What are you on?

This is, I imagine, a question heard frequently in betting-shops and on racecourses. Not being a betting man, I cannot confirm it. This may sound prudish but the fact is that at Brooklands I was too occupied with the racing, and too broke, to bet, although bookmakers were in abundance, later supplemented by a Tote. So, apart from the Derby-day sixpence on a horse picked with a pin, in my mother’s time, betting has not been one of my habits, except at the very first Goodwood car-race meeting, when you could hardly help winning on every race, unless ‘your’ car retired, and the bookies had no idea of what odds to offer. Thus the initial half-crown was easily turned into profit.

However, the title of this outpouring concerns the tyres you equip your cars with. In those halcyon days of my youth, at Motor Show time, the weekly motor journals became greatly enlarged 6d special issues and not only were the cars fully described and illustrated, but sections were devoted to coachwork, accessories and tyres, (and where now are those easily-referred-to “Buyer’s Guides” of yore?). The choice of tyres was wide indeed in the days immediately after the First World War. Moreover, car owners were much concerned about which were the best, the most durable, tyres to buy. As for choice, taking just those available in 1919, we find Avon offering their square and Sunstone treads, Beldam a Vsteel-studded tyre, Dunlop their well-established Magnum and Cord covers, Clincher a plain tread similar to Avon’s and a cross-grooved offering.

Not to be out-done in this competitive market, Firestone (notable for many years of Indianapolis race monopoly) had come up with an allrubber tyre with a X-non-skid tread, Gofa had a steel-wire and rubber tread, Grimpstone guaranteed 4000 miles from its Hexagonal Sure Grip covers, which Goodyear countered with its Akron-made tyres with angled tread knobs. B F Goodrich went back to 1869 and had American factories employing 15,000 workers, Henley’s favoured a Zpatterned tread, while Hutchinson, well-known for a successful motorcycle-racing tyre, made a variety of plain to steel-studded covers and was pushing its 935 x 135 cover for heavy limousines. Col Kempshall’s idea was to use circular depressions in the tread, to suction tyre to road. Chas Mackintosh boasted of 100 years in india-rubber goods and made fibre as well as rubber tyres, Michelin, famous from the pioneer motor racing age, in 1919 had its Semelle tyre with a sort of M-pattern, but later adopted the well remembered zig-zag tread. Dominion made knobbly and chain-patterned covers, Midland its Hercules, Northcountry David Moseley a heavily-grooved tyre, Oyler’s Skew tyre had a fine reputation, but those familiar with racing at Brooklands, particularly pre-war, might well have preferred Palmer Cords.

Even now there was a choice left, to those post-Armistice motorists. The famous Clincher of the N British Rubber Co would have been popular, and Pirelli was becoming established. Rem gave a combination of steel studs with a rubber tread, S&C had branched out into tyres, after marketing detachable rims, Stelastic said its tyres were virtually unpuncturable, giving a 4500-mile guarantee, the Stepney Road Grip tyre had a chunky tread (who remembers the Stepney spare wheel?) and the Victor tyre was later to be the subject of controversial tests, and you could aid a weak cover by putting a Victor Vest inside it.

What a choice! And looming large, in that age before Dunlop re-invented the tubeless tyre in 1953, was the unpuncturable tyre, of which the double-tread Rapson was perhaps to be the best known, when inventor Lionel Rapson persuaded Parry Thomas to race on them at Brooklands and Sunbeam won the 1923 French GP on Rapsons. All very necessary, at a time of short tyre-life, when punctures and blow-outs were innumerable. As a boy I discovered how often a deflated tyre would call a halt, on the gritty roads of the 1920s. It was almost part of a day’s driving, if any sort of speed was indulged in, or a heavy load carried. I recall, too, how steel-studded tyres were frequently used on London taxis, which had the curious effect of assisting one rear wheel to revolve anticlockwise under braking, through the action of the differential. And some drivers sought to avoid skidding (“the dreaded sideslip”) by fitting steel-studded tyres diagonally. at the front on one side of the car, at the back on the opposite wheel.

Choice of tyres was usually uppermost in motorists’ minds. The letters pages of the motor papers had frequent recommendations but the overall picture these give is of how brief then was the life of tyres. Something between 3000 and 5000 miles seems to have been regarded as satisfactory. And a Birmingham doctor was complaining that new tyres were more difficult to obtain than in war-time, apparently because they were being sent abroad. Tyre mileage claims are as boring as fishermens’ stories. By 1925, though, beaded-edge tyres seem to have been lasting about as long as those on our faster modern cars. For example, the driver of a Morris Oxford claimed 11,000 to 15,700 miles from Dunlop Cords, with some thousands more to go. but one discarded at 13,500. The owner of a 15.9hp Humber got 14,000 miles out of 820 x 120 Dunlop Magnums, then 22,140 miles on low-pressure tyres: but he admitted the Humber was over-tyred and had Hartford shock-absorbers.

This reminded someone with a 1914 Calthorpe that its 650 x 65 Avon Sunstones managed 15,000 miles a set, with some tread left, an 11.5 hp Standard user said that a 710 x 90 Dunlop Clipper gave him 16,800 miles “with some tread in places”, a 38-cwt Daimler with an average tyre mileage of 17,000 was reported, but the “record” may have gone to the driver who claimed at least 30,000 miles “and a few thousand left” from four 620 x 120 Dunlop Cords, on his 13.9hp Standard: the fifth Dunlop then burst a sidewall — and he admitted his speedometer belt was “oftener off than on”. . . I will not bore you with more such stories, although at this period it does appear that even high-pressure b e tyres were equalling what we achieve now.

Back in 1925 some were mourning the passing of the old Dunlop Magnum, and Pirelli was proclaiming that its racing tyres, as used by Alfa Romeo to win the 1924 GP of Europe, were becoming popular for ordinary cars; they gave away a free inner-tube with each high-pressure racing cord tyre purchased. Straightsided tyres were ousting the beaded-edge kind and the Firestone, Michelin and Goodyear balloon tyres were being cautiously adopted by 1923, after considerations of their effect on steering, safety and so on — just the opposition four-wheel-brakes had had to overcome a few years earlier. The Chrysler 70 was the first car to use them.

Fast cars still had tyre problems. In Haynes’ latest Rolls-Royce history, Klaus-Josef Robfeldt says that at first the 6 1/2-litre Bentleys used to throw treads, until Goodrich tyres were fitted, which then became standard equipment for all Bentley models, and that tyre problems kept the Speed Six away from Le Mans until Dunlop could match the life of Goodrich — perhaps Bentley experts could comment?

But the problem remained. When I drove a 4 1/4-litre Bentley coupe as fast as I could from London to John O Groats in 1938, starting on sound covers, these were worn to the breaker-strips after those 700 miles. We had to go carefully down to India’s Glasgow depot to have a new set fitted, Bentley Motors insisting that I brought back with me the two worst-worn tyres. Not long afterwards I saw a trade announcement that in future Bentley Motors would fit exclusively Avon tyres — as they do today. I have ever since worried that my driving on this run may have been the straw that broke the India contract. All this was a long time ago, of course.

In pre-war days I could not afford new tyres and at times used my Rhode, Gwynne and Austin cars with the inner tubes actually peeping from the covers. Fortunately they were slow cars, and the police were then more concerned with the newly-introduced third-party insurance than with safety-glass and safe tyres. But if you were anxious to keep a date, it was important to steer round the more evil-looking stones in your path! Along the years came better and better tyres, the famous Michelin-X radial-ply steel-braced cover, an important innovation. Pirelli tried replaceable treads but if memory serves they detached themselves all too freely. If mileage from today’s tyres has not increased materially over that obtained 70 years ago, prices are about the same, allowing for the vastly-decreased value of currency. (In the early days a fast car such as a Sixty Mercedes could cost its owner £1000 a year in tyres).

With the advent of motorways came new aspects of safety, like the not-veryconvincing MOT test, and fresh ideas about tyres, with only the better re-moulds acceptable. Sensible, because who would want to be shunted by a coach or truck or even a car, out-of-control through a burst tyre? Although, of course, our M-way speedlimit is now the same as on miles of ordinary dual-carrieageway roads.

Scientists have now decided that tyres are more skid-proof with 0.6mm more tread than was formerly considered safe, which will exert a small rise in the overall cost of motoring, when replacement tyres are required.

The problem then, is which make do you choose? I find this very difficult. Dunlop are old friends and one vividly remembers the fine work they did at Brooklands, under the management of Norman Freeman and the extremely hard working “Dunlop Mac” and his team of tyre-fitters. Michelin make very fine tyres and have a competition record going back to before the beginning of the century. Avon is a British maker whose tyres are good enough for Rolls-Royce and Bentley and no stranger to racing, at levels below F1. Goodyear is now the tyre in F1. If you enthuse, as I do, over the dependability of the Ford Sierra XR4x4, it is worth remembering that the development work on the foolproof Ferguson 4WD system was undertaken on Uniroyal Rallye tyres. So how do you decide? It might be instructive to hear what influences readers in their choice of tyres.