The Sporting Tyre Makers AVON:

Conservatives with a competition streak

At last month’s Motor Show in Birmingham Avon Tyres Ltd. had something new to show potential customers. Nothing startling, just a five-rib range of steel-braced radials to be marketed under the Turbosteel name in 1979 in five different sizes. The tyres are conservative, after all many have had to follow Michelin technology before the small West Country rubber manufacturer, and offer relatively high aspect ratios (82%) far from the low profiles that are part of the high-performance establishment today. Judging by previous Avon offerings, the latest tyres will attract a very loyal following.

Avon is a group of companies built up around a rather endearing set of loyalties. Employees at the Melksham headquarters may often represent the third generation of the same family to work within the company, which was founded in 1885 at Limpley Stoke, a few miles away from the present Wiltshire headquarters.

Today Avon is a diversified company in the modern manner. I was told that approximately only half of the £5,285,518 profits earned in 1977 came from tyre manufacture for cars and many other types of vehicle. Industrial polymers were in fact the highest profit item, but they also make inflatable craft and medical supplies.

However, tyres are still the group’s main preoccupation and that of their associate company, Motorway Tyre and Accessories in Reading, a very handy chain of retail outlets numbering 180.

Both on the sporting side and technically Avon have a good record. Some 7,200 employees and the uncanny ability to make a profit when most of the tyre business is absorbed in a suicidal discount war, amidst a sea of growing East European imports, tends to ensure that they are quieter about their achievements that the giants of the business.

The conservatism is expressed in the tyre range by the prominent presence of crossply covers for sporting use. In an age when the radial has become the accepted norm, the Wide Safety GT range of crossply sporting tyres is quite an anomaly. Although production of radials now exceeds crossplies handsomely, the crossply tyres are still very effective and have an especially good wet weather reputation for predictable handling.

Such Wide Safety crossplies are produced in 10, 12 and 13 in. diameters with a Turbospeed name applied to a nylon crossply design suitable for speeds above 125 m.p.h. on a 15 in. diameter wheel. The Wide Safety was first marketed in 1966 and follows Avon’s normal pattern of staying with a basic design for some years. A former technical development man from the company told me that it was important that a company of Avon’s size did come out with a design that was suitable for production over a longer period: “chopping and changing is expensive”, he commented with a wry smile.

It was in 1961 that Avon first introduced the use of high adhesion cling rubbers into their ordinary production car range and the Turbospeed name. The company say that subsequent modification and the use of “a unique twofold construction process offer a crossply tyre that cannot be beaten for wet weather grip”. Quite what testing has gone on behind that bold claim and whether it still applies in today’s world of low profile offerings are questions to which I did not find answers. Certainly, in my experience at least, the crossply design does offer a gradual loss in adhesion that is far easier to control tidily than on a radial that has been taken beyond its limits . . . but subjectively I would have said the radial offered higher cornering speed before it did lose grip. Doubtless some dramatic proof can be provided either way in future.

Another reflection of Avon’s size as a company is found in their approach to the Original Equipment (OE) market. Most big tyre companies are heavily involved with the larger manufacturers of cars and trucks, but for Avon the commitment to huge numbers seems a drawback rather than an attraction. The staff point out that it only needs one of the all too prevalent strikes at a major manufacturer to affect the poor supplier – who then has to start laying off production men until the dispute is resolved.

Looking at the customers Avon do supply on an OE basis one can see that they should not run into this problem. After all the names Rolls-Royce, Aston Martin and Bristol are not regular visitors to the national paper headlines proclaiming the latest labour disaster to overtake the British motor industry. Yet these are the names that Avon supply, the association with Rolls being a particularly long-standing one.

The link with Aston Martin has sporting connotations. When Aston Martin were involved with sports-car racing the DBR1/300 design with Roy Salvadori/Carroll Shelby at the wheel won Le Mans at an average fractionally over 112 m.p.h. That was in 1959 and Avon tyres were fitted, as they were throughout that season. This was also the year in which Aston managed to beat Ferrari for the title after a dramatic racing conflagration in the pits at Goodwood.

On two wheels Avon had an even stronger claim to sporting fame. In 1951 they supplied the tyres that led them to their first World Championship title with Geoff Duke and they went on winning until they pulled out at the close of the 1963 season. In fact during the six seasons between 1959-63 every single solo champion used Avon rubber, so I was quite prepared to believe that there was little commercial incentive for them in trying to win all the capacity classes a seventh time!

As I believe we announced earlier this year, Avon have recently established a small museum within their service division at MeIksham. This is not officially open until this month, but I was allowed to have a preliminary look around during my visit. The connection with motorcycle sport is strongly exhibited and in this connection the most interesting item on display to me was a 1963 rear slick, of 18 in. diameter, the square shoulder design used by George Brown. He recorded over 190 m.p.h. on such a tyre whilst breaking his own flying start quarter-mile record in 1964. The sporting motoring side was not on display when I called, but I recalled some of the interesting highlights of the sixties and seventies with the aid of competitions manager Alan Blake.

Gerry Birrell really re-kindled the company’s interest in competition on four wheels in 1968. The talented young Scot had won the Formula Vee Championship and was already casting around for a way of making his planned Formula Ford faster that the opposition he would have to meet in 1969. Birrell liked the idea of crossply tyres from previous rallying experience and initiated a test and subsequently racing tie up with Avon using the Wide Safety model on his Crossle chassis. Birrell won consistently with the car the following year, as did Colin Vandervell in 1970, when he took the so-called “Magic Merlyn” (it was also a winner for Emerson Fittipaldi and Jody Scheckter) to 29 wins in 31 racing starts.

Those two seasons of success and acceptance amongst the four-wheelers were brought to an end when Firestone introduced the Torino. Rather than fight this design, Avon withdrew. Blake feels today, “we could have won again using special tyres, but it is not our policy to compete with anything other than the standard product. This applies equally strongly today and both motorcycles and cars are covered by the ruling. When you see our products in competition they are the normal production design.”

This naturally leads to a certain amount of frustration and heartache when competing in the more professional leagues of motor sport. The supreme example came when, after running a Team Avon Tyres for rallyists in 1975 they became a little more ambitious and signed up Pentti Airikkala, through David Sutton Ltd., to compete on the Avon 175 by 13 in. Arctic Steel radial design during the 1976 season.

The relationship started well with Airikkala winning a round of the RAC Championship – that included a high snow content appropriately for driver and tyre. There were several good second places for the Sutton-prepared Escort, including the 1,000 Lakes. However, when it came to the prestigious RAC Rally the stakes were a little higher. “I subsequently discovered Pentti had changed over from our tyres to Dunlops at Fort Dunlop,” Blake told me. “By the time I made the discovery Pentti was leading . . . Certainly I did my best to persuade him to move back onto our tyres, but there was no way that we were going to go to the length of withdrawing the entry of the man who was leading the RAC Rally. It was a tremendous blow and did leave a sour taste in the mouth.”

I asked if the affair of the Avon-liveried car with Avon-identified driver running on Dunlops had soured the management’s opinion of motor sport, leading to the present predomination of motorcycle activities? “Not really,” said Blake, “the decision had already been taken to change the emphasis in our sporting activities.” The switch was made to sponsoring a production motorcycle championship, a series that is still in existence today.

However, the most expensive project Avon were ever involved in was the Avon Motor Tour of Britain. They were involved in the 1973-75 events, which were organised by the BRSCC, and established a bold format for displaying the versatility of production touring cars over race circuits and rally special stages. “By the time of the last Tour we were spending £20,000 direct with the BRSCC, and a lot more than that on supporting publicity and so on,” Blake says. The figure is given to show that Avon are a long way from the big spenders that one might expect of an international company.

Today the 175 by 13 in. Arctic Steel radial is still supplied to privateers for rallying use while the Wide Safety GT and Turbosport find favour in sprints, hill-climbs and the occasional production racing car. In the latter connection both Chris Alford (Morgan 4/4) and David Beams (Ginetta G15) won their classes in year-long British Championships using Avons, and they were also to be found on Alan Curnow’s Mini 1275 GT when he won the Leyland-supported series.

Tyres destined for competition use are all supplied at special, lower prices. Details and technical recommendations for such use can be had from Alan Blake at Avon Headquarters in Melksham, Wiltshire. Avon also try to stay in touch with both the ordinary club person’s requirements and those of the Vintage and Veteran motorist.

Also offered amongst a basic six-type range of tyres are the straight-forward 70 Series Radial, a textile tubeless design in diameters from 13 in. to 15 in. and sections from 165 SR to 235 HR. The Turbosteel design has been badly delayed during the last year: there will eventually be five sizes offered, but to begin with only the 155 SR 13 and 175 SR 14 can be expected to be freely available.

Obviously shrewdly managed, Avon seem modestly confident about their future despite the rising tide of imports which is causing much bigger companies in the tyre business increasing concern. “We cannot even make tyres for the prices these imports are sold for,” is a frequently heard comment today, yet Avon’s links with prestige manufacturers, and a more select niche in the tyre sales market, seem to have provided the way for a smaller company to survive.

From a competition point of view it would be nice to see them more in four-wheeler sports. Perhaps the answer lies in their own hands with the sponsorship of a suitable racing or rallying series? – J.W.