The first self-propelled ‘automobile’ was probably the steam-powered three-wheeler built in 1769 by a Frenchman called Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot. He demonstrated the shortcomings of three wheels by crashing into a wall on his first display at a mere 2mph. I did so too when I barrel-rolled a Reliant Robin at the Dunsfold test track for Top Gear in 2010.
Early vehicles were cumbersome and tricky to control and stopping them on their skinny wagon wheels was an act of faith. Thanks to a little divine intervention in 1839, a bankrupt American inventor by the name of Charles Goodyear was displaying a ball of sulphur-treated gum he had concocted, when it flew out of his hands onto a stove, scorching the surface and creating the world’s first weatherproof rubber compound.
The air-filled tyre was subsequently invented in 1846 by Scotsman Robert Thomson, a self-taught genius who also invented a machine for drying his mother’s laundry. Another Scot, John Dunlop, brought tyres into the mainstream by creating his first factory in 1889.
The ‘pneumatic’ tyre behaved more like a living organism than the rigid, clunking load-bearers of the previous age. The cushioned ride spared ladies the displeasure of having their rumps tenderized on every journey as the capacity of inflated rubber to absorb energy from multiple directions was the key to its success. It would transform motoring.
Even the cream of tyre anecdotes still won’t get you invited to dinner parties, but on the racing circuit it’s all we talk about. Tyre dynamics is what sticks the car to the road, not the metal bit sitting on top of them. Above all else, the chassis and suspension settings of a racing car are tuned to maximize the performance of the tyres. Some cars are better communicators than others, but every sensation the driver feels travels along the hotline that connects the tyre to your backside.
The Michelin Company mascot earned his name Bibendum (the Latin for ‘let’s drink’) in 1903 by literally swallowing the debris littering the course to win the Paris Road Race. Their durability over nails and broken glass was such that Michelin runners occupied eight of the top ten finishing positions, taking the fight to the drawbridge of Fort Dunlop.
The recipe for creating a good tyre is even more complex than the culinary delights promoted in the Michelin Guide. Research and development departments push the physical boundaries by constantly testing new materials to add to the 200 existing ingredients.
The tread pattern we find ourselves studying as we wait for new tyres to be fitted is the bit that works on a wet road. At 50 mph it displaces around 30 litres of water per second, which is enough to fill fifteen bathtubs every minute.
The black rubber stuff comes in a variety of compounds that determine how sticky the tyre is. Grip is nothing without the strength of the underlying construction: a vulcanized blend of steel cords, polyester and Kevlar tailored to the size, stiffness and performance demanded by each particular vehicle.
There have been a few hiccups along the way. American car manufacturers at first dismissed the innovation of steel-belted radials after World War II. They preferred blancmange for suspension. Radials eventually won out because they were so much more fuel-efficient. The tyre, quite simply, was more important than the car.