The story of Michelin tyres

  • Author: OPONEO.CO.UK

Everyone knows him – the creature with a human shape, looking a bit like a boy made of Lego, Casper the cartoon ghost, or the legendary Golem. The Michelin Man, also called Bibendum, has been a constant companion of the firm that has pushed the tyre industry forward for many decades with successive watershed inventions.

The mascot that drinks up obstacles

Since we have begun by mentioning Michelin’s best-known symbol, it is worth noting that Bibendum (his name means “to drink” in Latin) has worked solidly for very many years to gain the status of an icon of popular culture. The character, of whom French children were at one time reportedly frightened, is today one of the best recognized and most characteristic advertising symbols in the world. He has featured in songs (for example by the French reggae group Tryo), in comic books (including Asterix in Switzerland from 1970), and even in literature (as in William Gibson’s sci-fi novel Pattern Recognition). In 2000 the Michelin Man won his company the title of best logo in history. Legend says that the idea was born by accident, when the firm’s founders, the brothers André and Eduard Michelin, noticed how a pile of tyres resembled a human in shape. Arms and a characteristic smile were added on paper.

The first poster featuring the Michelin Man was produced in 1898 by the artist Marius Rossillon. At a banqueting table, the tyre-based character was proposing a toast holding a cup filled with pieces of broken glass and other sharp objects, using Horace’s words Nunc est bibendum! (“Now is the time to drink”). This alludes to the brand’s first advertising slogans, according to which the tyres simply “swallowed” (or rather “drank up”) any obstacles in their path.

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Michelin logo.

Fifteen minutes for a tyre

This motto was used by Michelin to promote itself in an age when the tyre industry was still in its infancy, and its products resembled the tyres of today in nothing more than their outer appearance. This was the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th. Although the French firm’s official birth date is given as 1889 (when Michelin & Co. was founded), the years preceding this event should not be overlooked. The predecessors of the brothers André and Eduard were the cousins Aristide Barbier and Eduard Daubrée, who in 1832 in Clermont-Ferrand opened a small plant producing agricultural machines, rubber balls, and later also gaskets, valves and other rubber parts. The Michelin brothers took control of the firm in 1889, and began also producing rubber brakes, for vehicles whose tyres at that time were made of wood.

Of much greater significance was another contemporary discovery. Following the invention of pneumatic tyres by John Boyd Dunlop, the Michelins found a way of reducing the large amount of time needed to repair wheels fitted with full rubber tyres – they constructed the first removable pneumatic tyre. The replacement time for a tyre was thus reduced to 15 minutes, all thanks to a special way of connecting the rim to the tyre using a small screw and clamps that fastened the two elements together. Thus clincher tyres were born.

Eduard and André had to devote a lot of money and energy not only to improving their invention, but also to publicizing it. This was made possible by the use of Michelin tyres in cycling and motor races. The ease of replacing the tyres, in combination with their solid durability, brought victory in competitions including the Paris-Brest-Paris and Paris-Bordeaux rallies. In 1891 the invention was patented, and several years later it enabled this family firm to become the market’s leading brand.

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Bidendum has changed during its history.

A hundred free aeroplanes

By the start of the new century the Michelin plant in Clermont-Ferrand covered 74 acres and had four thousand employees. In London the firm opened its first foreign offices, in the form of Michelin Tyre Co. Ltd.

Less than three weeks after the outbreak of the First World War, Michelin offered its services to the French government in the construction of aircraft. The firm made its first hundred machines free of charge, and after that sold them for the costs of production. In total Michelin built 1884 aircraft up to the end of the war.

After the war, the priority was a return to civilian reality. In 1923 Michelin unveiled another invention, the first low-pressure passenger tyre called The Comfort, guaranteed to last for 15,000 kilometres. Soon a similar tyre went on sale for goods vehicles. Just before the start of the Second World War the firm launched the Michelin Metalic, the first tyre in history with metal reinforcement.

Radial tyres and a new era

The company’s bosses did not forget about other commercial activity. In 1925 they bought two rubber plantations in Indochina. Six years later they opened their first factory in Germany (Karlsruhe), and in 1935 they took control of Citroen. Under Michelin’s leadership, work began at Citroen on a prototype TPV, which later evolved into the famous 2CV.

An epoch-making achievement in the French firm’s post-war history was the development of a patent for radial tyres. In 1952 Michelin also began to supply such tyres for heavy goods vehicles (since the start of the 1980s it has also produced radial tyres for aircraft and motorcycles). In 1965 the Ladoux Testing and Research Centre was opened north of Clermont-Ferrand. Its first achievement was the creation of the asymmetric XAS model for high-performance cars. Michelin’s technological and commercial successes ensured its rapid expansion – by 1966 it had a total of 81,000 employees, of whom just under half worked in France.

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Michelin is present at all major automotive events.

Tweel – a tyre without a tyre

The 1990s saw the firm introduce the first green tyre, the Green X, and the innovative PAX system, which enabled safe driving even after a puncture. These were successive steps in the creation of a tyre of the future, which like pneumatic and radial tyres before, would revolutionize not only the tyre industry, but transportation itself. The latest such step is the Tweel model, consisting of a hub and spokes made of a flexible material that bends to absorb shocks and then returns to its original shape. This futuristic vision would finally put an end to the problems associated with punctured tyres and wheel changes.

Before the Tweel was presented to the public in its present form, Michelin had worked to create a global tyre empire, including 69 production plants in 19 countries, technology centres located on three continents (Europe, Asia and North America), and six rubber plantations in Brazil and Nigeria. Michelin tyres are sold in 170 countries, and almost 130,000 people are employed in their production, development and sale. The Michelin Group also includes such brands as Kleber, BFGoodrich, Riken, Taurus, Kormoran, Warrior, Siamtyre, Tigar, Euromaster and Recamic. The French concern has had a presence in Poland since 1994, when its first subsidiary in this part of Europe was set up in Warsaw. Since 1995 Michelin has also been the owner of the Olsztyn firm Stomil.

More than a century of guides

Since the start of the brand’s existence it has had a presence in the world of motor sport, and over the years it can boast significant success in almost every racing and rallying discipline. Its crowning achievement in this field is the five championship titles won by drivers using Michelin tyres in five different motor sport disciplines: Formula 1, the WRC, the Le Mans 24-hour race, Moto GP and VTT Cross Country.

Tyres are one thing, but in outlining the story of the French brand we should not forget about one more specialist area in which Michelin has led for 110 years. This is the world of tourist guides, an idea of André Michelin himself, who in 1900 set up a network of travel information offices which advised on best routes, sights worth seeing, and places providing accommodation or meals. In time the collection of guides began to grow, and road maps and precise town street maps appeared on sale. The famed publications are available today not only on paper, but also in electronic form. The Michelin Guide Restaurants application for the iPhone lets you quickly find the best restaurants in the vicinity, while the viamichelin.pl website provides maps, guides, a route finder and a database of hotels and restaurants.

The whole of the work started by the Michelin brothers is best seen with your own eyes at the Musée l’Aventure. There you can see, among other things, how the firm’s mascot has successively changed over the decades, while continuing to drink up more and more obstacles.

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Gallery

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Andre i Edouard Michelin brothers.

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Legendary”Michelin man”Bibendum in its modern form.

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Bibendum in its modern form.

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Bibendumin its older version.

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Old Michelin factory.

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One of the old Michelin posters.

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Michelin Automotive

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An old Michelin advert.

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An old Michelin advert.

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A modern Michelin advert.

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A modern Michelin advert about benefits connected with lower fuel consumption of Michelin tyres.

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Michelin and rallies.

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Michelin team in the past. 

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