Winter tyres – history

  • Author: OPONEO.CO.UK

As we all know, necessity is the mother of invention. This proverb well illustrates the early history of winter tyres, despite the fact that is this case only few people initially saw the necessity to use them and believed in it.

Today it is hard to believe, but even in the mid-20th century, the distinction between summer and winter tyres raised doubts in many circles, and it was even considered ...a marketing swindle. The doubts mainly concerned questions whether the so-called winter tyres actually provide greater safety in winter than the standard summer tyres.

“Maybe it is true that necessity is the mother of invention. But aren’t we creating an artificial need in this case, only in the name of profit?”, suggested the sceptics. Fortunately, winter tyre inventors and engineers thought otherwise and scientific evidence proved them right.

The development and improvement of winter tyres has brought a revolutionary change in road transport, especially in countries where winter meant negative temperatures, rain and snow, and deterioration of driving conditions.

Traditional tires could not cope with difficult winter conditions (photo by Nokian).

Traditional tires could not cope with difficult winter conditions (photo by Nokian).

Nokian tyres – the beginning of winter tyres

The history of winter tyres begins where it actually should begin – in the cold, Northern land. The work on creating tyres that could help in driving smoothly on snow was a must. It started in the 1930s in Finland and mainly concerned freight transport which was a huge challenge in winter, especially on poor quality roads.

In such circumstances, in 1934, the company Suomen Gummitehdas Osakeyhtiö, the predecessor of Nokian Tyres, today’s tyre manufacturer, presented the first ground-breaking winter tyre model, named Kelirengas.

The innovation consisted of very obvious and sensible changes – Nokian’s first winter tyres had a reinforced structure (try to imagine replacing punctured tyres in the cold and in the middle of a blizzard) and a new tyre tread with transverse groove pattern. Finnish winter tyres were designed to dig down and bite into snow and ice, thus allowing people to travel the routes which were to this point only traversable after putting snow chains on tyres.

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In 1936, Finnish engineers developed the famous Hakkapeliitta model. The first Nokian tyres for passenger cars had, among other things, a heavily sculpted tread pattern with corners. It helped, for example, when pulling away in deep snow or mud. The model was advertised with the slogan “Your guardian angel on the winter road”.

Nokian tires from Finland are the first winter tires (photo by Nokian).

Nokian tyres from Finland are the first winter tyres (photo by Nokian).

Tests in St. Gotthard pass

Conditions similar to Nordic winters do not occur in many places in the world. So you can understand why the competition on the tyre market did not follow the path set by Nokian Tyres. But since in Austria, it always snows abundantly in winter, only two years after the Kelirengas model hit the market, Semperit prepared an alternative to Kelirengas.

It was the Goliath which featured characteristic zig-zag grooves and (similarly to the first Nokian model) heavily sculpted tread corners which facilitated pulling away from snow drifts and slush.

Engineers from Continental had been working on their snow tyres since the 1940s. The result of these efforts was the debut of the M+S 14 model (in 1952). Its name came from the abbreviating the words “Matsch + Schnee”, meaning “mud and snow”, and it is used for marking winter tyres till date.

The German brand proved up to the task (literally) in marketing its product. In 1953, cars fitted with new Continental winter tyres were the first in the world to cross the St. Gotthard Pass in the Alps. As it was duly noted, the tyres retained their full properties until the top of the hill, i.e. 2,122 m above sea level.

Who was the first?

Today, many sources (including Continental) consider M+S 14 to be the first genuinely winter tyre. The Finnish Nokian, the Austrian Semperit and the American Goodyear were the pioneers when it comes to the construction and development of the first winter tyres from the pre-war period and just after the war. However, it was the German company that coped with this issue in the most comprehensive manner – its model was characterised not only by an aggressive tread pattern but also by an original rubber mixture.

Normal rubber used in summer tyres hardened in negative temperatures and lost its elasticity. That is why the winter tyres produced later on were in fact an evolution of the ideas brought by Continental engineers. And M+S 14 remained on the market for the entire decade. After that time, the German manufacturer presented the successor of the iconic M+S 14 tyre – the M+S 18 model.

The Goodyear Company Goodyear also contributed greatly to the development of winter tires (photo by Goodyear).

Goodyear also contributed greatly to the development of winter tyres (photo by Goodyear).

Goodyear against all odds

At the same time, on the other side of the ocean, Goodyear was working on its premiere winter tyre. This is also an interesting story, because the American company had conducted tests with tyres which would do better on snow as early as the end of the first decade of the twentieth century.

In 1909, Goodyear introduced the Diamond Tread tyre with a tread in the shape of regular rhombuses, considered the progenitor of all-season Vector tyres and winter UltraGrip tyres. This tread pattern survived in the company’s catalogue until the end of the 1940s. The tyres performed well on snowy roads, although the comfort of driving and the noise emission left much to be desired.

In the 1930s, Goodyear constructed prototype winter tyres as a result of experiments with artificial rubber. The ideas of American engineers became finally applicable in the Suburbanite model, presented in 1952. It quickly became a bestseller – it was advertised with a guarantee slogan that it would defeat every ascent, in all conditions. The model sold well in America, and in addition it recorded very good results in some European countries, such as Switzerland or the Scandinavian countries.

With time, the Suburbanite line was also enriched with the Studable version with 464 studs, which gave an absolute guarantee on all slippery surfaces, and in 1956 a tubeless variant of the model was launched onto the market.

The more difficult the weather conditions, the more specialised must be the tires (photo by Nokian).

The more difficult the weather conditions, the more specialised tyres are needed (photo by Nokian).

Studded tyres

While during the first decades of their battle against difficult weather conditions tyre manufacturers tried to invent anything that would improve the car’s behaviour in winter, the past half century has been the era of conscious technological progress, which completely changed the possibilities of transport in the harshest season of the year.

Since the 1950s, Continental has been conquering the market, first with the M+S 14 model, and later with its successor – M+S 18 model. The next breakthrough of the German company was the first radial winter tyre TS 729.

At about the same time, Michelin became a serious competitor in this field. The French still pride themselves on the fact that their X M+S model from 1968 was the first global winter tyre exported to dozens of countries around the world. The success of the X M+S model was repeated by the X M+S3 model.

Nokian tires were breaking ice driving speed records (photo by Nokian).

Nokian tyres were breaking ice driving speed records (photo by Nokian).

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In 1963, all winners of the Monte Carlo Rally used Nokian studded tyres. Scandinavian winter tyres also took an active part in breaking ice driving speed records.In 1963, all winners of the Monte Carlo Rally used Nokian studded tyres. Scandinavian winter tyres also took an active part in breaking ice driving speed records.

After the war, some manufacturers experimented with designing winter tyres with studs. In 1961, Continental presented studded winters tyres – Eis M+S 18. In the same year, Kometa-Hakkapeliitta made its debut – Nokian tyres with studs.

Fitting winter tyre with studs is a solution that worked great in car rallies. However, it turned out to be destructive for asphalt surfaces. In the 1970s, studded winter tyres began to be banned in everyday use in many countries, so the short career of this kind of winter tyres came to an end. Studded tyres for cars, just like studded tyres for motorcycles, started to fall into oblivion.

Paradoxically, these prohibitions forced the tyre companies to be more creative and to seek new technological solutions. Radial tyres for winter use are one of the expected breakthroughs.

The next step was the production of a thermo-rubber tyre, made of a blend resistant even to very low temperatures developed by Continental engineers.

If it is safer, you can go faster

A similar innovation was presented in 1983 by Michelin – a rubber tyre that maintains its elasticity even in freezing cold. The X M+S 100 model did not resemble the previous snow tyre models at all. The tread was made up of a larger number of smaller rubber blocks that improved the car’s stability on slippery roads and shortened the braking distance. For the same purpose, a total of over 900 cuts with different depths appeared on the entire tread surface.

In Japan, the use of studded tyres was not forbidden before the end of the 1980s. Then, Bridgestone presented the Blizzak model, comparable in terms of sculpture and tread differentiation to the previously mentioned Michelin X M+S 100. The novelty introduced by the Japanese brand consisted in using the multi-cell technology for the first time: micro-bubbles on the tread surface absorbed water from the ice surface, while acting as suction cups at the same time. Even today, it is one of the most interesting achievements in the production of winter tyres.

The development of winter tyres was the most important factor in improving driving safety in difficult weather conditions. What was the result of both? Increasing speed that can be achieved despite difficult weather conditions. Better snow tyre design, better fitted rubber, better profiled tread – all this allowed manufacturers to systematically improve the performance of their winter tyres.

At the end of the 1970s, Goodyear presented the first UltraGrip model, which had an H speed index (allowing to attain the speed of 210 km/h). Earlier, for years, the standard index for this type of tyres was Q (160 km/h). At the beginning of the following decade, Continental presented a tyre (TS 750) carrying the same speed label.

 

Blocks, grooves and sipes – the more the better?

At the turn of the century, Continental, as the first manufacturer in the world, added silica to winter tyres rubber mixture. This provided more flexibility at low temperatures and better grip on wet surfaces. The asymmetric tread, known for example from the popular ContiWinterContact TS830 P model, is also the work of engineers from the German company.

These types of tyres, draining water effectively and providing better grip on curves, especially in greater speeds, have found their application in higher class cars and sports cars with high power engines.

The winter tire tread consists of slats, grooves and blocks.

The winter tire tread consists of sipes, grooves and blocks.

In its range of winter tyres, Goodyear has been systematically developing its Ultra Grip model. In its fourth generation, silica was used for the first time. The sixth model, presented already in this century, was in turn developed with the 3D-BIS technology, a system of three-dimensional tread block elements. The number of block ribs that were to improve grip on snow and ice was increased by 60 percent.

A similar solution was presented by Michelin at the beginning of the new millennium – its technology was patented as “StabiliGrip” and consisted in tread construction with interlocking blocks with 3D sipes. In 2007, the French brand announced another change in the composition of the rubber compound from which its winter tyres were made. The new component is sunflower oil, the properties of which make the tyre more elastic at low temperatures.

This is not the end of Michelin experiments. In 2014, the French were the first to use the functional elastomers in the rubber mixture that give the tyre better grip on wet and snowy surfaces, and also affect the elasticity of the rubber in cold temperatures. Elastomers are polymer plastics, which are characterised by high ability to be reversibly deformed by mechanical forces. We can see the fruits of the work of Michelin engineers in the subsequent evolution of the “Alpin” series.

Goodyear UltraGrip 9 was developed on the basis of over 3,000 prototypes.

Goodyear UltraGrip 9 was developed on the basis of over 3,000 prototypes.

One model – thousands of prototypes, dozens of tests

The scale of the scientific and technological innovativeness, which characterises the production of winter tyres today, can be demonstrated by numbers from factories and Goodyear research centres. For example, the Ultra Grip 9 tyre, on which the work began in 2012, was developed on the basis of over 3,000 (!) prototypes.

Prototypes were created in four brand development centres, including the plant in Luxembourg and in Dębica. In total, about 70 specifications were assessed, 30 construction versions were created, 14 design combinations were examined and compared to 9 competing products. In addition, 7 trials were made on tracks and in the test sites, including in Finland, Switzerland and New Zealand. In total, the tyre was tested over 600 times (including machine tests) before being released for sale. Of course, similar procedures apply to each of the leading companies on the tyre market.

Thinking about drivers

Traveling comfort and environmental performance of a given tyre are the aspects that drivers pay more and more attention to. Especially the latter is an important factor today – it comprises the quality of production in relation to the natural environment, but also the properties of the tyre which determine whether it can, for example, reduce fuel consumption while driving.

The 2010 Pirelli Winter Snowcontrol Serie II not only offered an Interactive Brickwork Siping (guaranteeing tread stability, e.g. during braking, as well as better grip), but also reduced noise perception, and thanks to eco-friendly production technologies, reduced rolling resistance, which means minimising fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions.

Similarly, in the flagship Winter Sottozero Serie II model – the HTS (Hydro Static Tank) technology enabled more efficient removal of slush thanks to the wider circumferential grooves. Deep oblique grooves reduced noise and improved fuel economy.

Michelin CrossClimate – will this model determine the tire development path?

Michelin CrossClimate – will this model determine the tyre development path?

Return of all–season tyres?

Many of the improvements that manufacturers can boast when constructing an ideal winter tyre are a testimony to the actual technical progress in global transport. Toyo’s engineers used micro-particles of the walnut shell in the rubber mixture (e.g. in the Observe GSi-5 model) – which resulted in better grip and wear resistance of the tyre.

The Nokian brand became famous for the winter tread depth indicator – on a scale of 8 to 4 mm. Snowflake symbol is visible to a depth of 4 mm (this is the minimum tread depth to ensure snow adhesion and prevent aquaplaning), when it ceases to be visible, it is a sign that you need to replace tyres with new ones.

Finnish tyres with retractable studs are another revolutionary technological solution. The Hakkapeliitta Concept prototype model presented in 2014 could solve the problem of the ban on the use of this type of tyres – the studs in the Nokian tyres are controlled by the driver.

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In 2015, the French Michelin brand created the first summer tyre that simultaneously had winter homologation. The CrossClimate model, unlike all-year tyres, whose performance in summer and winter are the result of a technical compromise, obtained the highest class of grip on wet surface, both according to summer and winter criteria.

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