a patent. In 1892 Dunlop’s patent was denied, because it was discovered that years earlier, in 1845 the pneumatic tire concept was drawn and submitted by a Robert William Thomson. Coincidentally, the vulcanization of natural rubber was patented in 1844 by Charles Goodyear and by none other than Robert William Thomson. In spite of this setback, Dunlop is widely credited with realizing that rubber is an excellent compound that could withstand the wear and tear of being a tire while retaining its resilience.

Later Dunlop worked with Harvey du Cros and hired inventor Charles Kingston Welch and acquired many other rights and patents to protect his business interest. Later milestones in the tire evolution included the invention of synthetic rubber by Bayer laboratories in 1920 and the development of the radial tire method of construction my Michelin in 1946 (both inventions significantly improved performance and longevity while the later improved fuel economy). However, it wasn’t until 1968 when an influential American magazine (Consumer Reports) acknowledged the superiority of the radial construction over the bias-ply tire which set off a rapid decline in Michelin’s competitor technology. Radial tire construction now encompasses 100% of the U.S. market. Today, over 1 billion tires are produced annually in over 400 tire factories. In 2004, $80 billion of tires were sold vs. $140 billion in 2010 (a 34% growth rage adj. for inflation). In closing, the evolution of the tire has resulted in tremendously improving a vehicles safety, performance, and fuel economy over the last 100+ years.

It is virtually impossible to do an article on tires without mentioning these three helpful tips (so here it goes):

  • Remember to keep tires inflated at the tire manufacturers recommended rate,
  • Rotate & Balance tires every other change (or every oil change if synthetic oil is used),
  • Align tires as needed (noted when vehicle tends to veer on its own).

These preventative steps will go a long way to getting the maximum value from a tire purchase which translates into saving money.