For more than a hundred years the story of Pirelli has been written in parallel with the history of the motor industry. The birth of one of the most important firms in the history of the tyre industry took place even before mankind had invented the light bulb.
The ideas of a 24-year-old visionary
In 1872 the young engineer Giovanni Battista Pirelli set up the company Pirelli & C. in Milan. At just 24 years of age, Pirelli correctly foresaw that the future of a great industry would depend to a large extent on a certain elastic material that would come to be called rubber. In 1879 his factory produced the first insulated telegraph cable. He later expanded his range to include such products as transmission belts and bicycle inner tubes, and in 1886 he developed a technology for producing underwater telegraph cables.
As with many firms in the industry, Pirelli’s first tyres were produced for bicycles: in 1890 the Milano model was launched. Following another 11 years of preparations, for the start of the new century the firm produced its first car tyres, named Ercole. Pirelli was a visionary who realized that good ideas were best implemented on a large scale, and that his product also needed to be placed in the right setting. He therefore engaged in promotion in motor sports, which had always enjoyed huge popularity in Italy.
Pirelli has taken part in many rallies - often successfully.
Production for racing
His brand won fame with its first sporting achievements, such as victory in the Peking-Paris rally in 1907. Pirelli tyres fitted on Ferrari and Alfa Romeo cars became a fully fledged symbol of rallying and racing success, and their effectiveness was recognized by the most famous drivers of the time, including Tazio Nuvolari, Alberto Ascari and Juan Manuel Fangio.
Pirelli pursued an equally spectacular career in his foreign operations. With his sons, who he brought in to help run the business, he opened branches elsewhere in Europe and beyond. The first factory outside Italy was built in 1914 in Catalonia. This was followed, up to 1920, by successive plants in Greece, Turkey, Germany, as well as Brazil and Argentina. The firm’s spectacular expansion was possible thanks to the development and mass popularity of motoring, as well as the gigantic demand for rubber, which found uses in countless branches of industry all over the world.
A war of inventions with Michelin
Tyres were still the Milan firm’s flagship product. Its technological progress in this field was unmistakable. In 1927 Pirelli launched the world’s first diagonal tyre, the Superflex Stella Bianca. Right after the Second World War it unveiled the first fabric-belted tyre model, the Cintuarto CF67. In subsequent decades the Italian firm engaged in a battle of inventions and innovations with its competitors at Michelin. After a series of triumphs by the French, who sent shock waves through the industry with every new development, in the 1980s it was the Italians who retook prime position, as Pirelli’s engineers created the low-profile tyre.
After the stormy 1930s and after the Second World War, however, the Italian company needed time to rebuild its weakened power. Before the war it had felt the effects of the destructive policies of Mussolini, and after its end it faced the same problems that affected the whole of the Italian economy. Galloping inflation, unemployment and political destabilization paralysed not only the tyre industry.
Investment hits and misses
While Italy was in crisis, Pirelli launched a counterattack, putting into effect its delayed plan for further international expansion. In the 1950s the firm opened new factories in Canada, France, Greece and Turkey. In the next decade it decided to expand into still more continents, with investments in Peru and Australia. It lacked good fortune, however, in its mergers and takeovers of market rivals. The cooperation with Dunlop that began in the 1970s lasted only a decade, and neither side was disappointed when it ended. Later Pirelli got involved in a bitter and ultimately unsuccessful dispute with Bridgestone, the stake being the American firm Firestone. An even greater defeat was suffered in negotiations concerning a merger with the German concern Continental. Not only was no merger achieved, but as a result of unfortunate decisions related to that process, Pirelli found itself virtually on the edge of bankruptcy.
In the shadow of those circumstances, it should nevertheless be added that the Italian firm was much more successful in its purchase of the Metzeler brand, which strengthened its position in the motorcycle tyre market, and of Armstrong Tire Co., which gave it a strong bridgehead in the United States. The second half of the 1990s finally brought stability to Pirelli. Sales of tyres in Europe were increasing at a rapid pace, and the firm also became one of the world’s main producers of fibre-optic cable. (In 2005 that part of Pirelli’s operations was sold to Goldman Sachs and took the name Prymsian.) As the 21st century approached, Pirelli unveiled the revolutionary MIRS robotized production system, which was first used to make high-performance tyres, and then others including run-flat tyres (the Eufori@ model) which enabled continued driving in case of puncture and at zero air pressure.
Mini-factories using the MIRS system were opened in Germany, Great Britain and the United States. In 2005 Pirelli celebrated the opening of its first plant in China, and this was followed by further new sites in Romania and Russia.
Tyres and ideals of beauty
Today the Italian firm is the fifth largest player in the word tyre market. But Pirelli does not live by tyres alone. Fans of the Volkswagen Golf will no doubt well remember the limited first generation GTI Pirelli edition of the Golf from 1983. Similar Pirelli-branded editions appeared in 1999 and 2007.
The Italian firm also wins the attention of all those who are sensitive to feminine charms, thanks to its famous annual calendar. The now legendary publication, which dates back almost half a century, has become not only an icon of popular culture, but also a research subject for sociologists and cultural scholars. The latter claim that this calendar featuring semi-nude models has defined and documented the changing ideals of beauty. And the word from the people at Pirelli is that they intend to continue to do so.
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