There’s an awful amount of ill-informed, arbitrary rubbish spouted about tyres. Here’s some more.
Tyres are made of rubber and are there to make the ride of your car soft. It’s the air that gives the cushion, so you need to keep them pumped up, but not too hard. They have grooves cut in them called tread that let the rain out and if the grooves aren’t deep enough the police can fine you – I think it’s 1 mm, or maybe 2. I know a garage that keeps some part-used tyres out the back with more than enough legal tread and they will sell them to you at a fair price including balancing, though you don’t really need that as long as you drive at sensible speeds. I wacked my front tyre on a sharp kerb the other day which took a bit of rubber off and you can see some of the canvas stuff underneath, but it isn’t losing air. Maybe they’re the ones with tubes. Anyway they should be OK till the next MOT.
OK, for some people a car is a necessity. Without it they can’t get to work, take their kids to hospital, etc. And they have to run it on a shoestring so, basically, the above is all they know, and all they want to know, about tyres. But, whereas they might think it worth shelling out for smoke alarms to protect their family, if they thought more about the importance of tyres, they might decide to find a bit of extra money to protect their family when not in the house. There are various critical components on a car, but tyres are the sole contact with the road and are, in many ways, the most critical component of all. It’s fine saying you are a cautious driver, never speed and take corners carefully, but the problem is that once on the road you are at the mercy of other motorists, pedestrians and, above all, the weather. At these times you can pay the price of assuming that one tyre is much like another.
The first production radial tyres, the Michelin X, appeared in the late 1940s but the first tyres I remember being aware of by name were Pirelli Cinturato CA67 radials, some time in the Sixties. Originally called Cintura, and dating from 1952, my noticing them was due to their marketing, their attractive tread pattern and good mentions in motoring magazines. Oh yes, and they were Italian. The original Cinturato was followed by other radials of the same name including the (then) low profile Cinturato CN36 and in this I suspect that Pirelli understood, like Michelin before them, that a successful tyre needs not only to be effective, it needs to be distinctive. Some people like to show off their rubber, and that’s a potential problem.
I certainly have skeletons in my wardrobe. Clothes I wore more for their look than their everyday suitability. So I try to look sympathetically on what more cynical souls might label ‘fashion victims’. I was there once but, even at the time, I was aware that the only person who benefited or suffered from the way I looked was me. That’s not the case with tyres.
Until the recent ridiculous situation in Formula 1, where Pirelli shamefully agreed to manufacture racing tyres that degraded faster than they needed to, in order to artificially increase ‘the spectacle’, racing car tyres were designed to give the best roadholding and handling characteristics possible in a very controlled environment. Should that environment change, as in should it rain, then those specialist tyres could quickly be changed for another set of specialist tyres. In addition, many racing drivers are highly paid and very fit, so several hundred miles of having their spines pounded by a rock-hard ride is deemed acceptable.
General road driving is nothing like that. Neither, usually, are the drivers who, very often, carry passengers who didn’t sign on to have their bums pummelled. Yet, motoring’s fashion victims just can’t get enough … actually I mean too little rubber between them and the road. I admit to aesthetic objections to ultra low profile tyres, since I find big alloys with a smear of black round the rims look stupid, and on a 4×4 they look ludicrously stupid. You might disagree and that’s fine, but what is beyond doubt is that they give a crap ride and are unforgiving of irregularities. As tyres for general road conditions, they are just wrong.
Of course, not all drivers get their tyres just for posing, some are thinking about Track Days! They look through the reviews, then choose the best tyres for those two hypothetically sunny days in a year where they will thrash their cars round a racetrack. Wide tyres with sports tread are fantastic on warmish dry roads. They flatter the car and the driver under these circumstances, but how much fun are the drivers really having? Look at old videos of Formula 1. In the early 70s, the cars slid exuberantly on their very wide tyres in a way that they wouldn’t today. These tyres were, in fact, crossplies, and lacked the stiff sidewalls that make radials so much more controlled. Then, in the late 70s, Michelin came up with a very wide radial racing tyre and cars became more controlled and, maybe, a bit duller to watch. Writing that I’m aware that, in 1970, people were moaning that fat tyres had ruined the spectacle and they viewed the era of Fangio or Nuvolari driving on skinny tyres as proper racing. And they’re right too because the true interest is seeing someone controlling something that has somewhat more power than friction. And, if you’re wanting fun on a track day, rather than just beating your personal best on a stopwatch, maybe you don’t actually want supertyres, but something that makes it all a bit more challenging. Stickier tyres may make you go round corners faster, but that doesn’t mean that the sensation is so pleasurable or satisfying. And the other problem with those sticky Summer compounds fitted to your M3 is that, come Autumn, many people just leave them on the car.
My own introduction to sports tyres was when I bought a new motorcycle, fitted with Pirelli Diablos as standard. I like to think I’m reasonably immune to irrational brand fever but, like the Jesuits, once a car or accessory manufacturer gets its claws into a juvenile car enthusiast, something remains – or for me at least until the current Formula 1 fiasco. So, my first reaction to my bike tyres was positive – they’re Pirellis. And, in fact, I have no reason not to believe that, under the right circumstances the Diablos aren’t fine tyres. Just not under my circumstances. Getting the bike in June, they seemed fine. The lack of what an old guy like me thinks of as ‘proper’ tread made me a bit circumspect in the wet, though I actually had no scares to really justify that. But, come November, I left a long meeting in Barnes on a cold, dry day, rode off, came to a crossing on a very slight curve, braked normally for someone who was going to cross and found myself sliding along the ground swearing loudly. The tyres had just turned to wood and I realised that the bikers I’d seen who I judged to be frustrated MotoGP wannabes, had some method in their ostentatious weaving in traffic trying to warm their tyres. But, for me, buying all weather tyres was a better idea.
There is no legislation in the UK as to what tyres are suitable for what conditions. As long as they are free from critical damage and have adequate tread, then the fitment of a sticky Summer compound on a car that is used on icy days mid-Winter is perfectly legal. France, which has a lot of mountainous areas is similar, though some areas may call for snow chains. Other countries do call for the fitment of Winter tyres in areas or situations where they are beneficial. All tyres aren’t equal, but then neither are all cars or all wallets. There’s a lot of information available on sites like tyrereviews.co.uk, who compile results of tests from the likes of ADAC and Autobild, and even a cursory analysis of the figures is salutary. As an example, in a typical dry test of 54 tyres from 3 years ago, in the dry the highest placed tyre stopped in 35 metres, the lowest placed travelled another, potentially lethal, 20 metres.
But having a set of Summer and Winter tyres is a problem. Even if you can afford the extra tyres, plus wheels, you need to sort out storage and your, or someone else’s, time to change them over twice a year. Alternatively you can purchase ‘All Season’ tyres, which like most compromises do nothing that well and nothing that badly, so might be the best choice for somewhere like the UK. Other than that you decide which are more dangerous, Summer tyres used mid-Winter or using Winter tyres through the Summer. From comparisons I’ve read, keeping the Winter tyres on through the Summer is the better of two evils, but you pay the price of accelerated wear.
We all like a bargain, but ….. Twenty years ago I bought a secondhand Vauxhall Carlton for work. The car itself was in fine condition, sitting on four identical nearly new tyres with a deep tread and a name on the sidewalls I’d never heard of. The price agreed was pretty good, but I’d already factored a contingency to myself which, within a couple of days of uncertain driving, I had to act on. I just bought new tyres and dumped the crummy, lethal, slippery Nomarks.
The remains of my childhood OCD means that the sight of different tyres on the same car causes me consternation. But it’s not really that irrational, especially if they’re on the same axle line. My anger when someone at work damaged a tyre on a company vehicle and replaced it, at their expense, with ‘something else that the garage said was fine’ was probably ungrateful and inappropriate, and they probably regretted their outlay even more when I had the tyre changed the same week. But you don’t need to have published a paper on hysteresis and lateral force to conclude that having tyres with constantly different characteristics on opposite sides of the car is a bad thing. And my golden rule about buying any car is that, if it has more than two different tyres on it, walk away, because it’s a very strong hint that the oil was never checked, the clutch was used to hold the car on hills, the engine was over-revved and the gears were crashed.
And as for retreads, although they work for slower commercial vehicles, for cars I’d view them as trustworthy as a recycled prophylactic.
Even standing still, tyres have a finite life. When I bought my used Audi S6 a few years ago, it had a good looking set of Pirelli P6000s. I’d seen various unenthusiastic reviews of these, but I’d actually had them on a Mondeo previously and they were fine. A few weeks later, driving through London in heavy rain, the once sharp end of quattro technology slid unexpectedly sideways. Could the Pirellis have been as crap as others said, or might it also be something else? Although they had come, unused, from a supplier 3 years previously, evidenced both by low wear and dated receipt, checking the sidewalls confirmed that they had been manufactured almost 10 years before and had then, presumably, spent their time at the back of the racking turning to wood. This is also a problem with cars that get little use, when I bought my old Citroen, it had spent 23 years doing 24,000 miles, so its original tyres were very, very old and no longer had the suppleness of their youth. And it’s not just ‘classics’ that get rolled out on those sunny Summer days, but also all those cars that people take into retirement and then just put on one or two thousand miles a year. Which reminds me, next time I see my Mum….
OK, I’ll admit that a Bel-Air convertible in powder blue and white really has to have big fat whitewalls. Otherwise I find excessive graphics on tyres pretty crap. Yes, you need to allow a Dickensian short story’s worth embossed on the side for legislation’s sake and, for all the reasons I’ve shown above, you want to know where they come from, but I’ve never been a lover of branding and bold lettering and, especially, the old muscle-car look of raised white or coloured lettering, never looks good to me. But this brings us back round to Posing Tyres.
Which, to round it off means that, despite all the logic of my arguments, I must admit that I’m a tread fetishist. I’d (unjustly) flatter myself that the technical side of me recognises that what looks right is right but, really, I have no idea which tread design is most effective and, I assume, neither do all tyre manufacturers, or all their tyres would look the same. Give me two tyres with similar reviews and I’ll take the one with the more interesting tread design. Poser!