In 1886, engine designer Carl Benz invented a one-cylinder, three-wheeled gasoline engine automobile. In 1888, John Boyd Dunlop, a Belgian veterinary surgeon, invented a pneumatic (air-filled) bicycle tire. Benz tried pneumatic tires on the spoke wheels of his car to absorb shocks and soften the ride. The innovation changed transportation forever.
Michelin Introduces the Removable Pneumatic Tire
The earliest versions of the pneumatic tire were glued to the rim and required several hours to remove for repairs or replacement. André and Édouard Michelin, operators of a French rubber factory, developed a removable version in 1891. The Michelins sparked wide demand for their tire when they drove on them in the 1895 Paris-to-Bordeaux auto race.
Goodyear’s Tubeless Auto Tire & Airplane Tire
The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was founded in 1898 by Frank Seiberling. The company would lead the industry in many tire innovations, such as the tubeless auto tire in 1903 and the first airplane tire in 1909.
Vulcanized rubber is made by heating rubber to transform its resinous raw form into the nearly rigid, yet pliant material needed to form a tire. Vulcanized rubber was used to make solid rubber tires, which were resistant to damage and had no tube to puncture. However, their rough ride was equally hard on road surfaces, and their favor ran out. But the material continues to prove valuable.
The First Tread Tire
Many new tire designs took shape at this time, including the first tread tire in 1905, featuring a thick tread block to protect the carcass. Most automobile tires of the era utilized an inner tube protected by an outer rubber casing containing plies of rubber fabric as reinforcement. These plies ran at perpendicular angles to the direction of the wheel’s rim. And this would last all the way until 1946, when Michelin introduced a radial tire reinforced by steel belts at a 90-degree angle to the wheel’s rim.
The Popularity of Radial Tires
The radial tire soon became the worldwide standard. That is, everywhere but America. The advantages of the radial tire include decreased rolling resistance for better gas mileage and longer tread life. But American motor companies resisted using the radial tire as original equipment because it would mean that they, American carmakers, would then have to radically redesign the suspension systems of their vehicles. It wasn’t until 1970 when Ford Motor Company produced its first American made vehicle and outfitted it with Michelin built radial tires on its Lincoln Continental Mark III.
The turning point came amid the 1973 - 1974 oil crisis, when Arab petroleum companies imposed an embargo against foreign trade. Oil rose from $3 per barrel to nearly $12, and gas prices leapt from 38 cents per gallon to 55 cents per gallon. Which may not seem like a big deal. But adjusting for today’s inflation, it means that a $20 tank of gas would have cost you about $106.
Modern Radial Tire Technology
These days, radial tire technology continues to evolve through research and design, improving upon tread patterns and discovering new compound blends. Tires must support up to 300 times their weight and perform in temperatures at both ends of the spectrum. So, finding the right compound to handle each dimension of driving is an ongoing science.
The chemicals used today include natural and synthetic elastomers, carbon black and silica for reinforcement, resins and oils to plasticize, plus metal and textile reinforcements such as wire, nylon, and polyester. Every company is constantly competing to push forward and create the best products possible.
In 2017, Goodyear presented a revolutionary new vision of what a future tire could look like. The Eagle 360, a concept tire for autonomous vehicles, is a sphere that would connect to its car by magnetic levitation. Sensors would monitor both road conditions and wear on the tread. In real time the spheres would then reposition as needed for optimal performance.
It’s exciting to imagine where tire engineering will go next.