Age Shall Not Weary Them…
With depreciation, traffic jams and high fuel costs an established part of life and the threat of a “user pays” road system hanging over our heads it is perhaps little surprise that many people take a wistful glance at yesteryear, to the days when a jaunt in the jalopy was considered an exciting day out and a motorist’s hand signal did not involve extending the middle finger. But for some fond memories just aren’t enough, and thanks to them vehicles from what the bygone age of motoring remain on our roads.
But it is not always easy to keep them there. With each passing year the pool of vintage spare parts dwindles and performing repairs on these relics is in most cases way beyond the scope of many mechanics. But at least vintage car owners don’t have to worry about tyres – there are a number of companies dedicated to supplying owners with authentic period rubber for their vehicles, and the largest of these companies is the UK’s own Vintage Tyre Supplies.
In fact it was the impending discontinuation of a key source of vintage car tyres in the UK – the Dunlop Classic range – that led to the establishment of VTS in 1962, and almost half a century on vintage car owners are still reaping the benefits of this decision. The company is not only the exclusive worldwide distributor of the Classic label, happily saved from ‘extinction’, it also over time has worked towards building a product portfolio with offerings to suit most vehicles that plied Britain’s roads during the 20th century. As VTS managing director Chris Marchant says, “we’ve been in business for 45 years, so while from time to time a request comes in for an obscure size we don’t have, most of the gaps have been filled.”
And considering the technological advances and lack of international standardisation in the early years of motoring, filling most of the gaps requires VTS to maintain a range that would put most tyre dealers to shame. “Our tyre range goes back to Victorian times, from the first beaded edge tyres right through to tyres from the 1980s and even the 90s,” explains Marchant. “The range of tyres in the 1930s was perhaps greater, or at least as large as it is today. And it was a time of transition, where wheel design was changing.”
At a glance the vintage tyre sector may appear to be a market which doesn’t lend itself to innovation, but while Chris Marchant concedes that “there is not much scope for big surprises” in a market dealing with old products, this has not, he believes, deterred VTS from committing itself to an ongoing program of developing, re-developing and even ‘re-finding’ new products.
A development that has come out of this commitment is the design and production of ‘tyres that never were,’ a fusion of original styling and modern technology. “For example, we have produced a 670R16,” explains Marchant. “This size tyre has never existed before. The reason we designed it is that a fair few Jaguar, Rolls Royce and Bentley cars were originally fitted with the corresponding size cross-ply tyre, but many drivers want to improve their car’s performance. So we decided it would be a good idea to produce the size as a radial, and we approached Avon and developed the new tyre with them. We gave the tyre an ACR6 tread pattern, a common early radial tread from the 60s, and the finished product offers car owners a tyre that looks original but has none of the drawbacks of the cross-ply, and will potentially deliver twice the mileage.”
Utlising the latest developments in tyre design poses no issue for VTS, so long as it remains discretely tucked away from view. But when it comes to a tyre’s external appearance, the company will go the extra mile to make sure everything is exactly the way the manufacturer intended. “We always make it our aim to major on authenticity. For example, a 1935 Ford – if it originally ran on Dunlop we will try to supply the correct OE tyre for it. We are very lucky that we can source tyres for leading brands such as Dunlop and Michelin right back to the 1920s. These tyres look the same as the OE fitment in every respect but take advantage of modern tyremaking technologies.”
So how do VTS go about introducing a ‘new’ vintage tyre? A preliminary stage in the process is to determine whether the equipment originally used in the manufacturing process is still in existence – a less than guaranteed prospect when dealing with products that first saw light of day 80 or more years ago. However, as Mr. Marchant explains, their absence rarely equates to a dead-end. “When original moulds aren’t available we can often work from drawings to re-create one, as was the case for the 640-13 Dunlop C41. This particular item was popular on Fords in the 50s and 60s, so to meet the demand we worked with the information still in existence and rebuilt the mould to original specifications.”
Actually manufacturing the tyre is a collaborative effort VTS shares with sympathetic tyremakers, with VTS funding the cost of mould construction. “We have a good relationship with Dunlop and Avon,” says Marchant. “Sometimes when we approach them and say we want to make a particular tyre they may look at us like we’re mad, but they trust our judgment.”
Production of a particular tyre usually will be, by necessity, low volume, and the process used bears little resemblance to that employed in the manufacture of tyres for modern vehicles. Using the Dunlop range as an example, Chris Marchant comments: “They are produced at the same factory as the Dunlop racing tyres. In fact, vintage tyres and racing tyres have a lot in common – they are both hand made, low volume products that are not strongly price sensitive.” He adds that the Dunlop Classic range is still made in England – a rare thing for a tyre these days.
The high cost of vintage tyres compared to their mass market counterparts is unavoidable, yet despite this even within the world of vintage and classic cars a range of preferences and budgets must be accommodated. “We have customers that prize absolute authenticity and will go to any length to have everything on their vehicle just the way it was when new no matter what, and we also have customers that what an authentic looking tyre but are working within a more restricted budget. These customers find our Waymaster range attractive.” The Waymaster range – VTS’s own brand – is extensive, and even includes eight sizes of beaded edge tyres, a style discontinued pretty much everywhere else in the world by the mid 1920s.
Each year usually sees the introduction of several new products, and when Tyres & Accessories last spoke to VTS in 2006 we were told that tyres suitable for military vehicles were under evaluation. Since then the green light has been given and the company’s plans to accommodate this ‘niche within a niche’ are well advanced. “We have been approached by a number of people to produce tyres for military vehicles, and our range is now growing. At the moment we are currently working on a bar grip tread 900-13 size. This particular item fits Humber staff cars, Beaufors guns and also, believe it or not, Canadian Chevy trucks.”
Vehicles and tyres have seen numerous changes during the past 45 years, yet their fundamental role remains the same. This truth also applied to VTS. “Back in 1962, when VTS started out almost all our customers were retail,” Chris Marchant explains. “Now they are mostly trade. We are now mainly a global wholesaler of car and motorcycle tyres, selling to regular tyre suppliers but also to firms that specialise in vehicle restoration and also large scale car collectors.” But while the company’s customer base has shifted, VTS today displays the same dedication to meeting the needs of vintage car owners as it did nearly two generations ago.