The story of Firestone tyres

  • Author: OPONEO.CO.UK

Akron in Ohio. Indeed here, in the city later on called the world’s capital of rubber industry, in 1900 one of the pioneering makes in tyre industry was born. Firestone? Yes, the name sounds dangerous and dignified. The company owes it to its founder – Harvey S. Firestone.  

 Firestone founders

A meeting with Ford

The heart of the American motor industry is Detroit, the city where the giants of the industry – Ford, General Motors, Chrysler – are based. Everyone knows too that the Mecca for lovers of fast cars is Modena in Italy, where Ferrari, Maserati and De Tomaso operate, with Lamborghini just next door. In the same way, the tyre capital of the world can be said to be Akron, Ohio. It was here in the Great Lakes Region that the power of such firms as BFGoodrich and Goodyear developed. Not long after them, the Firestone brand began its story.

Its founder was born on 20 December 1868 on a farm in Columbiana County, Ohio. The Firestone family’s holding had been started at the end of the 18th century by Harvey’s great-grandfather, Nicholas, who had received part of his land as a gift from President Thomas Jefferson. In 1895 Harvey, then working for Columbus Buggy Works, met Henry Ford, with whom he soon began a collaboration that would last for many years. When he built his first cars, Ford used bicycle tyres. Firestone advised him to try out pneumatic tyres, which were used in the carriages that his firm produced. He also promised to supply such tyres for Ford’s vehicles. For this purpose, in 1900 he founded the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company, and thus began to lay the foundations for the tyre industry in the United States. Three years later, thanks to a bank loan of $4500, Harvey started up production in an old foundry in Akron, using second-hand machinery and two hundred employees. In 1904 the first Firestone tyres were ready, and three years later two thousand tyre sets were bought by Henry Ford for his latest Model T. It should be noted that at the time, this was the largest order in the industry’s short history.

Firestone old factory  Firestone old advert

Firestone4-01

Firestone is one of the pioneers of tyre producers in the USA.

50 years of Firestone

Firestone was not satisfied with his initial success, and began to work intensively on widening and improving his product range. In 1909 he premiered an anti-skid tyre, and two years later he could boast a part in the first victory in the Indianapolis 500 race, achieved by Ray Horroun, naturally using tyres from the Akron firm. Later on, Indy 500 victories became a Firestone speciality.

The firm ended the next decade with the proud opening of branches and factories in Canada (1919) and Britain (1928). There was no shortage of innovations either, whether technical or organizational – in 1922 Firestone engineers became the first to develop a low-pressure model of tyre, while in 1926 the firm opened a servicing and dealership network in the United States, an example which was followed by many competitors in subsequent years.

Soon afterwards the company had to carry on without its founder: Harvey Firestone died in 1938. During the Second World War, under its new management, Firestone switched to military production. Right after the war in 1945 the firm opened its own research centre, built in Akron. It was there that the 500 series of high-speed tyres was designed (named in honour of the brand’s dominance in the Indianapolis races). Firestone could therefore celebrate its fiftieth anniversary with great thunder, especially as the firm was entering the next half-century richer by the acquisition of the Dayton brand, bought from Dayco Corporation in 1961, as well as new plants in Europe.

Firestone old advert Firestone old shop

Firestone brand is one of the oldest in the world.

Rescue from Japan

Further expansion came to a halt as a result of poor decisions on the part of Firestone’s bosses. One of these was the delay in bringing radial tyres onto the market. BFGoodrich and Michelin were already offering tyres of that type at the end of the 1960s. Firestone began doing so only in 1971, and thereby missed out on commercial success, Also a large proportion of the 500 Radial tyres proved defective and led to road accidents, which brought about an avalanche of fines and lawsuits. The firm’s reputation was badly damaged, and instead of profits it began to record ever increasing losses. At the end of the 1970s Firestone was losing $250 million a year. Nine of its 17 factories were closed, including six on a single day, and the company’s headquarters was moved from Akron to Chicago. The new president, John Nevin, began negotiating with potential investors: first with Pirelli, and after those talks failed, with the Japanese concern Bridgestone, which in 1983 had already bought its first Firestone plant in La Vergne, Tennessee. In 1988 the Japanese finally acquired the whole of the American firm for a price of $2.65 billion.

Firestone7-01

Firestone is one of the most popular brands in motor sports.

A slow recovery from crisis

Firestone8-01

This marriage began with a major restructuring, which absorbed a further $1.5 billion. Firestone’s management returned to Akron from Chicago, and finally moved to Nashville, Tennessee. At its centenary the firm was facing further troubles. Some of the tyres used in the Ford Explorer had proved defective, exploding at high speed, which led to the death on the road of more than 200 people. In those circumstances Firestone’s collaboration with Ford came to an end after more than a hundred years. The firm had to make further changes – it closed the plant in Decatur, Illinois, where the defective tyres had been produced. A further remedial programme required significant savings to be made, although these finally allowed the American firm to become profitable again. Importantly it made a successful return to the race tracks, from where it had departed following its troubles in the 1970s. Successive Indy 500 victories also made a significant contribution to Firestone’s regaining some of its former high reputation. It can be noted that the 50th competitor to drive to victory in Indianapolis on the American firm’s tyres was Arie Luyendyk

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