When tyres used to be a car’s weakest link

About 150,000 Indians died in road accidents in 2015 alone. That’s more than a 10th part of Greater Glasgow’s population. Road fatalities don’t shock the public anymore. Each one is a matter of private grief. But long ago, when automobiles were rare and motoring deaths unheard of, every fatal crash made headlines.

On February 25, 1899, a Daimler Wagonette crashed during a brake test on Grove Hill in Harrow, killing two men. The accident occurred because one of the wagon’s thin wheels broke under the stress of hard braking. It was chilling news, and people opposed to automobiles used it to make their point.


Bad science

In the Journal Land and Water, someone from the anti-automobile camp who signed only as ‘B.’ proposed this ridiculous analysis of the accident: “I have always thought that there must be some danger in using rubber tyres on oil motors or steam-driven carriages. The heat from the lamps or fires must have a decided effect upon the rubber, and it seems to me that in this case the melting or softening of the tyres to the point of bursting was the real cause of the disaster.”

It’s not possible to drive with the engine off, but perhaps ‘B.’ was warning us against turning on the headlights.

Calls for moderation

The Motor Car Journal wrote: “We certainly hear less of ‘exploding electric cabs gushing forth violet streams of forked lightnings,’ but when a slight breakdown does happen to a motor vehicle, the very most is made of it, whilst accidents occurring to horse-drawn vehicles are, of course, now so common that but little attention is paid to them unless very serious injuries or actual death results to human beings.”

Another article in the paper To-Day pointed out how the major papers gave too much play to automobile accidents: “There are accidents, I suppose, to people riding horses and to horse-drawn vehicles every day in the week, and many of them are fatal accidents, but they do not get a third of a column in The Daily Telegraph.

“The motor-car is comparatively new, and its success and failures are recorded at length in consequence. If it could be shown that motor cars produced more accidents, in proportion to the number running, than horse-drawn vehicles, there would be a good ground for something more than prejudice, though even then we might remember that the motor is at present in its initial stage. But one or two accidents, though of a serious nature, prove nothing, and one might as fairly conceive a prejudice against railways, trains, or hansom cabs.”

A case for better tyres

Even the motoring press accepted that the wheels then in use were not good enough for automobiles. “To construct a wheel that shall be equal to rough use, age, and violent shock is a task that no doubt many a wheelwright would undertake if not restricted as to weight, and if the carriage is to be drawn by horses. But when the wheels have to drive the car, circumstances are altogether changed.”

Engineers had tried to strengthen wheels with “tangent spokes, dished plates, etc”, but tyres remained the weak link. “Nobody would question the comfort of a rubber tyre or the luxury of a pneumatic tyre, but unfortunately both are costly and dangerous.”

The Harrow accident had occurred because of tyre failure. The broken tyre “fouled with the brake block and the ground, and caused a general rip-up.” To ensure safety, car makers in France therefore continued to use “old-fashioned wheels with iron tyres.”

Tyre safety fears still arise, but generally, we can trust modern tubeless tyres.



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