The story of how two brothers came up with the idea for removable pneumatic tyres is fascinating. It is sometimes the case when one simple thing happens that then leads on to bigger things, and this is so true of how Michelin tyres came into being. The two brothers were Edouard and Andrė Michelin and they lived in Clermond-Ferrand where they ran a rubber factory.
One day the two brothers were asked by a passing cyclist to repair a punctured tyre. They discovered that this was actually glued to the rim of the bike wheel. Not being put off by this fact, they removed the tyre, which took over three hours to do and then proceeded to repair it. This of course, then had to be re-glued to the rim and then left for the night in order for the glue to dry. The next day Edouard Michelin decided to give the bike with it’s repaired tyre a test run, unfortunately the tyre did not hold up for more than a few hundred metres. But this whole episode had so intrigued Edouard and his brother, that they set about finding a way to fix tyres to rims without the need for any glue. This was to be the grand beginnings of the Michelin tyre era.
In 1891, the brothers took out their first patent for pneumatic tyres that could be easily taken off rims and the long distance cyclist Charles Terront was the first person to use this type of tyre when he competed in the Paris-Brest-Paris cycle race of the same year.
Over the next few decades, the Michelin brothers made many innovations to tyres and all were met with a great amount of success. One of these innovations was the radial tyre which back in those days was called the ‘X’ tyre. Together with Citroen and their ‘traction avant’ and the 2CV very much in mind this tyre was developed and then used on these vehicles. Michelin had previously purchased the Citroen operation in the thirties when the company had been declared bankrupt. The amazing thing is that this same tyre is still available for the 2CV in these modern times.
During the 20s and the 30s, the Michelin company ran many rubber plantations in Vietnam but their employees were very poorly treated which led to the now very famous labour movement called Phu Rieng Do. The conditions the workers were expected to live and work in were described by some as being ‘hell on earth’ with workers dying in great numbers, no one will ever really be know how many workers died during this period as records were falsified. But this was all soon to come to a head with a rebellion of 5,000 workers stopping the production of rubber for four whole days. This was the first labour movement directed by the Vietnamese Communists.
As early as 1934, Michelin had invented a tyre that would still run even if it was punctured. This tyre had a foam lining and was called a run-flat tyre or self-supporting tyre. The company went from strength to strength and in 1988, Michelin bought the tyre and rubber divisions of the B F Goodrich Company, an American tyre company that had been founded back in 1870. This acquisition included part of the company which supplied tyres to the Space Shuttle program. Then two years later, Michelin also purchased Uniroyal, Inc, another old established Australian company. Since then the company has just got bigger and bigger throughout the entire world.
From humble beginnings, mending a simple flat tyre on a bicycle these two brothers managed to create an empire which today just about everyone in the world is familiar with. It is a great success story, which although at times was questionable, especially the Vietnamese rubber plantations, is still one which you have to admire.