Akron: Rubber City’s Classic Show Page 2

June 22, 2003

Certain tire companies became matched to certain automakers: Firestone to Ford, Goodyear to Chrysler and U. S. Rubber (later Uniroyal) to General Motors. Foreign tire companies simply were not part of the U.S. market.

By 1939, the number of different OEM passenger car tires had settled down on just seven sizes, all 16 inches in diameter, for example, 5.50 for Studebaker Champion; 6.00 for the “low-priced-three” plus Dodge and Pontiac; 6.25 for Chrysler and Nash sixes; 6.50 for some eight-cylinder medium priced cars like Buick 40; 7.00 for Packard 120 and Cadillac sedans; 7.50 for Cadillac limos, and 8.25 for the Packard Twelve. Note that the vast bulk of production was for the basic “six by sixteen.”

To put that in perspective, by 1987 there were 77 different sizes of car and light-truck tire sizes in production for Detroit’s remaining Big Three and just four years later the number had leapt to 146, according to a retired tire company executive I talked to at the Akron show.

By the way, I’m skipping over some key tire developments of the post-war period, notably low-pressure, tubeless, steel-belted and radials.

Within the last quarter-century, two other key changes came to the tire industry. First, in the late Seventies, Detroit began to feel competitive cost pressures from Japanese car companies, so they squeezed Akron to reduce prices. One result was a “Southern strategy” of moving tire production from the eastern Ohio city to the Deep South, not to escape unions, which they could not, but to get younger, more productive work forces.

The structural change was an almost complete takeover by foreign companies of the long-standing Akron tire makers — and it all happened in less than five years in the middle Eighties. The only two American companies left are Goodyear, which is “in trouble,” and Cooper, an aftermarket supplier. Dunlop was bought by Sumitomo, Firestone by Bridgestone, Armstrong by Pirelli, General by Continental, and Mohawk by Yokohama. Uniroyal and Goodrich merged, and then were taken over by Michelin.

Today, Akron is no longer a tire producer. Where once there were perhaps 70,000 United Rubber Worker union members making tires in the Rubber City, now there are none. Yet white-collar Akron continues relatively prosperous as a center of tire technology and tooling, as well as polymer-related development growing out of synthetic rubber compounding.

Akronite collections

Back now to the Akron car show. Because tire companies generated huge fortunes, some fine classic cars were bought by Akronites and, fortunately, remain preserved today.

1940 Packard Darrin sedan

1940 Packard Darrin sedan

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I think the most notable car I saw at the show was a 1940 Packard Super Eight with custom Darrin sedan body. Darrin convertibles with cut-down doors are well known in classic circles but I for one had never seen the low-slung closed-quarter sedan before, resembling the 1938-41 Cadillac Fleetwood Sixty Specials and 1940-48 Lincoln Continentals.

1937 Lincoln LeBaron K

1937 Lincoln LeBaron K

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Another rare classic seen there was a magnificent 1937 Lincoln K LeBaron dual-cowl convertible sedan. My Krause “Standard Catalogue” says only 49 LeBaron convertible Lincoln sedans were built, out of a total of 997 Lincoln Ks of that model year. It doesn’t indicate, or I can’t decipher, how many were dual-cowl.

Although the show was handled by the Ohio CCCA, it was not invitational, so a number of unrestored cars turned up, especially interesting when they are true classics which have just been lying around waiting to be adopted by a millionaire collector. Of these were several Packards and couple of Auburns. Alas, to my surprise, a couple of Auburn replicars snuck into the show, but they didn’t look too bad despite their too-small wheels and clunky dashboards.

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