The history of the car tyre

13th, January 2016

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 They say that, alongside fire, the wheel was one of man’s greatest inventions. Yet since the days of horse-drawn carriages, the basic structure of the wheel has been improved upon by the invention, and development, of tyres. Tyres were deemed necessary to improve the longevity of wheels and road surfaces, make journeys more comfortable and reduce the amount of noise caused by contact between the metallic wheels and the ground. The names that are today synonymous with tyre manufacturers – Dunlop, Goodyear, Michelin and the like – are among the oldest in the history of tyre development, alongside other, less commonlyknown names such as Robert William Thompson and Phillip Strauss. Each man was responsible for coming up with novel materials and/or designs for tyre production that have each stood the test of time. The iron bands that traditionally wrapped around wooden cartwheels were noisy, damaged road surfaces and made for jolly, bouncy rides. The discovery that rubber could be mixed successfully with sulphur to make a product that was not brittle in the cold and not sticky in the heat was a revolutionary moment (if you will excuse the pun) in the history of the tyre. That discovery was down to Robert William Thompson, who successfully patented his ‘vulcanised tyres’ back in 1845. But rubber was expensive and so, in 1888, John Dunlop patented a cheaper and more efficient alternative – the pneumatic (air-filled) tyre, although his patent related to tyres intended for use on bicycles. (Incidentally, Robert William Thompson later successfully challenged that patent). The pneumatic tyre contained several thin tubes inside a cover made from leather, making punctures less likely, since each tube was self-contained. It was the Michelin brothers who adapted that design to apply to car tyres and they were at the forefront of the development of radial tyres in the 1940s. This new type of tyre was steel-belted and had plied cord to reinforce the tyre, making it stronger and more able to retain its shape, and greatly boosting the fuel efficiency of the vehicle. Over time, synthetic alternatives have been found and developed to replace or supplement the traditional, natural rubber used in the early tyres. The pneumatic tyre design was found to be rather flawed in that the separate inner tube could burst quite dramatically, if the tyre was incorrectly fitted, had incorrect air pressure or suffered a significant puncture. An alternative design, the tubeless tyre, has been around since the 1920s, though those early patented designs became obsolete. The person credited with the design of the modern version of the tubeless tyre is Franz Herzegh of BF Goodrich, who received a patent in 1952. Tubeless tyres are now the standard design for vehicles and are considered safer than their predecessors because if they are punctured, air escapes gently, ensuring that control of the vehicle can be maintained. Now that the basic design of the tyre has been well-established, car manufacturers can play around a little with the aesthetics. Low-profile tyres are popular because, although they provide less cushioning (and some would say give a less smooth ride), their shorter sidewalls are considered sleek and stylish and they boost the value of the cars accordingly – in much the same way as alloy wheels do. Other tyres are developed with specific markets in mind, such as 4x4 tyres with deep tread for better traction in off-road conditions and tyres with tread patterns designed to help high performance cars perform well in all weather conditions. Tyres have certainly come a long way since the days of solid rubber.


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