It seems like just yesterday, not a full fifty years. I’m talking about tires here, bucko. The kind we take for granted now, but at one time we considered perhaps the most vital part of our daily transportation. Consider…
Before World War Twice, while deep in the depression, I lived with my new stepfather in eastern Oklahoma. Back there in the scrub oak and flinty hills and his pay of one dollar a day. WPA wages, which I thought surely made him one of the richest men in the world. After all, mom worked as a waitress for 2 bucks a week. Six days on. Yep, he was sure nuff rich, and he owned a car. We didn’t ride to town on trading day in the wagon anymore. Well, sometimes, if the car was broke down.
But, that old Ford definitely did not have new tires. Mostly, they were old recycles from something down at the junkyard. Which meant they didn’t have much (any) rubber on the tread, so they were wont to leak air. Either from some ugly in the sandy backroads, or from prior innertube patches simply giving up the effort as a lost cause. After all, you can only put patches over the top of other patches so many times.
Back then, every car had provision for a spare wheel and tire, sometimes two. But mostly the spare(s) were little better, usually worse. Then, as now, the general rule was that there was never air in a spare.
So, mom, me and my new dad lived on an old cardboard shares cropper shack out on a hill towards Happy Corner, which meant that we were out of town on a couple of dirt (sand) roads about 4 miles or so. As another general depression era rule, you never went on a trip without inner tube patches, a tire pump, a claw hammer and a couple of pry bars. To peel the tire over the wheel rim.
If you had picked up a nail or the such, and you could see where it punctured the tire, you could get away with knocking the tire lip down inside the wheel depression then prying only a short section of tire over the rim lip. Give you just enough room to pull out enough tube to make the patch. Usually, though, you just went ahead and pried the tire rib loose all the way around. This way you could remove the tube.
Next, it was time to find the leak. Meaning you needed to blow up the tube with the pump to get enough air so you could locate the leak. Most often, there were already a dozen or so patches in place, and the leak might actually be out from under an older patch where the cement on the old patch had given up.
Once located, you stretched the tube over your knee and used the little patch container lid, which was serrated kind of like a rudimentary file. This would rough the tube rubber so the cement would hold. In theory. Minus the scratcher, you could make due with a rough rock.
Wipe off the scratched tube surface, smear on some cement, use your Barlow knife to cut off a rubber strip patch, press the patch in place, and hold it for a while. Probably only about a minute would do, but in the hot Oklahoma sun, with you sitting spead legged in the twice hot sand, it seemed like maybe a half hour. Or two if you were behind schedule.
Very important to rub the patch into the tire, with a tool handle or even a smooth rock or stick. Make sure the edges were down good. Pump a little bit of air into the tube, then run your hand all around the tire casing inside, to see if there was an offending nail, thorn, broken limb, all the normal kind of stuff guaranteed to scob your fingers.
The tube was stuffed back into the tire casing, using care to shuffle the tube back and forth so the stem fit into the rim easily, then pump in a bit more air to make it easier to move the tube if necessary. If the tire pump had a screw-on fitting, that was the best, to keep the tube from flopping back inside the tire as you pried the tire bead back over the wheel rim.
Finally, about ten thousand pumps on the pump until you determined you needed to wet the pump inner stem seals so they did…seal that is, which then would mean some air was actually going into the tube.
Pump up the tire until it would thump exactly right when whacked with the hammer or a convenient rock. If all went to plan, with practice you could do a repair in about twenty minutes, less if you were in a real hurry. And, with luck, the patch would have pressed against the casing, and you would have a good repair. Until next time.
Which could be a mile. Or less, or maybe even give you a month more service. In our case, we once had five flats on the way into Drumright, and two coming home. But then, we did get the mileage out of our tires. Not like now when you can’t hardly get a hundred thou before all the tread is down to the steel wires. Ah, for the good old days!
Now is the good old days, when it comes to automotive tires. For instance, how long since you had a flat on your rod or custom? On your passenger car or truck? On your off-roader?
Back in the early sixties, I was introduced to the Michelin line of rubber by a friend who was pr for Sears. He sent me to a local LA dealer with instructions to try a certain tire, which I did and I was blown away when it got double the mileage of the brand I had been using on my twice-wheel drive Chevy burb. I was putting on a ton of miles at the time, plenty on back roads, and suddenly I was introduced to the new world of steel radials. I immediately switch to radials on my rods, and I haven’t carried a rod running spare since.
Do I like the radials better than the old rags? Yessir. But I do like the old skinny bigs ‘n little’s better than the fats and fats.
One time, Tom McMullen called and asked me to meet him out at Muroc. Some company (Goodyear I think) had sent him out a set of their new high speed radials to try at the lakes. On his trusty Deuce roadster. I drove out, slept in the car and immediately announced my disapproval of his new rubber. “Look like those old cartoons, with balloon tires. I betcha you have handling troubles.” He scoffed at my dire predictions. “Hey, these are the latest in racing and nothing bad going to happen here.”
Which I repeated to myself as he spun in the lights, wrapped his drag chute around the roadster, and promptly packed for home after he had dried out the driving suit.
So it is that I have never been a huge fan of the steamroller tire pro-street builds of years recent. Now, I see that we are getting skinny bigs and little’s for street rods, in the radial style, and I love ‘em. Mainly because I don’t think they will be susceptible to nails and thorns.