The Evolution of Expensive Tires
Anyone who has ever suffered a flat or punctured tire knows how maddening the unexpected cost can be. Tires are expensive, especially if you’re replacing one at a time. Most tire stores in Cincinnati offer cheaper pricing if you buy two or four tires, rather than only one.
Part of this is a safety concern. Tires tend to wear at similar speeds and degree based on how the car is driven. Replacing only one at a time might alter the performance of the others, not to mention the balance and handling of the car overall.
Tires are expensive, but likely the ones you’re in the market for are no where near the cost of the ten most expensive tires in the world.
Before examining the most expensive tires on the market and in order to understand how they’ve become so costly, it helps to consider where they came from.
Scottish veterinarian, John Boyd Dunlop, invented pneumatic, “air-filled” tires in 1888. He attached rubber hoses to wooden wheels, installed those wheels onto a tricycle, and took the whole contraption out for a spin.
After a successful test drive, he did the same to a bicycle, officially marking the birth of pneumatic tires, upon which nearly all vehicles would depend in the coming generations.
But first some developments were required.
From Dunlop’s humble beginnings, tires began to undergo a series of various developments and innovations. Tire technology, no matter how early the stage, has always been aimed at innovations surrounding performance, safety, and most recently, environmental responsibility.
After Dunlop introduced the concept of the tire, C.K. Welch developed the bead wire tire in 1891.
Ironically, later that same year, after an English cyclist suffered a punctured bicycle tire outside of their rubber brake pad factory, the Michelin brothers, Andre and Eduouard, patented tires that could be mounted or demounted by hand.
1904 brought additional developments at the hands of Firestone and Goodyear, who created straight sided wire bead tires, a technology which caught on like wildfire, and by 1908, became the standard tire manufacturing technique in the United States.
Across the pond, British engineers worked on the radial ply method, a departure from the earlier bias ply method, which required tire code fabric.
Developed in 1913, the radial ply method did not launch quite as quickly as the American straight sided bead tires. Part of the delay involved the availability of inexpensive, yet effective raw materials, specifically the kinds of raw thread used in the code fabric.
Initially, the code thread was made from thick cotton because the stronger silk thread was too expensive for mass manufacture. However, the cotton was not ideal because it was susceptible to heat.
Fortunately, Dupont’s theory of synthetic reactions, released in 1928, sped up material developments throughout the 1930s and rayon code fabric was developed.
It wasn’t until Michelin adopted it in 1948 that the radial ply method really began to gain ground. But in 1948, nylon code was introduced, eventually replacing rayon in 1960, dominating the market until polyester code fabric was released in 1962.
Steel codes took over in the 1970s even though Dupont introduced Kevlar in 1972. Kevlar, a polyamide fiber, was five times stronger than steel, but its expense made it available to only a select few passenger cars. So, steel codes eventually swept the American and European markets by the 1980s.
Keeping Up With the Fords, Chryslers, and Chevys
As engineers continued to develop new cars and improve performance, speed, safety, and style, more dynamic tires were needed to keep up.
The early pattern of tire evolution set the stage for exciting developments in commercial, passenger, and concept vehicles.
Of course, the more innovation, the bigger the expected sticker price. Essential to a car’s function, the cost of some tires is enough to induce sticker shock, especially in light of their modest beginnings.
But, understanding the rapid evolution of tire technology helps explain even the most astronomical price tags, making the cost somewhat easier to swallow.
So, what are the most expensive tires in the world?
The LeTourneau L-2350 front-loader, the world’s biggest earth mover, features the most expensive tires in the world at $63,000 apiece. Each tire is 4 m in diameter, 1.78 m wide, and weighs 6.8 tons.
Last of a Legacy
Each wheel on this British Leyland Lion bus goes ‘round and ‘round for $800, a total $3200 to outfit the whole vehicle, which the Lincolnshire Road Transport Museum was required to do in order to feature the bus as part of its 50th anniversary exhibit.
The original tires were too cracked and worn, so speciality tires were order from the United States. The only one left of its kind, the other buses were used as transports during World War II. This particular Leyland Lion was used as a post-war snowplow, until it was refurbished and relegated to the museum in 1954.
The Michelin Trifecta
Whether built for speed, heavy lifting, or launching, Michelin has designed tires to meet the different, yet still demanding, needs of a sports car, dump truck, and space shuttle.
The Bugatti Veyron, estimated MSRP $2,250,000, sports Michelin Pilot Sport PAX tires, 245/690 R520 in the front and 365/710 R540 in the back, which cost $9,065 apiece. Grand total for tires = $36,260.
Caterpillar 797 dump trucks are equipped with the some of the largest tires in the world. Given the heavy lifting done by these machines, it makes sense that six of these Michelin monsters can hold up to 1,375,000 lbs.
At an individual cost of $42,500, that’s quite an expense. Each tire is 13 feet tall and weighs 11,680 lbs. It takes 47 nuts to attach one of these tires to its axle.
At $5500 each, space shuttle landing tires, though not much larger than regular consumer truck tires, weigh 56 tons and are pumped full of nitrogen gas, allowing them to reach speeds of 261 mph.
The tires required to meet the performance demands of Monster Truck driving are hand cut and take 50 hours of labor, each one measuring 2.6 m in height and 1.7 m in width. Manufactured by Goodyear and Firestone, a single monster truck tire is priced at a whopping $2,500.
Sky High Sticker Shock
The Boeing commercial jet is equipped with 18 tires, each one 2.1 m in diameter, weighing 243 pounds, and cost $2,000. All told, that’s $36,000 to outfit one plane with a full set of tires. Imagine a full fleet!
Trademark Tire Technology
A single Formula One race car requires as many as 20 tires per race. Designed to last a total of approximately 125 miles, the tires are then recycled. This short-lived tire, manufactured primarily by Bridgestone and Pirelli, typically costs $1,500.
The Porsche Turbo is designed to accelerate from 0-60 mph in 2.9 seconds and is equipped with Toyo Proxes R888 tires, 285/30ZR18, which cost $150 each and can last nearly 19,000 miles.
The Silane Tufo Elite Pulse tubular bicycle road tire cost $150, not unlike its much larger Porsche Turbo counterpart, but weighs only 230 grams. Its exceptionally low rolling resistance makes it a top choice for triathletes.
It all comes down to perspective. The next time you need new tires, just consider the technology demands that drive the tire prices of other vehicles. Think about how far tire technology has come since Dunlop covered a wooden wheel with a thin strip of rubber and set the tire industry rolling.