The Carbon Black Arts

There’s an awful amount of ill-informed, arbitrary rubbish spouted about tyres. Here’s some more.

Dunlop SP Sport Aquajet - The Testosterone Belted Radial
Dunlop SP Sport Aquajet – The Testosterone Belted Radial

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.

The Michelin X
The Michelin X

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.

Early Pirelli Timeline

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.


escalade-low-profileI 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.


High Performance Summer Car Tyre : Goodyear Eagle F1
High Performance Summer Car Tyre : Goodyear Eagle F1

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.

Pirelli Summer Road & Track Bike Tyres - Tread Carefully
Pirelli Summer Road & Track Bike Tyres – Tread Carefully

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.


winter-tyresThere 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, 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.


autosportWe 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.


Nice looking tread - but maybe have a look at the date coding on the sidewall?
Nice looking tread – but maybe have a look at the date coding on the sidewall?

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….


lettered-sidewallsOK, 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!

26 thoughts on “The Carbon Black Arts”

  1. Hi Sean, I agree that 22″ wheels bandaged with a tiny strip of rubber look absolutely ridiculous on a 4×4. With a little distance this ridiculousness is exacerbated by the fact that the wheel/tyre combo still look dwarfed by massive wheel arches. The wheel arches do need to be better filled for any car to look in proportion. I have to confess that raised white lettering on an old school Charger holds a certain appeal for me though.

  2. Sean, as another (possibly irrational) tyre snob I thoroughly enjoyed that article. As far as I am concerned there are certain rules with tyres and of course because there is sometimes conflict between the rules, applying them can be tricky.

    The correct aspect ratio is between 50% and 70%

    Tyre brands are selected in the following order: Michelin/Pirelli, Bridgestone, Goodyear, Dunlop, Firestone, Yokohama etc, etc. At one time Dunlop would have been in the top three but alas history is no longer sufficient.

    Tread aesthetics are crucial; if it looks right, it must be right. Pirelli do this best: Cinturato, P6 and P600 are excellent examples. Michelin XZX and Goodyear G800 were other instantly recognisable patterns. I’ve just fitted new Michelin all seasons despite an unattractive tread. See below.

    The Jesuit principle applies. Michelins were the first replacement tyres I actually chose so they remain my first brand to look at.

    I judge older cars by the tyres they wear. High quality tyres in good condition means someone cares enough about the car to spend some money on it. A particular pox on the owners of high performance cars who replace the first set of tyres with four Waanng Hoo ditch finders. This seems very prevalent around here and how sad that I can be bothered looking!

    1. “High quality tyres in good condition means someone cares enough about the car to spend some money on it.”

      Spot on. There’s really no excuse for not investing in decent set of boots… Incidentally, I tend to judge a man first by his choice of shoes, particularly in formal or semi-formal situations, but not only.

    2. By the way you haven’t mentioned Continental in your list. Any particular reason why you avoid would avoid them?

    3. I was going to question the omission of Continental too. The wooden Pirellis on my Audi were replaced with Contisports which were much better, then replaced with Goodyear Eagle F1s which were better still. A word also for the Michelin XWX, generous but not crude.

      But, on the subject of eye catching tread, they knew more about these things 100 years ago. If you want to make sure the tyres don’t skid on the road, tell it so.

  3. I had an interesting conversation recently with an industry insider who believes the next big public health issue will be related to the millions of tiny particulates scrubbed and abraded off tyres by the road surface entering people’s blood streams and lungs. There is no way of filtering this, so what is to be done?

    I have a feeling that tyres are set to become a Good deal more expensive before long…

    1. Completely forgot about Continental, I should have listed them equal (in my inexpert view) with Bridgestone.

    2. “I tend to judge a man first by his choice of shoes..”

      Laurent. Even more I dread the day we finally meet in Balham Waitrose and you find that I do, literally, have feet of clay.

    3. That’s definitely not a formal or semi-formal situation. I expect you go there in your slippers – maybe even a pair of classic ‘charentaises’…

    1. Espadrilles are Summer wear – but I guess it’s always Summer in the world of Tyler Brûlé…

  4. Please don’t remind me of that one time when I let myself coax into buying Chinese winter tyres… I guess they contributed a good deal to a CHF 5000 repair after losing grip on a motorway. I returned to the usual Michelins afterwards. There is no other choice for a Citroën.

    1. Thank you. Actually these are almost formal wear in France.

    2. You shame me Laurent.

      Actually, I haven’t worn slippers since I was in my teens and they did just what it said on the box as I slipped on the carpet and fell down the stairs. Ouch. No tread you see.

    3. Actually Laurent, I buy most my shoes from French supermarkets, although the above actually come from Sainsbury Tu in Wandsworth (should you be tempted). I do have a pair of Church’s brogues which I bought in a sale many years ago, which I reserve for weddings and funerals.

    4. Not mine I’m afraid – it’s the picture from the Wikipedia page:

      There’s a great scene in ‘L’homme du train’ by Patrice Leconte, in which French legend Jean Rochefort lends Johnny Halliday:

      My indoor footwear of choice is actually the Birkenstock ‘Boston’ in grey wool:

    5. To get back on topic I should have added: I like the Birkenstock rubber soles, they look like tyres.

  5. In Denmark slippers are called (translated) houseshoes. People don’t wear their shoes in the house. Germans have a similar custom. Carpets are rarer in both countries. These things might be related.
    Thus, I have slippers which wear with incredible speed.

  6. Since comments have deviated from the way cars are shod to the way people are I shall add another dimension dear to my heart and that would be the scent of rubber or to be specific less I appear kinky the smell of new tyres.
    I put this down to childhood visits to a Firestone tyre outlet that my dad ran where I would roam the warehouse packed with fresh wide whitewalls.
    Even today, some sixtyfive years on, when entering a tyre shop the scent and those childhood memories are awakened.

    1. It’s good to find a fellow rubber fetishist. Standing in a tyre fitters, waiting for work to be done, is always a pleasure, with that fine scent and a rich variety of tread patterns to ogle.

  7. I suppose that opinions toward Clarkson around here are mixed at best, but one aspect of his work I think is underappreciated is his ability to mix nods towards supreme levels of auto-nerdiness with the approachability and reach a show like Top Gear Mk2 required. There are quite a few examples that spring to mind but his reference to tyres makes the point as well as any. In (I think) an episode which involves turning an Avantime into a track car, he mentions in a two-second aside, “The one thing I know about is tyres.” Doubtless this line went above most people’s heads, but I laughed. Why? Because as Sean astutely observes in this piece, tyres are something that every self-proclaimed ‘car expert’ thinks they have a deep and intrinsic understanding of. Unless your business card actually includes the words ‘tyre engineer’, this is not true. I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure JC was having an oh-so-subtle dig at that tendency which permeates forums and pubs everywhere.

    Anyway, to the subject matter at hand. I am – just – old enough to recall the era when the phrase ‘Pirelli P7’ still meant something. A favourite of Setright’s, if I recall. Although I must say, the tyres I still remember being impressed with after all these years was a set of Goodyear Eagle F1 GS-D2s. Their ability to cut through standing water was really something. I liked the steering response they gave, too – I suspect the unbroken centre rib helped with that. But most importantly, of course, they had a cool tread pattern. I never liked the tread pattern on the subsequent GS-D3s as much.

    I will also put in a shout for the Yokohama A539s I have on the Lancia at the moment. Reputedly a very soft compound (according to my tyre fitter), but I have found wear to be excellent, grip high, and the tread pattern totally unique and rather attractive. Annoyingly, Yokohama have since killed it off, and finding anything decent to fit a narrow-ish 14-inch rim is the definition of futility these days.

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