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Changing Ideals: Why There May Never Be a Perfect Tire

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When I was working in public relations for a major tire company back in the early 1970s, an older scientist with an impeccable track record told me it was sad that he now had to spend his days working on the radial ply tire. When I asked why, he said, “Because we were just beginning to understand the bias-ply tire – what makes it work well and how we could improve it.”

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Although he was excited about his new assignment, the lines in his face gave away the years he had spent improving the bias ply tire. To some extent, the bias ply tire was the perfect tire for its time. But is there really such a thing as the perfect tire?

How about the two- and four-ply polys that came OE on very fast performance cars of the early 1960s? What about the belted tires in the 1960s and early 1970s? Some of those tires were constructed with as many body plies that existed back then, including rayon and fiberglass belts. Was that the perfect tire? No, but it sure seemed like it at the time.

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Then came the radial tire, which Europe had been touting since 1948. Was it the perfect tire? No, but it sure seemed like it to the Europeans.

As radial tire technology found its way into the research and development labs in our country, it was immediately recognized that those were the tires of the future.

American-built autos fitted with 2-ply or 4-ply polys might hold up for 9,000 to 10,000 miles back in the 1960s, and that’s a generous number. At the same time, a radial ply tire was capable of a tire life of 40,000 to 50,000 miles. As R&D efforts picked up, that range extended. In 2008, many companies offered radials with tread life warranties up to 80,000 miles, and at least one offers a 100,000-mile warranty.

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It took the American tire industry a long time to catch up to the Europeans, but the wait was worth it. We were in the middle of a horse race in the mid-20th century and we are in the thick of a global race today. Continuous improvement is what compounders and engineers and designers call it.

The first state-of-the-art tire cord I remember was made of cotton and often the stately, large cars to which these tires were fitted carried a pair of spares. The vehicle owner felt fortunate to log between 500 and 900 miles before turning to the spares. It was the perfect tire for the early 1900s. Cotton became nylon and rayon after WWII. Later, we would see the introduction of polyester tires, then a big breakthrough. And later we added belted bias tires with a fiberglass belt.

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With every tiremaker in the world making claims for their particular radial ply entry, beleaguered and confused consumers began to think of fiberglass belted tires as delicate and every bit as breakable as fine crystal. For their part, competitive fiber makers cranked out as much propaganda as possible blasting fiberglass, making consumers all the more wary.

The next step was relatively easy. Domestic tiremakers turned from fiberglass to steel cord, which fit the driving public’s comfort zone to a T. Even though they had been driving on fiberglass belted tires for years, steel became the cord of choice.
For the times, one could easily say any of those were the perfect tires.

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Testing Perfection
After the first American car had been introduced, the Winton in the late 19th century, the American and worldwide tire industry probably introduced thousands of perfect tires. Keep in mind that at the time, more than 300 U.S. tire companies were introducing tires as fast as they could turn them out. Some were good, some were terrible. No matter, the quest for the perfect tire was alive and PR machines were never busier.

There was a braking test held by a major tire company. A technician with a flare gun stood at the far end of a very long, straight track. We couldn’t see him because we were at the start line. A professional driver put the accelerator to the floor and headed for the man at the end of the track.

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Unfortunately, the city in which the test was being conducted was under a severe drought condition and the flare gun was no help. The sound of fire truck sirens drowned out anything the manufacturer wanted to say to us. Still, the braking demonstration made its point.

Then there was a run-flat tire test at a track in Texas. A shotgun was rigged to shoot out the tire from under the car, but somebody got it wrong. Members of the press were peppered by stray buckshot while the tire took the bulk of the load. But it didn’t go flat.

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While embarrassing to the company, the race was now on for a run-flat tire. From faulty run-flat fits and starts to self-sealing tires, it took us a quarter century to finally get it right. Nobody gave up, and now we have tremendous run-flat products. Problem is, consumers aren’t as interested in them as we thought, though low-wearing run-flats might be considered the perfect tire.

Evolving Technology
At Michelin North America, Nicholas Goubert, category head for all-season tires, is proud of his new baby: the Michelin Pilot Sport A/S Plus, an all-season, Z-rated tire with a 45,000-mile warranty. Why is his project so important? “Because we have a Z-rated all-season entry with great grip, allowing us to begin to break the cycle of compromise between one tire performance characteristic for the other. We are on an endless quest to produce a tire that can be driven in the wet, the dry and everything in between at high speeds.”

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Compared to the previous Pilot Sport, Goubert said more handling has been dialed into the tire, as well as traction in the snow. Is this a winter tire? No. But it appears to be a good marriage of all-weather traction, long wear and high speed capability, once wholly divergent characteristics.

Another exciting aspect of the Michelin Pilot A/S is the fact that it has three compounds in the tread. The inboard segment is designed for snow and wet, the middle for wet and the outside shoulder is compounded for dry conditions.

As the great, great grandchild of the Goodyear Tiempo from the 1970s and early 1980s, and later the Arriva radial, both all-season tires, the new Assurance features a dual-zone tread design with a 65,000-mile warranty. A newer Eagle F1 Z-rated all-season is Goodyear’s newest entry. The company says this new UHP tire allows owners of sports cars to drive their cars deeper into the winter season, or perhaps all winter long.

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This tire also has carbon fiber-reinforced sidewalls to help keep the shoulders on the road for crisp responsiveness and maneuverability.

How long will the battle continue? Goubert says if he were to live 100 more years, the fight will continue to be about wet traction.

The race for the “perfect tire” will continue as long as vehicles need tires. Until then every new tire will seem like a perfect tire, only to be replaced with a new perfect tire with even more technology. And so it goes.

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