The story of Dunlop tyres

  • Author: OPONEO.CO.UK
Dunlop1-01

The logo of Dunlop tyres

Dunlop founder  Dunlop founder

From a bicycle to the empire

The story of how Dunlop became inspired to begin producing tyres sounds today like a legend, comparable to that of Archimedes and his “Eureka” moment. In 1888 the Irishman was observing his son outside the house riding his tricycle on bumpy cobblestones. The tricycle had hard rubber tyres, which made it difficult for the boy to gain speed, and also made the ride uncomfortable. Dunlop decided to help him by gluing a thin layer of rubber around the wheels, and then inflating it using a football pump. The “valve” was the top of a baby’s feeding bottle!

From this innocent game there emerged one of the most important inventions in the history of the tyre industry. John B. Dunlop had created the basis for the first pneumatic tyre. Just a year later this Belfast vet’s invention was put to use on a traditional bicycle. A little-known cyclist used the bike to secure a series of decisive race victories. The secret of his success? Pneumatic tyres.

Naturally Dunlop soon patented his work (31 October 1888), and in 1889, together with several Dublin businessmen, he set up the Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Company. A year later in Dublin he opened his first tyre factory, from which bicycle tyres were being sold after just a few months to Australia, and by Christmas 1890 to the United States. The firm expanded impressively in its first years – in 1893 it began production at two foreign plants, in Hanau in Germany (now Dunlop’s research centre) and in Australia, and later in the US. Dunlop also opened an office in Melbourne. Soon the firm’s products were being sold over practically all of Western Europe, in the United States and Canada, as well as in the southern hemisphere. By the end of the decade Dunlop’s Dublin factory was no longer able to meet the demand for tyres for bicycles, which had become a very popular means of transport. Therefore production was moved to Coventry in 1898, and four years later to a huge site of more than 160 hectares in Erdington near Birmingham, with an impressive building called Fort Dunlop, where the firm had all of its offices alongside its modern factory.

Dunlop factory  Old dunlop advert

A time of discoverers

As the new century began, the company’s bosses had no intention of resting on their laurels. John B. Dunlop knew that the need for bicycle tyres would soon be accompanied by growing demand from the motor industry (in 1900 the firm had started producing car tyres). In 1910 Dunlop invested in its own rubber plantation, with an area of more than 20,000 hectares. Three years later it celebrated the opening of its new factory in Kobe in Japan. It is no exaggeration to say that the brand’s intense and expansive activity revolutionized the tyre industry – solid tyres became obsolete, while those carrying the mark of the British firm came to be recognized almost everywhere in the world. Dunlop also made further innovations. In 1922 (a year after the death of its founder) the firm’s engineers used steel bead wire and textile cord in the production of tyres, which trebled their strength. Together with a sunken rim, this became a standard for the market. In 1948 Dunlop presented a tubeless tyre with a self-sealing layer that would prevent the loss of air in case of damage to the rubber. It is estimated that up to 1954, when further developments eliminated the self-sealing layer, the number of punctures was reduced from one every 16,000 miles in the case of inner-tube tyres to one every 80,000 miles with tubeless tyres.

In 1954 Dunlop launched the RS5, the first tyre with precise tread indentations, a nylon coating for stability and strength at high speeds, and an additional reinforcement system developed at laboratories in Germany. Another milestone, not only in the story of the brand, but also in the industry as a whole, was the discovery by Dunlop’s technical team of the previously unknown phenomenon of aquaplaning. The patenting of the SP 68 tyre, which had a much greater density of indentations on the tread surface, in addition to aquajets (channels leading through the grooves in the tread) for the sideways removal of water, was a breakthrough in the improvement of vehicle safety.

Over 600 km per hour? No problem

Dunlop on track Dunlop on track

Sp MAX TT

In 1972 Dunlop developed the first tyre with steel cord, followed a year later by the Denovo, the first puncture-resistant tyre. An improved version, the Denovo 2, was enhanced in 1979 with the Denloc system preventing the tyre from slipping off the rim. Dunlop did not limit itself to success in just one line of business: its factories also produced brake systems, wheels, tennis and golf balls, and even floor coverings. After its takeover of Charles Mackintosh, Dunlop also began producing shoes and clothing. In turn the concern created an aerospace division, enabling it to make a mark in the aviation industry (even today Dunlop continues to produce aircraft tyres and other rubber components).

It should also be remembered that ever since its first successes in cycle races, Dunlop tyres have been associated with sporting competition. In 1902 tyres carrying the letter D gave drivers a complete set of victories in the Paris-Vienna race. As early as 1920 the firm produced tyres that could function at speeds of more than 300 km/h; these were used by Henry Segrave when he set his land speed record of 327 km/h in 1927. In 1947 that record was broken by John Cobb, again using Dunlop tyres, with a speed of 634 km/h. Today the British brand can also boast a long series of victories in the murderous Le Mans 24-hour race, as well as eight championship titles and 82 Grand Prix victories in Formula 1. Dunlop tyres have contributed to the greatest successes of such superb drivers as Jackie Stewart, Jack Brabham, Jim Clark, Phil Hill, Graham Hill and John Surtees.

A recipe for a crisis

Dunlop racing car  Dunlop on racing car

In the 1950s Dunlop controlled half of the British market. However in the following decade the firm’s power began to wane in favour of its competitors, including Goodyear and Michelin. This was related to a mistaken assessment of the demand for radial tyres. At the start of the 1960s Dunlop’s bosses made a serious error by opting to produce cheaper textile radial tyres, instead of the steel-belted type, which offered significantly longer lifetimes. By ignoring the latter option, Dunlop came to experience its first problems.

The way out of the crisis was to be a long-term collaboration agreement with Pirelli, signed in 1971. Dunlop acquired a shareholding in the Italian manufacturer, but it did not foresee the huge losses that it was bringing at that time, and the two firms parted company in 1981. For the British firm, however, this just led to further deepening of the crisis. Almost at its centenary, Dunlop found itself on the edge of bankruptcy. Rescue came from as far away as Japan – the Sumitomo concern, which since 1963 had owned Dunlop’s Japanese branch, decided to make a similar move on other continents. In 1984 Sumitomo took a 98% stake in the whole of Dunlop Rubber. Other companies in the Dunlop group were bought out by various trading partners in the 1990s.

At the turn of the century Dunlop could boast a stabilized organizational and financial position, as well as more efficient production, made possible by the implementation of a long-term remedial plan. There were also further innovations – in 1999 the brand’s British engineers announced the development of the Warnair tyre monitoring system, which detects and informs the driver of loss of air pressure – and above all a final move was made to stabilize Dunlop’s position on the world market. Sumitomo concluded a strategic alliance with the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company, thus forming the world’s largest tyre producer. At the present time Dunlop Europe, as a branch of Goodyear Dunlop Tyres B.V., is a part of a joint venture incorporating six companies.

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