Home » The Automotive World’s Biggest Example Of Magical Thinking Are These Tires

The Automotive World’s Biggest Example Of Magical Thinking Are These Tires

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In my many, many years of seeing old cars in museums and really scrutinizing and drinking in every possible little detail, there’s one that always stands out in my mind. It’s a detail that you don’t see on every vintage car, but appears mostly on early 1900s cars to 1920s cars, usually, and it’s on the tires. Specifically, the tread of those tires. The reason this detail always stays with me is that it feels somewhat irrational, almost like a superstitious or even quasi-religious totem. The detail? Tire treads that read NON SKID.

Yes, that’s right, the treads of the tires, instead of being made based on the surprisingly complex science of tire treads, which affects handling and water displacement and traction and involves things like tread blocks and grooves and sipes, instead simply has molded into the rubber of the tire big block letters that spell out NON SKID as though somehow the act of writing this wish on the tire will make it real.

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It almost feels Kabbalistic to me; in the legend of the Golem, the old Jewish myth about a being made of clay that can be brought to life in a sort of robot-like level of artificial living, one of the traditional ways this could work would be to inscribe the Hebrew word for truth on its forehead, emmet, and to kill it, you erase the first letter, an aleph, leaving met, which means “dead.” That’s the kind of thing these old tires remind me of, Kabbalistic magical reasoning, which is generally not something I associate with tires.

Here’s a whole video about tire tread design, just to really drive home the idea that you can’t really just put anything on a tire and hope it’ll just work:

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Well, except maybe you can, in at least one case. If what you’re replacing are tires with no tread pattern whatsoever, then, yeah, almost anything will do a better job. And that’s sort of the era that these NON SKID tires, pioneered by Firestone in 1908, came into existence. Here, for comparison, look at this old ad for Michelin tires, which features another quasi-religious icon, Bibendum, the Michelin man, here giving of himself unto a kneeling supplicant, as Bibendum selflessly gives of his own body-tires to help a motorist in need.

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See how those tires lack any sort of tread at all? Tires were once like that. Then, tire manufacturers soon realized that having rubber chunks (tread blocks) and little slits (sipes) helped the tires grip much better than smooth rubber, so a wild period of tread experimentation was begun.

All sorts of designs and patterns were tried, and while I don’t think a lot of careful, scientific studies were undertaken, some of these patterns did work well enough, just by chance, really.

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Also, did you know Converse, makers of the famous sneaker, made tires? They still do! So, if big Xs and +s and more ornate shapes worked okay as tire treads, why not the words NON SKID?

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Sometimes Firestone included their whole name in the NON SKID tires (see the yellowed ad above), which gave them a bit of free advertising – if inverted – when the tires rolled over soft ground or mud or snow. They pointed the NON SKID tracks out in a number of old ads:

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Firestone explained the magic behind the NON SKID text working by noting, in some ads, that

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“The rubber lettering that is moulded right into the tread of this tire presents a mass of angles, edges, hollows and points of contact that grip the surface of the road, giving perfect traction and holding your car safe from skidding as no other tire can.”

Did Firestone of 1908 or so actually do rigorous, scientific testing to prove that NON SKID in block letters was really the optimal design for maximum grip and and handling and safety? No. I mean, I wasn’t there, but at that time in the tire industry? No. But was the NON SKID tread also good enough, especially for cars at the time, like the Model T, which had the handling and performance characteristics of an upright piano set between two bicycles? Absolutely.

I still can’t shake the magical thinking aspect of these tires, and that’s why I love them. In fact, I’d like it if this sort of thinking had been more common, with radiators stamped KEEP COOL and engine blocks cast with the words NEVER BRAKE and brake rotors perforated with cooling holes that spelled STOP TRUE in dot-matrix letters.

Maybe it wouldn’t really do anything, but what could it hurt?

 

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Manuel Verissimo
Manuel Verissimo
21 days ago

At the Michelin museum in Clermont Ferrand they explained that the first tread pattern they used was an ‘M’ which was purely a marketing gimmick as most roads were unpaved and would show the letter after the car rode on it.

Apparently Michelin discovered by accident that this enhanced traction and later on developed real tread patterns.

Andrew Martin
Andrew Martin
22 days ago

I love this kind of historical dive. Great article.

Also, as a person who grew up wearing Converse, I would nearly be tempted to have Converse tires with white lettering on my car for the laughs. But, as another commenter pointed out, they look dubious and hard to find.

Ben
Ben
22 days ago

I had mountain bike tires that were made in association with Cedric Gracia. The tread was a backwards C and a G. I liked them and only replaced them when I wanted to go tubeless, and they were not tubeless ready tires so I couldn’t get them to hold air well.

Cerberus
Cerberus
22 days ago

I love turn-of-the-century stuff. I always found the cars fascinating, but after buying a bike from that era, I love them, too. Interesting to see how things were done when there were no established ways of doing things, long histories of failed and successful attempted solutions to problems to refer to, or any good way to determine the validity of an idea beyond trying it. The tech is also often so exposed that’s it’s readily apparent what was going on, so it’s easy to inspect something and understand how it was meant to work. It’s fun to see the ideas that were ahead of their times, too far ahead of the tech, how they went about making something work with the available tech and materials, or something that might seem laughable today, but was smart in the context of the time.

Fasterlivingmagazine
Fasterlivingmagazine
22 days ago

Doesn’t work, i stamped “NEVER LEAK” all over my head gaskets and long story short, its bad

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