It might come as a surprise to many that Michelin, known around the world for its superb tires, didn’t start in the tire business. Originally named Michelin & Co., the company was founded by brothers André and Édouard Michelin in 1889 with the goal of developing a silent brake pad for vehicles.
Their devotion to tires didn’t begin until 1891 when a customer came to them for help repairing a damaged bicycle tire. The repair proved so difficult that the Michelin brothers saw a need for a better tire. Thus began the early stages of the Michelin Corporation as we know it today.
The next big step for Michelin tires came in 1892 (and is a rather delightful piece of history, in my opinion). The company organized a bicycle race between Paris and Claremont-Ferrand. To advertise their new product, the detachable tire, and the ease of changing it, the Michelin brothers spread several nails in the road. The risky marketing tactic paid off. Michelin tires started quickly growing in popularity.
Their legacy as tire manufacturers really began to solidify in 1895. The Michelin brothers had built themselves a vehicle, which they nicknamed “The Éclair.” The Éclair became the first automobile ever fitted with pneumatic tires (tires with air inside). Since then, the auto industry has never looked back.
In 1898, Michelin & Co. got a face of its own in the form of the Michelin Man. This world-famous mascot was conceived of when Édouard Michelin saw a stack of tires and said, “Give it some arms and legs and it would look like a man.” With a superior product and a great mascot, it was off to the races for Michelin.
Over the next 20 years, Michelin expanded from France into England, Italy, and the US. The company employed over 4,000 people at its original plant in Clermont-Ferrand. It led tire and auto innovation, helping develop tires that would last longer and get better traction. During this period, Michelin tires also participated in major automotive milestones, including the breaking of the 100 kilometers per hour barrier.
Like nearly all of Europe, the course of Michelin changed in 1914 with the onset of World War I. Just 3 weeks after the declaration of war, Michelin volunteered to make planes for the French government. In fact, the first 100 planes were given to the government for free. A tire storage warehouse in Clermont-Ferrand was used as a wartime hospital as well.
After the war, Michelin made many advancements that would change tire technology forever. Anti-skidding tires for wet roads, tires with built-in tubes, and radial tires are just a few of the new developments made by Michelin in the first half of the 20th century.
Michelin & Co. saw major possibilities in the specialization of tires, tires for specific types of vehicles and specific uses. They created tires for trucks that could handle the heavy cargo loads. They developed touring tires for extended drives and better traction. In 1965, Michelin created the first asymmetric tire for fast vehicles. It’s this spirit of innovation that still keeps Michelin ahead of the curve today.
As if those game-changing inventions weren’t enough, Michelin attracted the world’s attention again in 1979 when their tires helped Ferrari the Formula 1 World Championship. To this day, Michelin is a leader in the world of professional motorsports. A great deal of their passenger tire technology comes directly from or is inspired by their professional racing tires.
By the 1980s, Michelin’s manufacturing expanded throughout Europe, North America, and South America. That growth continues today. Currently, Michelin has over 80 plants around the world and employs over 100,000 people. The company’s manufacturing is another area where they continue to make advancements. Michelin has been very successful in making its manufacturing processes more efficient, safer, and more environmentally friendly.
It’s difficult in one blog article to cover the history of a company that’s been consistently impacting the lives of so many people for over 100 years. From creating new tire technologies to publishing some of the most trusted maps and tourism guidebooks available, Michelin has done so much that’s noteworthy. Here a few more highlights:
- 1994 – Michelin helps lead the way in low-rolling resistance tires with Michelin Green X tire technology.
- 1995 – NASA’s space shuttle is fitted with Michelin tires.
- 1998 – Michelin creates the PAX system, one of the first run-flat tire technologies.
- 1998 – The Michelin Man celebrates his 100th birthday.
- 2001 – Michelin becomes the leading tire manufacturer in China.
- 2002 – The Michelin Performance and Responsibility initiative is launched, which formalizes the company’s commitment to respecting consumers, shareholders, the environment, and facts.
- 2009 – The Michelin Green X Challenge is launched. It challenges motorsports teams to develop cleanest, fastest, most efficient cars possible.
Today, Michelin is still working to develop the best tires possible. The tire manufacturer consistently engineers and releases new, more advanced tires for specific types of vehicles and for specific uses. So whether you drive professionally, for leisure, or just to get from A to B, Michelin is trying to make your drive better. And they’ll continue to do so for many years to come.