Jeremy Clarkson on: modern tyres
Many, many years ago, when Tiff Needell was in his sixties, television's helmsman king was sent by a motor-racing mag to a race track in the south of France where Pirelli was hosting a tyre-testing event. Pirelli had lined up a selection of cars, each of which could be tried on a wide variety of different tyres so that the visiting journalists could see first-hand how the Pirelli products enabled them to go harder and faster.
Well, Great Uncle Tiff spent the whole day whizzing about at speeds far in excess of any of the other scribblers. That evening, he called the motor-racing magazine's editor to say that he would not be filing a piece, because: "All the tyres were exactly the same."
Imagine his horror, then, when, a couple of weeks later, he began to read reports from other hacks who'd been there. People he'd lapped over and over again. They were waxing lyrical about the Pirelli tyre, and talking about tread shuffle and the onset of understeer and grip at the limit. While going half as fast, they had managed to spot a million things that Tiff simply hadn't noticed.
And there was a very good reason for this. The ‘things' weren't there. The other hacks had simply made it all up as a thank you for being allowed to drink the bar dry. Over the years, there has been more codswallop talked about tyres than any other motoring component. I can tell you, if I'm being very boring, that Pirellis lose their bite quite quickly and Dunlops make a lot of smoke. But, in essence, nothing has really changed since Tiff spent his day in France with all those De Dion-Boutons and Frazer Nashes. Tyres were black and round. They still are. The end.
Except it isn't the end, because tyres are now something else as well: complicated, stupidly expensive and usually three continents away from where you get a puncture. Let's flesh this out with the new Porsche 911. I came out of the house last Sunday to find one of the rears was flat. There is no spare wheel, of course, because that adds weight. And weight, when you are trying to meet EU emission regulations is a bad thing.
The other reason there's no spare is that the Porsche's front wheels are smaller than those at the back. So, if it had a spare, it would need two. Whatever, because there is no spare, you'd imagine that Porsche would have made absolutely certain that depots throughout the land were stocked with replacements, and employed a team of men on 24-hour standby to head off at a moment's notice to rescue the man or woman whose £85,000 car is marooned.
It hasn't done any of this. You call the emergency number on the back of the tax disc. It calls you back seven times, and then a tow truck arrives, takes the car away, and that's that. It is pathetic. And it gets worse, because, a couple of years ago, a friend had a flat in the rear tyre on his GT2, and it took Porsche two weeks to source a replacement.
It's not just Porsche which is guilty of this, either. Because I can pretty much guarantee that if you have an exotic car, there won't be a tyre that'll fit within a thousand miles of where you're sitting now. It's easy to see why. Not that long ago, the sidewall was 70 per cent as high as the tyre was wide, or, for sportiness, lowered to 60 per cent. Today, it can be 55 per cent as high, 40 per cent or 35 per cent. And it's 35 per cent of a massively increased range of widths, too. There's more choice of wheel sizes, too.
And, truth be told, a small tyre depot in Stroud is not going to keep a 345/35/15 in stock just in case a passing Lamborghini Countach gets a flat. In fact, unless you have a Golf diesel or a Focus, you won't be able to find what you want in all of Britain. Or America, it seems. When I shredded the rears on the Mercedes SLS in North Carolina last year, there were no replacements in the state. And I had to drive a hundred miles, in the rain, on canvas. This. Has. To. Stop.
Every single car importer must ensure that every tyre used in the entire range is in the country and available seven days a week. And, if that's too expensive, then they should think very hard about telling the chassis development people to stop being so effing picky.
And don't think my beef is with those that make pricey cars, either. I have a Volvo XC90 which is used as a school bus. Because of this, it's not driven hard, and yet the longest it can go without needing four new tyres is 9,000 miles. That's hopeless. And properly expensive. Because replacing all of them costs £1,000. Do this twice a year, as I do, and it means you have to earn £2,000 a year, just to pay for the tyres needed to get your kids to school. That's madness.
And it gets worse. The rears on my Mercedes CLK Black went off the other day, immediately, while negotiating a roundabout, and I span. This cost me my dignity, and £670. It's getting to the point now where I spend more on tyres than I do on food.
And they wear out so damn fast. Why? Well, because cars are so heavy these days, the tyres need to be wide. Which means they make a hell of a racket. So, to keep the sound below EU limits, they have to be made from soft compounds, which wear out faster.
Another example of tyre insanity? OK. When I attempted to max the Lamborghini Aventador around Nardò for the film we showed in episode one, I noticed that every time I changed up, the car seemed to move quite significantly to the left.
For a while, it looked like the maximum-speed run would have to be abandoned, but then a Lambo insider took me on one side and explained, quietly, that there are minute differences in the batches of tyres they are sent. And this can cause the car to behave strangely. We changed them, and it was fine.
This means one man buys an Aventador which is brilliant. And one buys a seemingly identical car that's terrible.
I'm aware that this month I've been a bit shouty, but it bothers me, this tyre business. It bothers me so much, I'm going to make a plea. Motor manufacturers: do not ever get a tyre maker to design a bespoke tyre for your car. Because you know full well that you will never be able to get a replacement to your customers inside a week.
Tyre makers: I know there are juicy profits to be made from soft compounds, and, God knows, I'm not profit-averse. But can we try to engineer a bit of middle ground where I don't wear out the tyres on my diesel Volvo every six months?
And you, the customer. Easy. When buying a car that doesn't come with a spare wheel, make a few calls before you write the cheque. Just see how many tyre depots carry spares. If the answer is none, buy something else.
That may disappoint you now, but wait till you've promised to take your Mum to hospital and you have to pull out because you have a puncture. Then you'll see the wisdom.