Full Circle – A Brief History of Tyres

From solid to pneumatic, from bikes to motor vehicles, wheels and tyres are like so many other vehicle components: we take them for granted. Most of us are accustomed to the regular replacement of our car’s tyres, which eventually wear out. It’s easy to forget how different it was just a few decades ago, before innovations like radial tyres, long-life tread and run flats.

But what were tyres like at the dawn of the automobile?

Whether made of stone, wood, metal, or some combination, the wheel has been around for thousands of years.

1838: After decades of experimentation, Charles Goodyear perfects vulcanised rubber.

1846: Robert Thompson promises to revolutionise automobile transport with his latest invention, the pneumatic car tyre. The breakthrough is undermined by one tiny obstacle: no no one has yet invented the car.

1904: Mountable rims are introduced to cars (now invented), allowing motorists, for the first time, to change flat tyres on the move. After several unfortunate incidents, manufacturers are forced to clarify that by “on the move,” they mean “without returning to a garage,” rather than “literally while the car is still rolling”.

1908: Frank Seiberling introduces the first treaded tyres, with grooves in the surface to disperse standing water. These grooves remain in fashion until the early 21st century.Several manufacturers of high-performance hot hatches, however, decide to do away with them in the name of a) marginally improved warm-weather lap times and b) enormous crashes on the public road at the first sign of moisture.

1983: The Austin Metro (Super mini-car) becomes the first production car to receive run-flat tyres as standard. Despite their obvious safety advantages, the new tyres receive little public acclaim, on account of a) slightly decreased ride comfort and b) being fitted to the Austin Metro.

2004: The Bugatti Veyron arrives, wearing the world’s most expensive set of production tyres. Developed to withstand 400kmph-plus motoring, the tyres cost US$8,200 apiece (if you buy them direct from Michelin).

2005: Michelin introduces the airless Tweel tyre, a hub connected to the wheel rim via flexible polyurethane spokes (designed to absorb impact). The failure of the Tweel to reach mass production in the subsequent decade is rumored to be due to the nefarious influence of ‘Big Air’.

2007: The use of tyre pressure monitoring systems becomes widespread. Motorists are immediately impressed by the ability of the new technology to sound an alarm in the cabin, warning the driver of a fault with the tyre pressure monitoring system.

2016: Dubai-based firm Z Tyres creates a set of ‘luxury tyres,’ incorporating 24-carat gold and diamonds. The set sells for US$600k at an auction, to an anonymous millionaire who must enjoy burning money.

As we continue to move toward the eventuality of the autonomous car, what does this mean for the modern tyre? If the occupants are no longer driving, they will likely be even less interested in changing a flat, so expect to see run flats increase in their share of the market. However, tyres as we know them are not going anywhere just yet and new tread technologies will likely mean incremental improvements.

In the meantime, we are in the fortunate position of being able to supply you with tyres which are state-of-the-art, giving us performance, comfort, and safety that the early Goodyear, Dunlop, and Michelin could never have imagined!