Making Firestone Pnuematic Tires

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: The first pneumatic tires weren't an automatic sale on the farm.

| September 2006

In 1984, a sturdy brick farmhouse built in 1828 was dismantled at its original location and rebuilt at Greenfield Village near Detroit, Mich., by the Ford Foundation. In the late 1950s, however, the house still stood on the Firestone Homestead Farm east of Columbiana, Ohio. During that time, I was sent to the Firestone house to repair the telephone. Hanging on the wall just above the phone was a framed 1930s-era photograph of all the farm's machinery, including a Farmall Regular tractor and a complete line of horse-drawn and tractor implements, all shod with Firestone tires.

Harvey Firestone, 1868-1938, founded the giant tire company that bears his name and was an enthusiastic proponent of pneumatic tires, not just on farm tractors, but on all farm machinery. He was in the minority: Almost every expert of the time thought the idea ridiculous. In the spring of 1932, balloon tires with a low chevron tread design were fitted to a tractor on the Firestone Homestead Farm. Firestone drove the test tractor in the field to observe the results firsthand.

Steel-lugged wheels provided pretty good traction in soft soil, but were rough riding and shook drivers and machinery to pieces on harder surfaces, such as roads. To preserve road surfaces, many state and local governments passed laws prohibiting tractor use. Farmers had to plank the roads to move their tractors on them, or face stiff fines. Industrial tractors had used solid rubber tires since the early 1920s, but they provided no traction in grassy or muddy fields.

In 1932, Allis-Chalmers engineers equipped a Model U tractor (owned by Wisconsin farmer Albert Schroeder) with a pair of Firestone 48-by-12-inch airplane tires for a test that proved highly successful. After the Schroeder tests, and the extensive testing conducted on the Homestead Farm, much of it done by Mr. Firestone, the first practical, pneumatic tractor tires were offered for sale in October 1932. Allis-Chalmers announced on Oct. 13 that it was offering Firestone air tires as standard equipment for its Model U tractor, making AC the first tractor builder to do so.

Many plowing and pulling matches were staged to prove the superiority of rubber over steel. Virtually all demonstrated that rubber air tires were better. Still, this was the depth of the Depression and farmers were a conservative lot, so acceptance was slow.

During the summer of 1933, Allis-Chalmers and Firestone sponsored tractor races at state fairs throughout the Midwest. Famous automobile race driver Barney Oldfield drove a stock (except for high-speed gears) Allis-Chalmers Model U at speeds of more than 40 mph, even setting a world tractor speed record of 64.28 mph in September 1933.