top of page

The Flat Cap on ... Tyres

The Flat Cap has been thinking of replacing his bicycle and went along to one of those cycle superstores that have sprung up since Sir Bradley Wiggins and a few other fit young people showed the world that the UK is actually jolly good at riding bicycles really fast. Unfortunately the bicycles on sale cost hundreds of pounds. And the only reason The Flat Cap had started to want a new bicycle was because the one he has needs a new tyre. Tyres aren’t that expensive really, and a lot less expensive than replacing your bicycle. But where did tyres actually come from? And who first came up with the idea? The Flat Cap decided he would try to find out.

The first tyres weren’t at all like the ones we use, and take for granted, today. In fact they weren’t really tyres at all. Instead people would just put a band of iron around the wooden wheels of wagons and carts to make them last longer. This wasn’t much good and people travelling on stage coaches began to complain about their sore arses because the ride in one of them was very bumpy. Roads back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries largely consisted of cobbles and this just exacerbated the bumpiness of the journey. Writing to The Times in 1813 the poet Lord Byron complained that his journey from Brighton to London had left him with a sore and chafed posterior. He continued to remark that, “when my mates down the pub asked me if I’d any new poems I was forced to read my latest work The Bride of Abydos standing up. No amount of cushions or soothing balms have been able to give me a modicum of comfort”. Unfortunately for Lord Byron (and other writers of the day) the rubbish tyre situation was to continue for another thirty odd years; by which time he had died from a fever, which he contracted whilst on a lad’s holiday to Greece.

In 1845 Scottish inventor Robert William Thomson came up with the idea of making a tyre using a number of thin inflated tubes. These bore the load and improved the comfort of the journey. Encased in leather these revolutionary tyres never really caught on and so Robert got a job as an engineer. History records that he was a good son and rebuilt his mother's washing mangle in order that the wet clothes could be passed through the rollers in either direction. Mrs. Thomson used to always do the family wash on a Tuesday.

It was left to another Scotsman called John Boyd Dunlop to invent the pneumatic tyre that we know today. Dunlop was a veterinarian by profession but he liked making things out of rubber in his spare time. Dunlop’s son had been complaining, as children do, that his tricycle wasn’t fast enough so the genial vet replaced the metal wheel. Instead of a wheel with a solid rubber surround Dunlop put a sheet of rubber around it. Then he inflated the new sheeted rubber tyre with a football pump that he found in his garage. The idea proved a success and young Johnnie Dunlop was the happiest kid in Downpatrick. A couple of days later the young boy was cycling at speed and hit a gatepost. Mrs Dunlop was not happy and had to take him to the local A&E to get him stitched up.

Undeterred by such mishaps Mr. Dunlop senior continued his work and got friendly with a famous cyclist of the day called Willie Hume. Hume was the captain of his local cycling club and he agreed to use a bicycle fitted with Dunlop’s new pneumatic tyres in a race. On 18 May 1889 Hume won all four events at the Queens College Sports in Belfast. Although Hume never got a knighthood he did go on to get his own page in The Golden Book of Cycling. Sadly for Bradley Wiggins the book no longer exists so he has had to make do with a knighthood. Chris Froome, at the time of writing, has had to make do with just an OBE. Mark Cavendish aka “The Manx Missile” fares even worse. So far all he has to show for his cycling prowess is an MBE.

Also at the meeting where Mr. Hume won his races was a local entrepreneur and paper manufacturer called Harvey Du Cros. So impressed was Mr. Du Cros that he paid Dunlop £3,000 for the patent rights, and together they set up a company to make tyres. A couple of years later it was pointed out to the pair that Mr. Thomson had already patented the idea back in the 1840’s. This didn’t hinder production or profits and by 1896 the bicycle tyre business was sold for a cool £3 million. Du Cros continued as head of the business until his death in 1918. With the advent of cars and aeroplanes it made tyres for them too.

Evans Cycles claim to be “The UK's leading specialist bike shop” and outside his local branch The Flat Cap got chatting to a young man called Anthony. Despite admitting that he had travelled there on the bus Anthony was dressed in bright fluorescent lycra shorts and vest, and sported a cycling helmet. He told The Flat Cap that he was picking up a new bicycle and shared the following interesting tyre related facts:

  • There is a city in Lebanon called Tyre, and throughout history it’s been under siege rather a lot; the last one being in 1187

  • In Formula 1 car racing, pit crews can change a tyre in as little as 3 seconds. Unfortunately none of them work at your local garage

  • A “tyre kicker” is someone who appears to be interested in buying something and asks a lot of questions but does not buy anything. When The Flat Cap was trying to sell his old sideboard on e-bay he had a few of these

  • Worldwide over 2 billion tyres are discarded every single year

  • Tyres for a monster sized trucks (like the ones you see at those big shows where they crush little cars and career about belching smoke) cost over £2,000 each

  • A large tractor tyre weighs roughly the same as two obese people, or nine fashion models

  • Obese people are sometimes said to have a spare tyre. One of the world’s oldest trademarks is The Michelin Man, and his plump body looks like a series of tyres stacked on top of one another

  • Like a lot of men, tyres can go bald over time

  • The biggest manufacturer of tyres by number is toy manufacturer Lego

  • The word “pneumatic” comes from the French word “pneumatique”, which comes from the Latin word “pneumaticus”, which comes from the Greek word “pneumatikos” which comes from the two Greek words “pneuma” (wind) and “pnein” (breathe), but Americans spell tyre “tire”. The Flat Cap was tired just listening to that last fact

bottom of page