Appropriately large tyres for many vintage cars were unavailable until an enthusiastic racer and a competition tyre expert formed Blockley Tyres, a firm with an unorthodox philosophy
There’s a theory that a specialist business shouldn’t be run by enthusiasts, because passion can over-ride business sense. ‘Not enough drive for profit’ is the usual cry. But here is a company solely staffed by enthusiasts which makes a virtue of saying “we’re not worried about profit”. So much so that when the start-up costs of one product are amortised, or worked off, the firm cuts the price!
The firm is Blockley Tyres, and it came into being purely to solve a problem for vintage car owners – the lack of availability of certain sizes of tyre. Ten years ago if you owned an 8-litre Bentley or an S Mercedes designed for huge narrow wheels you had to run it on the nearest thing you could get; probably a smaller wheel with too wide a rim, which compromised both ride and handling. And one man who had a supercharged Mercedes, not to mention a Maserati 26M and Alfa Romeo 308C, was Julian Majzub, familiar to historic race-goers here and abroad as a collector and rapid racer. He tried to interest the big tyre companies in making what he and others needed, even offering to pay for moulds, but got no serious response.
It was during a Goodwood Revival meeting that he noticed a car running period-looking 19in tyres he had never seen before, and met up with Derek Freathy, the man who brings the technical knowledge to Blockley. Freathy spent 20 years with Dunlop, becoming head of the motorsport division covering racing, rallying and motorcycles, and constantly attending race meetings before starting his own company, Concours, making high-quality inner tubes and rim tapes for classics as well as modern race covers. It was his first tyre that Julian saw at Goodwood; within days the two had formed a new company, intending to offer “a few special sizes”.
Six years on the range has grown to 16, with four more announced at RaceRetro and more to come.
What marks out the Blockley crossply is not just rare sizes (they now offer more common fittings too), but the combination of grip and handling with a convincing period triple-block look. “I was sure I could improve on the grip of existing classic tyres,” says Derek, “and my first try was a radical improvement.” It has a lot to do, he explains, with the interaction of rim width and sidewall. “A lot of modern covers for old cars are fitted to over-wide rims, which makes the tread concave, so you have to increase the pressure, which stiffens the sidewall and impairs ride and grip. With a narrower rim and a strong but flexible sidewall the contact patch stays constant, which gives very predictable handling.” The open tread means good wet-weather grip, too.
Performance is one of Blockley’s particular boasts. Julian and others have scored many major race wins on the tyres, which are FIA-approved, yet they maintain the aim was always to make a road tyre you could race on rather than racing rubber. “Predictability is what counts,” says Derek, “and these give plenty of warning and allow controllable slides, which is what a vintage chassis needs. An amateur can slide the car like a professional.” The one change for racing is a specific race inner tube, with a nut to hold the valve, sourced, naturally, from Derek’s Classico range.
Tread compounds, so crucial to modern low-profile tyres, are not nearly so significant on these tall profiles, so Blockley can claim long life for its rubber. “One owner of a 4½-litre Bentley went from 5000 miles to 15,000 when he changed,” says Derek. Not so good for replacement business, but Julian explains the ethos. “I do it because I want the product, and so do my friends, not for the profit.” It’s a philosophy big manufacturers can’t understand, he says, and while some rivals are now trying to match their prices, the quality, according to him, isn’t there. “Some people think because our tyres are cheaper that they can’t be any good,” Julian laments, “but the results say the opposite.”
And he should know. In a true case of the boss putting his money where his mouth is, it is Julian who funds the cost of a new mould, anything up to £30,000, and Julian (a qualified engineer as well as a quick driver) who does back-to-back tests on new products and gives feedback to Derek before production. High-speed rig tests at the moulding plant have earned US DoT rating, the only classic tyre to do so, and they have also successfully run tyres at Bonneville at way over the rated speeds. Both men seem unconcerned that it may take years to break even on something like the 700×21 for 8-litre Bentleys, or the 19in which they are developing for Julian’s 308C Alfa. In contrast, new post-war designs such as a 15in for Healeys and Porsche 356s should boost turnover. “And soon we’ll do one for your Mk2 Jaguar,” Derek tells me. Blast – I’ve just put new rubber on mine.
Holding plenty of stock is a priority for the firm. “We keep all sizes,” says Julian, “and if a distributor rings up for 50 tyres we can supply immediately.” Derek agrees: “With Dunlop, if we ran out we had to fly tyres in overnight. I once flew out with 42 tyres as hand-baggage!”
Amazingly the firm has no actual staff; Freathy is a consultant while also running his tube and rim firm in the same small premises near the village of Blockley, Glos, and Julian says he doesn’t even pay himself a wage. So who unloads the lorry when fresh stock arrives? “I do,” says Julian cheerily, “and I get some mates over. Then I buy them a beer at the pub.” With distributors across the world, an expanding range and steadily rising sales, the landlord at Julian’s local must be rubbing his hands.