Firestone Tire Testing

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Former workers recall the excitement of early Firestone tire testing operation.


| October 2006



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In this famous photo, Harvey Firestone and his son, Leonard, are digging potatoes. The tractor is a Farmall, officially called the Farmall Regular after the Farmall 30 was introduced in 1931. Notice the wheel weight on the potato digger wheel to give the ground-driven machine more traction.

Last month we talked about Harvey Firestone and his efforts in the early 1930s to put farm tractors and machinery on rubber tires. Much trial, error and rigorous testing were necessary to find the best tire and tread design. The bulk of this testing was done at the Firestone Homestead Farm outside Columbiana, Ohio, although there was a testing facility near San Antonio, as well.

As related earlier, much of the early tire testing was done personally by Harvey Firestone, who, although he was a wealthy manufacturer who played golf with the likes of John D. Rockefeller, seems never to have been happier than when seated on a farm implement behind a team of horses or driving a tractor in the field. Later, more formal tire testing was established at the farm with specialized equipment, such as a dynamometer truck to measure the actual pulling potential of different tread designs.

Several years ago, I heard from two men who worked at the Firestone farm during the 1940s testing tires, and the following stories are from their recollections.

Clarence Holloway, Flat Rock, Mich., was raised just west of the Firestone farm. He remembered seeing an Allis-Chalmers Model U equipped with Firestone air tires at a local fair during the early 1930s, although it wasn't racing (tractor races were typical of tire promotions at county fairs in 1933).

In about 1945, Clarence started to work as a tractor driver, testing tires for the Firestone Test Division at the farm. He worked for Firestone for about three years. Sometime in 1946, he asked his 15-year-old neighbor, Rand Williams, if he wanted a job as a tractor driver. Rand rode in with Clarence one morning and talked to the boss, who not only said Rand could start work that very afternoon, but asked if he knew anyone else who wanted work. Rand called a buddy, Vernon Burkey, who was also put to work. Since both boys were underage, Firestone had to obtain a government permit of some kind, but that apparently wasn't difficult. Rand and Vernon were paid 65 cents an hour to start, a figure later raised to 72 cents per hour. Rand rode to work with Clarence; Vernon rode a Whizzer motorbike to and from his home south of Columbiana.

Clarence remembers the test tractors being two John Deere Model Bs, two Farmall Model Hs, two Allis-Chalmers Model Cs, a Ford 9N and a Farmall Cub. By the time Rand started, the John Deere Bs had disappeared, but he remembers the Farmalls, the AC Cs, the Ford-Ferguson and an Oliver Cletrac on rubber treads. Rand said the Cletrac was rough riding and very unpopular with the test drivers. When one of them tired of bouncing around on the little crawler, he jerked hard on one of the steering levers and a track promptly popped off, allowing the driver a break until repairs could be made.