Vintage Tyre Supplies: Looking Back, Moving Forward
If ever there was a competition for a company whose name tells you exactly what the company does, then Vintage Tyre Supplies would surely be in with a shout. Even the location of its head office – a few seconds’ stroll from the Beaulieu Motor Museum – underlines what the company is about. Vintage Tyre Supplies is, quite simply, a leader in what could be described as “a global niche”, sourcing and selling vintage and classic tyres around the world. “Our business is growing and our overseas markets are developing steadily,” says VTS managing director Chris Marchant. The best export markets are, not surprisingly, France, Germany and North America, but VTS’s business goes far beyond these – earlier this year the company appointed two Australian distributors, in Victoria and Western Australia. The North American market is a surprise – surely there are a number of companies based there, supplying US vintage tyres?
“Most of our business in the US comes from supplying tyres for British-made cars,” explains Marchant, “there are a lot of Rolls Royces, Minis, Aston Martins and the like and many people want to fit authentic, British tyres.” He paid tribute to VTS’s American distributor, Universal Tires, who he said “is doing a great job for us.” Wherever possible, VTS works through a distributor in export markets, although the company takes an active part in promoting its products overseas. “I suppose we attend around six shows a year in Western Europe,” Marchant says, “as well as quite a few national, provincial and regional shows in the UK.” This exposure to the public is more than just a PR exercise, as a proportion of VTS’s business comes direct from the public. How much comes in via this route? “Around 30 per cent,” Marchant reveals. This leaves 70 per cent originating from the tyre trade and indeed, Chris Marchant says that it is a very rare day when VTS doesn’t get at least one enquiry from a tyre outlet, asking for help and advice. “We try to give impartial, authentic advice,” he says and he is pleased that so many in the trade turn to VTS when their customers want information on classic tyres.
It is a tribute to Vintage Tyre Supplies that the company is the worldwide distributor for the Dunlop range of vintage tyres, plus the worldwide distributor for Avon classic tyres and one of the distributors for the Michelin range of vintage tyres. If these were not enough, VTS has its own brand – Waymaster – and earlier this year it acquired Ensign Tyres, who produce a range of pre-war motorcycle tyres (six in the range). Dunlop and Avon also produce classic motorcycle tyres. VTS is also strengthening its relationship with Vredestein, who produce some classic tyres. Vredestein has recently introduced two ‘new’ sizes to its range; 185 VR14 for Mercedes and Triumph Stags and 205/70 VR14 for Mercedes and BMW models that date back to the 1970s. These tyres are not authentic fitment but, says Marchant, they look the part and they are produced with modern compounds and construction, so they perform better. Even those tyres that are strictly authentic, made in the original moulds, will have modern compounds. After all, authenticity is all very well, but if you can improve puncture resistance, water clearance and braking performance without affecting the look of the tyre, then why not? Going back to distribution, is this a problem – after all, we are talking very small quantities here?
Very small quantities in fact, as VTS will send four tyres to France and a few to Germany, say on a daily basis. Chris Marchant accepts this as a fact of life, while making the observation that today it is as cheap to send four tyres to Paris as it is to Manchester. Adding to the range One thing about the vintage tyre business is that every year brings its new crop of cars which have become classics. It seems that, however ugly or unpopular a car might have been in its heyday, give it a few years and it will have its own following, with owners’ clubs and people meeting to reminisce about how good it was deep down. Anyone doubting this only has to look at the cult status that the Trabant mysteriously acquired after German re-unification. This is all grist to the mill of companies such as VTS, but how does it choose which tyres get added to its ever-growing list? The company has already added a second warehouse, giving it around 10,000 square feet of space, but the last thing it needs is to start experiencing problems caused by too many sizes and brands.
“New sizes tend to be added if demand is sufficient,” says Chris Marchant, but there are other considerations too. One such is finding the time to physically produce the tyre. By definition, we are talking about very short runs here and modern tyre plants, designed to produce long runs of tyres in segmented moulds, are just not geared up for this style of manufacturing. According to Chris Marchant, Dunlop once calculated that, in the time it took them to produce one beaded edge tyre, they could have produced 40 new tyres. Despite this, companies do produce vintage tyres, although not all are made by their original manufacturers, as there are some tyres for which VTS owns the moulds and sources production wherever it can. Adding a tyre to the portfolio can sometimes be a very long job indeed. For example, VTS has recently re-introduced Dunlop SP Sport Aquajet tyres in 10″ sizes for fitment to Classic Minis. “It has taken us 10 years to get these tyres in production,” says Chris Marchant. It seems that the original moulds were destroyed, but VTS found a Dunlop company with some moulds in New Zealand. This company then said it would not make the tyres any longer, so VTS purchased the moulds and shipped them back to the UK. While 10 years might be on the long side, it does illustrate some of the problems that can occur, and also the lengths to which VTS is prepared to go. Is it worth the bother?
Chris Marchant firmly believes so, saying: “You cannot afford to stand still – if you do, you’ll slip back and it is our aim to add four or five new ‘old’ products a year to our range.” The Waymaster range has recently been expanded and there are one or two projects in the pipeline – hopefully none that will take a decade to come to fruition. One of these is the re-introduction of the famous Avon Traction Mileage tyre, which was original equipment on Land Rovers for years. The lengths to which some people will go to achieve authenticity should not be under-estimated, Marchant remarks, and he believes that there will be a ready market for the Avon tyre, which will be available this summer. Another new product that was definitely the result of public demand is an Avon 670 R16 tyre for a Rolls Royce. This is a tyre that never actually existed in this format, but is a radial version of the original crossply 670 16 that was OE on Rolls Royces. Here the desire for authenticity has given way to the benefits that come from fitting radials. The tyre will look similar and VTS has added it due to people asking whether anything could be done to improve comfort and performance. The tyre will be available towards the end of the year. Something else that VTS is looking at is adding certain military tyres to its range.
After all, collecting military vehicles is a recognised hobby, but where can you find 900-13 tyres? VTS is currently evaluating the potential of this niche within a niche. And the vintage tyre market is indeed a niche. It may be a global business (“We regard ourselves as a global wholesaler” was one of Chris Marchant’s comments) but it is a niche market nevertheless. Having said that, it is an area that seems to be expanding and 2005 was a record year for turnover for Vintage Tyre Supplies. Despite this, the company has plans to forge even further ahead, adding ‘new’ products, maybe exploring new markets – as Chris Marchant said, if you’re not moving forward, then you’re going backwards.