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How was the world's first winter tire invented?

Nowadays, it is obvious to everyone that we use winter tires in the Finnish winter, and switch to different tires for the summer. But this has not always been the case, since the winter tire is not even one hundred years old yet. How was the world's first winter tire, the “Kelirengas”, created? 

The law that required the use of winter tires entered into force in Finland in 1978. The world's first winter tires were manufactured only 44 years earlier, in 1934. The Kelirengas, manufactured by Suomen Gummitehdas Osakeyhtiö, was developed for lorries, since this was a time when horse transport was being replaced by motor vehicles. The development stemmed from a close co-operation and dialogue between August Kelhu, a tire retailer from Turku and the “grand old man” of the business, Erik Sundqvist, a sales manager for Gummitehdas, and the engineers at the factory. 

– The roads were poor, but there were goods to be transported all year long. As the number of cars increased in the 1930s, it was discovered that passenger cars also required new types of tires. In 1936, the company developed and manufactured a smaller winter tire for passenger cars. The first Hakkapeliitta winter tire provided grip under winter conditions, but it was also usable in the summer, says Pentti Eromäki who worked at Nokian Tyres for over 35 years. 

The roads were poor in the 1930s, but the cars were not too durable, either, so arrival was not always guaranteed. Therefore, the most important properties for winter tires were structural durability and grip on icy and snowy roads. 

– The winter tires were completely developed with winter conditions in mind. The first winter tire had a completely new type of tread pattern, as its grooves were completely transverse and provided tooth-like grip in the soft snow and mud. The entire idea of the tire was based around a good grip surface on snowy roads, says Product Development Manager Juha Pirhonen from Nokian Tyres. 

 

At first, there were only studded winter tyres 

As the number of cars continued to grow, the ploughing of the roads was started in order to make driving easier. However, ploughing created slippery ice surfaces that the tyres that were available then could not penetrate. 

–The current studded tyre with hardened metal tips was created in the early 1960s. While there had been attempts to attach studs before, this was the exact time when the studded tyre was invented. 1974 saw the introduction of new studded tyre regulations that aimed to reduce road wear caused by studs, Pentti Eromäki remembers.

Road maintenance improved and more and more roads were covered in asphalt, which allowed them to remain free from ice and snow in the winter. Development was started on another type of winter tyre – one that would be independent of the winter tyre regulations. 

– The first non-studded winter tyres were developed in the 1970s; they could partially compensate for the grip properties of the studded tyre by using heavy sipes on the tread pattern and new, innovative rubber compounds. The non-studded tyre offered better driving comfort, as it was virtually silent, Eromäki says.

One thing remains

Currently, winter tyres are developed for different markets; North American, Nordic, and Central European tyres are very different, for example.

– In the Nordic countries, drivers value eco-friendliness and winter properties the highest, says Juha Pirhonen.

Nowadays, our roads are in an entirely different class when compared to the early days of the tyre industry, and four wheels are just about the only thing our cars have in common with the automobiles of the past. Low-profile winter tyres have been developed, meaning that they now have a lower profile and a larger inside diameter. Modern cars also place entirely new demands on tyres.

– The tyre industry has helped to improve the handling and grip of cars. These are things that drivers appreciate. In recent years, however, consumers have also started to value the eco-friendliness of tyres and materials, low rolling resistance, and low noise, Pirhonen says.

Tyre development has also progressed by leaps and bounds over the decades. Nowadays, computers are regular tools and tyre testing has become more technical. One thing still remains, decade after decade.

– No machine can come up with new ideas; you still need to do all the creative work yourself, Pentti Eromäki concludes.