The sporting tyre makers

Michelin : Sport reinforces a most influential name in the tyre war

“Michelin score first GP victory” said the covers of both sporting weekly papers on the Thursday after Reutemann’s Brazilian GP victory. A few days later, I was the small puzzled figure outside Michelin’s London HQ attracting the occasional hard stare from passing pedestrians as I strove to equate that wording with the pictures and words on that unusual building’s tiles. The exterior examples of Edwardian taste showed a Mercedes pounding through the countryside, and promised me that this was the Grand Prix Dieppe le L’ACF 1908, and that the spectacular combination of man and machine was Lautenschlager sur Mercedes. Passing similarly attractive tiles recording the 1907 Coupe des Voiturettes and the Paris-Vienne event of 1902, I sot down in the main reception area of 81 Fulham Road, London, SW3. Tiles abounded here (I am sure somebody must offer such nostalgia in some form) and I noted that the earliest covered Marseille-Nice 1896 Break de Dion. Motorcycles are depicted as well as cars, though my personal favourite was a dramatic large red Fiat which, I was promised, was Nazzaro participating in the GP Dieppe 1907.

My hosts for theday were Ray Dowell from the company’s technical division and press relations manager Christopher Rogers. They confirmed the suspicion W.B. planted in my mind: the weeklies were talking about a modern GP first. In fact Michelin won their and the World’s first GP-titled event on the Sarthe circuit in 1906, that victory taken appropriately by a Renault.

All the recent press comment about the company has been stirred up by their sporting activities. For years and some sources reckon Ferrari first tried Michelin covers in public at the 1969 Monaco GP – Michelin have been coming back into the competition World. Coming back? Yes, after that initial 1906 win, the company not only dominated GP racing, but also road races and many other Major sporting events for cars and motorcycles. According to research completed in Britain Michelin withdrew from minor sporting events in 1912.

How Michelin slogged back to their present position as winners in rallying (first three on this year’s snowy Monte Carlo, the same weekend as the Brazilian victory), Grand Prix, and in the bitterly competitive world of top line motorcycle racing, is a story worth telling on its own, a credit to Monsieur Dupasquier and the competition team at Clermont Ferrand. Before moving onto a more general picture of Michelin it is worth recording that Michelin competition tyres are available in Britain. On the motorcycle side there is a proper service team and a good stock position in Britain, but on the car side Michelin men not literally! say they were let down badly by one of the scruffier production saloon car racing outfits last year, and are rather disillusioned about the prospects of providing any kind of service in Britain. A few car customers (especially those with older competition Ferraris) rare catered for, but prices are high and one gets the feeling that it will be a long time before customer competition covers are freely available here, if at all.

Currently Michelin are the second biggest producers of tyres in the World. They passed Firestone for that second place in 1976, biggest being based upon tyre output. Goodyear are still comfortably larger, but Michelin have reached that size and demanded respect in the industry for the sheer technical ability they can muster, even rivals acknowledging freely how high the standards are. As Michelin grows ever larger, and they now have four factories planned (two in full production) within the USA, it remains to be seen how rivals then feel about this giant, secretive, family business which employs over 130,000 all over the World.

The origins of Michelin actually have a British flavour. During the 1830s one Elizabeth Pugh Parker married Edouard Daubree. She brought with her not only an interesting lineage, for she was the niece of Charles Mackintosh who discovered the secret of dissolving rubber in benzine, but also had the idea of making rubber balls for her children. Her husband’s cousin already had a small agricultural business at Clermont Ferrand, and it was in that small town that they established, in 1863, the Michelin company, rubber products manufacturer. Today, I was told, the business is strictly tyres(through a range of over 1,500 types!) though the parent company base is still Clermont Ferrand.

That cousin, Aristide Barbier, was the grandfather of the two tyre pioneers, Edouard and Andre Michelin. They developed a detachable pneumatic cycle tyre in 1891 and a pneumatic car tyre in another four years. Even in 1895, I was told, a Michelin cover could cope with a car travelling at 60 m.p.h.and could be expected to last 3,000 miles. I find those figures astonishing.

Other Michelin milestones included their first truck tyres in 1912, the low pressure tyre of 1932 and the truly revolutionary X design for 1948. This last, a radial ply cover which, with the use of steel bracing, were to become the influential features on road tyre design throughout the World. Of course the progress of the X was not apparent as an historic trail blazer all the World Over, straight away. In Britain particularly, the predictable breakaway characteristics of either fabric radials or some of the excellent Avon crossplies often received kinder press and public comment in the enthusiast sector. For the mass production it was rite break-through, offering qualities of sheer roadholding and wear that, with refinement over the years, has produced new tyre standards in the 30 years that have passed since the X. The important point is that Michelin have never surrendered their technical ability to lead, and deliver a tyre at a competitive price to the public. That initiative is still evident today, resulting in what is described as “market domination in Europe in the car and truck market. In Britain we hold about 30% of the car tyre market, usually fighting for leadership with Dunlop and Goodyear,” said Mr. Rogers. It was Significant that neither of my hosts could think of a European marque that does not take Michelin tyres as at least part of its original equipment tyre needs… I am sure our readers will come up with a name.

Ray Dowell, an experienced automotive engineer who has worked for Austin at Longbridge and Smiths Instruments, confirmed that much of Michelin’s success is drawn from high standards of quality control an unusually high percentage of employees are devoted to such tasks) and testing. The heart of such practical research is Ladoux, a 1,000-acre site with a complete research and development complex attached. It lacks the glamour of the newer Pirelli track, but the testing that goes on there is a revelation. I saw film of everything from a BMW motorcycle on a test pad, to a single-seater Formula France racing car and monster construction site machines pounding around. Some of the heavier trucks are obviously endurance testing with a vengeance, the drivers holding them in beautiful power slides! Where one finds drivers capable of flinging huge Chevrolet Impalas around wet cobbles, spinning gaily and analysing what needs to be done, is beyond me.

The British Michelin company was registered as a company name on May 11th 1905. Tyres were imported from France at the turn of the century, though, a practice continued until 1927, when the Stoke on Trent factory was opened. Now there are over 15,000 employees in Britain and six factories, including sites in Ulster and Scotland. Apart from a French managing director the staffing here is predominantly British, but it is worth noting that all the employees are expected to be very flexible about the work they do. Ray Dowell laconically noted, “if you work for Michelin, you have to be able to lit a tyre, whoever you are!” This double job approach is characteristic of the company, as is the technical secrecy, though in recent years much more information has been forthcoming from the company. Many car manufacturers have been taken aback by Michelin representatives almost telling them how they should be designing their cars, but many more find it worth listening, and that is how an advance like the TRX became possible.

British range

Though the word revolutionary may be fairly applied to some of Michelin’s wares, studying the lists of tyres offered in this country shows that old designs never die, they just become restricted in their sizings!

Illustrating this point well is the fact that the Michelin X is still sold, but only in 15 in. diameter. Looking its old skeletal self beside today’s fatter offeringsit lacks an official speed rating, but in practice it is Suitable for use up to the SR limit of 113 m.p.h.

The best selling tyres are those evolutionary brothers, the ZX and XZX, both rated SR. The ZX was the tyre that has largely superseded the X, and is now itself being gradually overtaken by the XZX. Introduced in 1968 the ZX has a slightly simpler tread pattern than the 1977 XZX. In the author’s experience the later XZX does offer better standards of wet weather grip, the by-product of two deeper longitudinal channels replacing the ZX triple channel pattern. There are considerable detail tread pattern differences’ toward the shoulder as well, the newer tyre’s rather more complex drainage said to offer a quieter and more conmartable ride, though this would be hard for most drivers to detect and I have certainly never tried a “before and after” test.

Another pair of evolutionary brothers are the 1965-designed NAS and the early seventies arrival, the XVS. Both have asymmemc tread patterns which is why it is so important to lit them the right way round a construction continued for the internal plies. As is with the ZX -and XZX you can freely mix these two tyres, but the differences in performances are harder to discern. Again the later product XVS has more attention paid to water drainage, particularly upon its inner shoulder, and it also offers a slightly flatter tread crown to the road. Both tyres are rated HR up to 130 m.p.h. but the XAS is currently offered in 10, 12. 13 and 15 in. diameters, while the XVS is restricted to a single swing in 13 in. diameter and better availability in 15 in. diameter. From personal experience we can say that these popular 14 in. sizes (used so widely on the Continent) can be very difficult to get at times. In general Michelin say they are faced with the problem of not making enough tyres, and it can be as well to pre-book a set of tyres if you are a particularly earnest business motorist who wants his car on the road constantly.

Where the role of the XAS and XVS is to provide a tyre that is a cut above the average, the next steps in the range are quite a lot more specialised. The, most recent, and useful, is a pattern called the XDX which is aimed straight at the motorist with a heavy high performance car. It has a VR rating and a recommended use up to 142 m.p.h., but what it does is to provide a more comfortable ride for people with cars capable of considerably higher speeds than these, but who never use that extra speed. It is well suited to the heavier high-performance saloons front Mercedes and BMW, but the real market in Britain is seen as the XJ Jaguars, though this can only be a replacement market as Jaguars all come on Dunlops. The XDX is sold in diameters from 13 in. to 15 in. inclusive.

Top of the speed and price range are the XWX covers at present, though it is obvious that the TRX has more potential. The XWX is it very conventional tyre, but capable of withstanding the most incredible punishment. The speed rating is simply over 130 m.p.h. (VR), but in Michelin terms it is designed to cope with the all out performance car customer. The pinnacles are the top supercars from Ferrari Boxer and Lamborglunt Countach, though current models are now offered on Pirellis PZ, though you are equally liable to find them int many other marques as well I think C.R. would confirm what I have discovered in hard wet practice: namely the XWX is not a forgiving tyre it seems to be a very tough tyre, but combined with a mid-engined “exoticar” it can provide only a knife edge on which to balance before spinning in the wet. This behaviour is only liable to be exhibited under test track conditions and can be partially blamed on car designers, but it provokes the thought that it will not be long before Michelin provide a more predictable, low profile, cover to the top of their car range.

Newest Michelin arrival in this country is the TRX, the TR part standing tor Tension Repartie or the even distribution of stress. Achieved by the combination of a wheel and tyre profiles, the TRX sets new standards for popular saloon cars in what is its only home for the British market, nestling under the wheelarches of the Ford Granada S. Here Michelin engineers caught Ford just at the stage when they were willing to juggle the suspension setting around to accommodate Michelin’s low profile newcomer. The result, in my opinion, and that of others who have driven the S. is a remarkable advance in road adhesion for the Granada, achieved without fuss of any kind.

The angle of the unique wheel rim provides what Ray Dowell refers to as “tangennal support stretching up the sidewall.” This feature, combined with the squat 65% profile (the ZX has an 82% profile), means the heavily channelled cover strongly reminiscent of their all-weather saloon car racing tyres stays unperturbed, virtually whatever hectic manoeuvres the driver is commanding from this bulky Ford.

Current plans for the TRX suggest that all covers will come without tubes. The only size is the unique 190/65 HR (up to 130 m.p.h.) 390 for the Ford: the company advise very strongly against trying to fit the tyres (assuming you could also get the Ford aluminium wheels) to any car but the current Granada. In the future we can expect to see the TRX concept taken to lower profiles, 55% at least. Compared to a 185-14 the TRX has a smaller outer diameter, but offers what they jokingly refer to as “Plus 1 1/2,” the figure referring to the extra tread width in inches, as well as their Pirelli rivals.

Development of the TRX traces back to an unknown point in the seventies. A party of four British journalists saw the cover for the first time in 1975, when it was shown on models from Peugeot and Mercedes. Taking into account that Pirelli have their wheel and tyre concept (the Plus 1 described in Motor Sport of January 1978) how long will it be before we see Dunlop and others going the same way? Incidentally the Michelin people I have talked to all scented to doubt that Michelin would market any kind of run-flat Denovo style tyre, though this idea shows how willing Dunlop are to get involved with wheel and tyre design as one entity.

Michelin naturally make cross country/rough weather tyres too. In fact there are three choices. The newest is a good compromise for normal road and winter driving, the asymmetric construction and pattern XRN. These tyres can he fitted to the driven wheels only, but, only a limited number of sizes were promised last year, so you may need to go to the older less compromising designs. These are R-rated (90 m.p.h. with studs in the monlded holes provided, 100 m.p.h. without) whereas the XRN is SR-rated. This must be very useful to Germans, Austrians, and the like, confronted with winter weather and the chance of running at continuous high speeds within the same journey.

The two R-rated Covers are the XM+S and the XM+S8. In 205/16 dimension , XM+S is best known as the tyre for the Range Rover, and this is the only size offered, so the other design is Michelin’s generally available “knobbly”, and I am told this is very effective. In fact I believe the British Trial and Rally Drivers Association (BTRDA) have said they will ban some of the Michelin knobblies. The reasoning is that they are not available in a wide enough range, so those that can use them have an unfair advantage!

Francois Michelin, the present leader tf this international French corporation, is widely regarded as a friendly figure amongst his employees, gaining the nickname Oncle Francois. As I said before it is unlikely that any business rival can afford to regard this successful enterprise with any trace of such sentiment, even that engendered by the cuddly Monsieur Bibendum emblem! – J.W.