Anyone interested in the history of pneumatic tyres lands not in the Stone Age with the invention of the wheel but in the late 19th century in the Irish capital of Belfast: a Scot living there who was a veterinarian by profession secured himself a permanent place in the history of tyres around 1888. We are talking here about John Boyd Dunlop (1841 – 1921). He succeeded in making the decisive breakthrough in the development and marketing of the inflatable rubber tyre, which consisted of a rubber tube with a football valve and linen stretched over them. He received a patent for it the same year. Although it was tested initially on bicycles, it was only a question of time before it established itself on the car market.
To be fair, it should be mentioned at this point that John Boyd Dunlop was not the first man on the tyre moon. It could be said that he was in fact just lucky to be born when he was: the Scot Robert William Thomson already invented the pneumatic tyre in 1845. It consisted of one or more canvas tubes that were impregnated with rubber and a leather cover. It was his bad luck that this invention was simply far ahead of its time, because not even bicycles existed then that might have needed pneumatic tyres. A small consolation: some vehicles later ran on Thomson tyres too, some of which had several air chambers (tubes) and were to some extent the predecessors of quite a few puncture-proof tyre designs.
Seven years after John Boyd Dunlop’s patent was granted, i.e. in 1895, pneumatic tyres were tested in a long-distance trial. The brothers André and Edouard Michelin opted for these inflated tyres and used them during the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris car race. They took part in this race in a Peugeot car called “Eclair” (lightning). The tyres didn’t given them any major advantage, however, because they failed to finish the race in first place; on the contrary, they only just managed to finish at all: they had to cope with 50 punctures and 22 tyre changes, some of which were laborious affairs. The winner, Emil Layassor, had nothing but a mischievous smile for them: his car had solid rubber tyres.
Although this may possibly have been a serious defeat for the Michelin brothers personally, tyre development continued unabated. And how: this is when things really started to take off. Only three years later, the first cars with inflated tyres were available directly from the factory. Continental added the first car tyres to its product range in 1899 too. Price: 269 Marks, useful life: 500 kilometres.
The Belgian Camille Jenatzy broke what was at the time the incredible speed limit of 100 kilometres per hour in the same year with an electric vehicle and special pneumatic tyres from Michelin. Normally, one thought one was going really fast at only 20 kilometres per hour, because the top speed at the time was generally 15 km/h.
Tyre design changed around 1904: their tread became more distinctive, but their appearance became less colourful. Cross tread made a successful start. The strength of the rubber, which was in the final analysis responsible for a longer useful life, was increased by adding soot, something that is still done today. Whereas they originally tended to be yellowy-white, the pneumatic tyres on the road were now black.
There were, however, other important stages in the development of increasingly sophisticated tyres: they took to the sky in 1915, when Pirelli produced the first pneumatic tyres for aircraft. Two years later, Goodyear manufactured the first pneumatic lorry tyres and Bayer made synthetic rubber for the first time, which was a tremendous step forward for the tyre industry. Another crucial change was made to pneumatic tyres in 1922: at the International Car Exhibition (IAA), Dunlop presented the first car tyre with steel wire in the bead so that it sat more securely on the rim – this has been standard in production since 1924.
A leap ahead to 1943: one patent followed the next in quick succession. Continental was granted one for the tubeless tyre – a standard feature nowadays – while Michelin received one three years later for the steel belted tyre.
Two letters created a stir in the tyre world in 1950: M+S. Although the first mud + snow tyres had very chunky tread and were loud, they performed better than other tyres in wintry road conditions.
Goodyear did not present the first genuine all-year tyre in Germany until 30 years later. For the people who never bought winter tyres, this tyre was a solution that was perfectly sensible and suitable for all weather conditions. Like its successors, it was identified by the M+S letters on the sidewall of the tyre.