Flashback Friday: The evolution of tires

What is a tire? It is a ring-shaped component that surrounds a wheel’s rim to transfer a vehicle’s load from the axle through the wheel to the ground and to provide traction on the surface that the vehicle is on.

To understand the history of tires, the evolution of the wheel must be reviewed. One of man’s greatest inventions, the wheel dates back to the Neolithic era – 3500BC – or prior to the Bronze Age. The first wheels were made of wood. While wheels were likely first used to assist man with agricultural chores, they were soon used for many purposes and were a key to human advancement.  

However, one drawback of wheels was – and continues to be – wear and tear. The rotation of a wheel around a central axle helped carry heavy items and helped man move more quickly than ever before. However, wheels – whether made of wood or later of metal – slowly wore away over time and they did not wear evenly. A chip or uneven wear would cause a wheel to no longer be round, causing the time-consuming and expensive task of replacing something that wasn’t quite broken. 

An expendable layer that could absorb damage, wear away over time and then be easily replaced at a much more affordable cost than a brand new wheel is what was needed. That is precisely what a tire does.

What is the origin of the word “tire?” Going back to the 1300s, the word “tire” was a short form of “attire,” from the idea that a wheel with a tire is a dressed wheel.

First leather, then metal

The earliest tires were bands of leather, then iron (later steel) that were placed on wooden wheels used on carts and wagons. A skilled wheelwright would expand the tire by heating it in a forge, place it over the wheel and then wet it, causing the metal to contract back to its original size so that it fit tightly on the wheel.

After the invention of the steam locomotive in Great Britain in the 1820s, the emergence of trains and railway networks followed, and steel “tires” were attached to metal train wheels. In the United States, metal tires were used on trains, but also on farm wagons, stagecoaches and the Conestoga wagons that helped to open up the West. The metal tires were long-lasting and inexpensive, but very uncomfortable, and not particularly reliable. 


In 1839, American inventor and entrepreneur Charles Goodyear was credited with the discovery of the vulcanization process. Within weeks of one another in 1845, British inventor Thomas Hancock and Charles Goodyear were awarded patents for the vulcanization of rubber. Named after the Roman god of fire, vulcanization “is a chemical process for converting natural rubber or related polymers into more durable materials by the addition of sulfur. Vulcanized materials are less sticky and have superior mechanical properties.” Vulcanization transforms sticky raw rubber to a firm, pliable material that makes rubber a perfect material for tires.

Vulcanization also made rubber waterproof and winter-proof, while at the same time preserving its elasticity. While Goodyear’s claim of inventing vulcanization was challenged, ​he prevailed in court and is today remembered as the sole inventor of vulcanized rubber.

However, the story of Charles Goodyear is a sad one. Although he dedicated his entire life to making rubber more useful, he would never profit from all his work. Although Charles Goodyear was bankrupt when he died, a company bearing his name Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company – was founded in Akron, Ohio in 1898. 

Solid rubber tires

Soon, after the discovery of vulcanization, rubber became the material of choice for tires. These tires were strong, absorbed shocks and resisted cuts and abrasions. Although they were a vast improvement over wooden or metal tires, solid rubber tires were very heavy and did not provide a smooth ride.

Early rubber tires were solid (not pneumatic). Pneumatic tires are used on many types of vehicles, including cars, bicycles, motorcycles, buses, trucks, heavy equipment and aircraft. These tires also provide a flexible cushion that absorbs shock as the tire rolls over rough features on the surface. Tires provide a footprint that is designed to match the weight of the vehicle with the bearing strength of the surface that it rolls over by providing a bearing pressure that will not deform the surface excessively.

Metal tires are still used on locomotives and railcars, and solid rubber (or other polymer) tires are still used in various non-automotive applications, such as some casters, carts, lawnmowers and wheelbarrows.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Pneumatic tires

The pneumatic, or inflatable, rubber tire uses rubber and enclosed air to reduce vibration and improve traction. Pneumatic tires are featured on millions of cars across the world are the result of multiple inventors working across several decades. And those inventors have names that should be recognizable to anyone who has ever purchased – tires for their car – Dunlop, Goodyear and Michelin.

Robert W. Thompson, a Scottish engineer, created and patented the first, air-filled tire in 1847. The tire used rubber and enclosed air to reduce vibration. The process was too costly, though, and his design was never put into production. 

However, in 1888, another Scotsman, John Boyd Dunlop, developed the first successful pneumatic tire in Belfast, Ireland. Dunlop was already wealthy; he owned successful veterinary practices in the country. However, after his son complained of his bicycle’s harsh ride because of its solid rubber tires, Dunlop started developing the tire.

His patent, granted in 1888, wasn’t for automobile tires, however. Instead, it was intended to create tires for bicycles.The pneumatic tire proved so successful that a year after it was introduced, it helped to win bicycle races in Ireland and England. Over the next few years, Dunlop developed pneumatic tires for all vehicles, from bicycles to the earliest cars and trucks. Between 1890-1920, rubber pneumatic tires were improved by Dunlop and by others such as Thomas Hancock.

It took another seven years for someone to make the leap from bicycle to the horseless carriage. In 1895, André Michelin and his brother, Edouard, who had previously patented a removable bike tire, were the first to use pneumatic tires on an automobile. Unfortunately, these did not prove durable. However, over time their company became one of the leading tire companies in the world.

According to ThoughtCo., “In 1903, P.W. Litchfield, who worked at Goodyear, patented the first tubeless tire.” However, it was never commercially exploited until used on the 1954 Packard. In 1904, mountable rims were introduced; they allowed drivers to fix their own flats. In 1908, Frank Seiberling (who also founded a tire company) invented grooved tires. The grooves dramatically improved road traction. ThoughtCo. also reported that “in 1910, the B.F. Goodrich Company invented longer-life tires by adding carbon to the rubber.” Philip Strauss invented the combination tire and air-filled inner tube in 1911; allowing pneumatic tires to be used successfully on automobiles. His company, the Hardman Tire & Rubber Company, marketed the tires. 

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Bias-plies and radial tires

By the 1920s, synthetic rubber had been developed in the laboratories of Bayer in Germany. Synthetic rubber began to be widely used to manufacture tires. For the next few decades, bias-ply tires were widely manufactured. These tires had two separate parts: an inflated inner tube; and the outside tire, or casing. The inner tube was pressurized and was protected by the outer casing. This casing protected the inner tube and provided the tire with traction. The outer casing was made of layers, which reinforced the casing. Each layer was called a ply. The plies were made of rubberized fabric cords that were embedded in the rubber. These bias-ply tires had a single ply that ran diagonally from the beads on one inner rim to the beads on the other. The orientation of the cords is reversed from ply to ply so that the cords crisscrossed each other. Bias-ply tires were the primary type of tires for the next 50 years.

Bias-ply tires are still used as authentic equipment for antique and collector cars, as well as for certain type of off-the-road tractor tires.

Radial tires

After World War II, French tire manufacturer Michelin developed radial tires, which far outperformed the bias-ply tire that preceded it. Although the use of radial tires spread quickly throughout Europe and Asia (it boasted superior handling and fuel economy numbers), the outdated bias-ply tire construction persisted in the United States. It wasn’t until 1968, when Consumer Reports awarded its two top spots to radial tires. The magazine cited longer life, increased safety, handling, and noted that in the long run, the costs of running on radials was far less than bias-ply tires, which needed to be replaced quite often. Ford Motor Company adopted radial tires in the early 1970s. Today, radial tires currently have nearly a 100% market share.

Steel-belted radial tires’ ply cords radiate at a 90-degree angle from the wheel rim, and the casing is strengthened by a belt of steel fabric that runs around the circumference of the tire. Radial tire ply cords are made of nylon, rayon or polyester. Radial tires’ advantages include longer tread life, better steering and less rolling resistance, which increases gas mileage. However, radials have a harder riding quality, and are about twice as expensive to manufacture.

Other improvements and changes

Run-flat tires were developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s to help drivers maintain a constant driving speed and avoid accidents caused by dramatic loss of air pressure. The run-flat tire allows vehicles to continue driving up to 50 miles at 50 mph with a punctured tire. 

Several types of tires were designed later, including eco-friendly tires as well as the ultra high performance (UHP) tire. UHP tires have diameters greater than 16 inches and allow for superior cornering, braking and drivability. 

Since 2007, all U.S. vehicles must be equipped with tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS). After a huge recall of Firestone tires in the 1990s, Congress mandated the use of TPMS on passenger vehicles to warn drivers of underinflated tires.

Currently, tire companies are working on a non-pneumatic tire created from a uni-material that can be reused or recycled. These airless tires are believed by many to be the tires of the future.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes over the last 100 years is the decline of the U.S. tire industry. Particularly over the last three decades, the U.S. tire industry lost market share and many of the largest U.S. tire manufacturers were bought by Japanese and European manufacturers.

(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

Truck tires

Just as automobiles have improved since they were first introduced, so have trucks. The earliest trucks were much smaller and carried much lighter loads than trucks today. But as trucks grew in size and load weight – as well as specialization (dry vans, refrigerated, etc.) – heavy-duty tires had to be developed.

Tires for large trucks and buses are made in a variety of sizes and profiles. Today’s truck tires carry loads between 4,000 to 5,500 pounds on the drive wheel. These tires are usually mounted in tandem on the drive axle.

Truck tires come in a variety of profiles that include “low profile,” “wide-base” for the heaviest vehicles, and a “super-single” tire that has the same total contact pressure as a dual-mounted tire combination.

Off-road tires are manufactured for use on construction vehicles, agricultural and forestry equipment and other applications that take place on soft terrain. Tires designed for soft terrain have deep, wide treads to provide traction in loose dirt, mud, sand or gravel. Off-road tires  are also built for machinery that travels over hardened surfaces at industrial sites, ports and airports. 

(Photo credit: Goodyear Tire Company)


When vehicles were first equipped with pneumatic tires back in the early 1900s, among the most challenging problems was getting the tires to withstand cuts, punctures, penetrations and blowouts. Those early pneumatic tires – even tires in excellent shape –  would only average about 1,000 miles before wearing out. However, because the roads were unpaved and had hazards of all types, most tires wouldn’t even last 1,000 miles. As a result, people started to investigate ways to extend tire life. That led to the practice of tire retreading.


The following sources were very helpful and contributed to this article:

  • Tire Recappers
  • Wikipedia
  • ThoughtCo.
  • Burt Brothers Tire & Service
  • Pixabay/Falkenpost

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Scott Mall, Managing Editor of Copy

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of Copy for the FreightWaves website. He also writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, material for the Blockchain in Transport Alliance and a variety of FreightWaves material. Mall’s career spans 40 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government.