What made Akron, Ohio so popular for tires? Why is it “The Rubber Capital of the World?” I can’t really say, but just a short time after Goodyear planted its roots there, The Firestone Tire & Rubber Company set up shop in the small city too. It was 1900, and Harvey Firestone, an early automotive enthusiast, saw an opportunity to make the auto industry better.
From the beginning, Firestone‘s innovations helped the business boom. The first innovation was the patented sidewire tire, which was significantly easier to remove than its predecessors. As if that innovation wasn’t enough to foretell Firestone’s future success, 1906 saw a huge deal for Firestone. Ford Motor Company ordered 2,000 tires from the young rubber company. It was the single largest tire purchase made by an automaker to date. From there, Firestone never looked back.
The Second Decade
It only took ten years for Firestone to reach the $1 million sales mark, an incredible feat for a newly formed company. Then, as with most tire manufacturers during this era, Firestone entered professional motorsports. The company saw early success here also. The inaugural Indianapolis 500 was won on Firestone tires. Out of the public eye, Firestone made some important advances. Its manufacturing plants grew and were connected by a private railroad that helped speed along production and success.
The Roaring ‘20s
The 1920s were roaring for Firestone, just as with the rest of America. For Firestone, it was the roar of rapid movement forward. That all began with a visit from former President William Taft. In a time when insider politics ruled, this visit meant that the tire company was a major player in the landscape of American business.
However, President Taft’s visit was only a sign of success, not the driver of it. The success came straight out of Firestone’s factories. In 1922, they created the tire industry’s first low-pressure balloon tire. Drivers could get significantly more mileage out of these durable tires compared to tires produced by Firestone’s competitors at the time.
The 1930s came and brought along financial hardship. The Depression struck the nation and the tire industry. Firestone suffered along with almost everyone else in the US. But new tire designs and business campaigns helped minimize the effects of the economic downturn. Firestone developed the first practical pneumatic tire for tractors and launched the “Put the Farm on Rubber” initiative, which marketed their products to America’s vast agricultural network.
By 1935, Firestone had turned its fortunes around, seeing huge sales numbers. Yet, it wasn’t long before the company was hit by another major setback. In 1938, founder and American business celebrity Harvey S. Firestone passed away.
Wartime & Beyond
Back in the 1920s, Harvey Firestone had traveled to Liberia and brokered a 99-year lease on a huge plot of land that would allow his tire company to grow and harvest its own rubber plants. Now, with World War II on the horizon in Europe and Africa, that supply chain looked to be in danger. Firestone’s spirit of innovation wouldn’t let that stop production. The company began manufacturing tires with synthetic rubber.
When The War picked up and the US got involved, Firestone started manufacturing tires for military vehicles amongst other supplies for the armed forces. Firestone eventually produced the first synthetic rubber tires in a government-owned plant in 1942. Several of the technological and production advances made during the war would go on to drive success in the post-war era as well.
The production of materials and supplies for the US military didn’t end with WWII. Firestone continued to manufacture products that were used in the Korean War, including gas masks and rifles. This period of growth also saw the company become the world’s largest rubber producer in 1955. By the end of the decade, Firestone had 71 plants in 19 different countries.
The 1960s & 1970s
Much of what led to Firestone’s success was the way it was run. That’s also why it was named one of the 10 best-managed companies in the US in 1960. The business prowess of the company’s leadership led to more growth, including the acquisition of Dayton Tire. In 1965, its 65th year in operation, the company reached another major business milestone: Firestone achieved a record $1.45 billion in annual sales.
There was more to Firestone’s monumental success than simply the management. Many new inventions by Firestone engineers spurred growth. The company began making plied passenger tires and tires that became the original equipment choice on many high performance cars during this period. As the ‘60s came to a close, Firestone was selling 3,600 different types and sizes of tires and 2,000 other products in and out of the auto industry.
The success that exploded out of innovations made from the 1940s to the 1960s was tempered by significant problems during the 1970s. The oil embargo established by Arab nations in 1973 raised the cost of tire production, which in turn raised the price of tires for consumers. The embargo also caused gasoline prices to skyrocket. The result was a lot less driving for Americans. That, of course, translated to less tire buying. Then, another major hurdle to overcome. Firestone issued the largest product recall in American history to date — 400,000 tires had to be recalled at a cost of more than $148 million.
The 1980s & Big Changes
Looking to rebound from its recent troubles, Firestone sold one of its manufacturing plants located in Tennessee to Japanese tire manufacturer Bridgestone in 1981. That paved the way for Bridgestone’s eventual purchase of Firestone. It also made Bridgestone one of the world’s largest tire companies with plants in North America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.
In just four years, the integration of Firestone into Bridgestone led to large profits. The Firestone headquarters in Akron, Ohio was turned into one of Bridgestone’s three Technical Centers, which served as locations for research and development. The Technical Centers also carried on Firestone’s legacy of innovation. The merging of Firestone into Bridgestone gave Bridgestone an excellent opportunity to enter the motorsports world. Even though Firestone had left professional racing years earlier, the famous name was all that was needed to establish some major partnerships on the racetrack. Major victories were won along with greater brand awareness for both Firestone and Bridgestone. Sales increased and the corporation expanded.
A New Millennium
Since 2000, Firestone under Bridgestone has continued to grow. It has designed several new tire models that range from passenger tires to heavy-duty commercial tires. Today, Bridgestone Americas, the subsidiary that includes Firestone, employs more than 50,000 people and has 52 production facilities throughout North and South America.
Want to find out if Firestone’s long history of tire manufacturing can benefit your daily drive? Heat to RightTurn.com to discover which Firestone tires are right for you and your vehicle.