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Opinion: the vulnerability of car tyres is a disgrace

Are tyre manufacturers pulling the wool over our eyes and getting away with it?

Published: 29 May 2023

A scientist invents a fabric that never wears out or even gets dirty. He’s a hero. Until he’s shut down by clothes manufacturers who realise the everlasting stuff will soon put them out of business. This is the excellent 1951 Alec Guinness film The Man in the White Suit. I suspect the combined bosses of the tyre industry hold that screenplay as one of their foundational business texts.

Cars, during their R&D phase, are tested against all manner of climates and assaults, just to be sure they deserve their lengthy guarantee. No such luck with their tyres. A one-inch nail or sharp pothole will strand you, and you’ve got no warranty against that.

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Their vulnerability is a disgrace. Especially now you no longer get a spare. Engineers are shaving mass to lose a fraction of a gram of CO2/km. Marketers want a bigger boot. Cost-cutters, well, cut cost. So they cross their fingers, and tell us through thin-lipped smiles that we never get punctures. I do, about once a year.

We’re left at the mercy of that beige ‘repair’ gloop which never works, or the ‘run-flat’ tyre which won’t run flat for long. We limp to the tyre shop to fix the thing only to be told the hole is in the wrong place or the wrong shape or the puncture happened under the wrong celestial alignment. So we need a new tyre. Or more likely two, because we mustn’t have one new and one part-worn at the same end of the car.

They probably won’t be in stock. I once got a flat in a new Mini test car and had to be towed to the BMW dealer. It took several days to get the right tyre. I picked it up and it was in fact wrong. Same brand, different pattern. The service manager blithely said, “Oh they’re all the same really".

I feigned outrage at him but have a sneaky suspicion he had a point. Can you tell the difference? Put on a new set and the car always feels better, but that’s only because the old ones were worn out – that’s why you changed them, remember? Yeah yeah, car magazines like to do tyre tests and they do find differences, but it’s very probably only relevant for that particular car on that particular surface at that particular temperature. A car and its tyre are a system. There are so many variables I simply refuse to believe that, say, a given type of Michelin is better than a given type of Pirelli (or vice versa) for all cars.

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After all the pain of a product that can’t even do the principal job it’s made for – reliably encasing a certain number of air molecules – we then have to face the fact it’s the first part of the car to need replacing. Which costs several hundred quid a set, and leaves an environmental disaster in disposing of the old ones. 

I have no answer, but then I haven’t been studying the problem since John Boyd Dunlop’s bicycle in 1888. The tyre industry has. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but maybe some genius has devised a treaded, grippy toroid that’s everlasting and proof against sharp objects. And been quietly lynched by the tyre business.

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