Boomers Boosted Snow Tire Sales

Mister Boomer no longer lives in the Midwest, but having spent the first half of his life in a Midwest state, he can’t help but check out the weather there from time to time. Besides, he still has some friends and relatives in the area.

This winter, the weather news hasn’t been stellar for a good portion of the country, but the Midwest in particular is getting more snow than in recent winters. That prompted Mister B to think of the winters of his boomer youth, when fresh snow was practically guaranteed from December through March.

As we Midwest boomers turned 16, thoughts of driving were on our minds, as personal transportation meant personal freedom. Cars and gas were cheap by today’s standards, and it was pretty easy to get a car that ran well enough for under $300. Once winter arrived, another rite of passage connected to car ownership was that we needed — as voiced by our parents — to get snow tires. In an age before the proliferation of all-season radial tires and a limited number of four-wheel drive vehicles, snow tires were a necessity of winter life if you expected to get to school, work and go on dates.

No one knows exactly when the first snow tires appeared, but pneumatic tires (i.e., filled with air) were pioneered in Germany, France and England in the mid 1890s, and there is evidence of snow tires in Switzerland as far back as 1898. Seeing as necessity is the mother of invention, it was most likely shortly after the first pneumatic tires appeared that snow tires were tested in those areas that experienced snow-laden winters.

The 1960s were the boom time for snow tires in the U.S. According to a 1965 article from Time magazine, 12.5 million snow tires were sold in 1965, a leap from the 3,850,000 sold in 1957. Part of that four-fold increase could have been due to the first phase of boomers reaching driving age and getting their own vehicles; part could very well have been that more people owned cars, and many people owned more than one car; and part may be that the new Interstate highway system meant people could live twenty miles from work in the suburbs, and so were driving more, even in winter. Nonetheless, the sales numbers show a startling increase that marks the mid-60s as the peak time for snow tires.

Mister Boomer, unlike other boomers in his area, didn’t get his first car until he was 17. When winter came, he had his father and Brother Boomer to guide him through the process of purchasing his first set of snow tires. Earlier in the year he had been schooled on the virtues of tire rotation each season — a process of transferring front and back tires to the opposite diagonal — in order to obtain even wear on the tires. This was both an economical and efficiency move. A trip to the hoist at a neighborhood gas station or tire store wasn’t an alien experience, then, as several visits a year would be expected.

For Brother Boomer, Mister B and his father, like most people of the era, snow tires were relegated only to the rear tires, as almost all vehicles were rear-wheel drive. Once the snow tires were purchased, they could last several seasons. Some people bought extra rims so the tires stayed mounted and ready to put on at the first sight of flakes, while others, like Mister B, had the current tires removed from the rims and replaced by the snow tires. Since Mister B’s family home didn’t have a garage, the snow tires were stored in the basement during the non-winter months.

Some snow tires came with little metal studs slightly protruding out from the tread as a means of improving traction. Mister B’s family stuck with the deep-tread snow tires without studs. This made them “sing” on dry roads like a truck on the interstate — which in itself was an annoyance. Mister B’s father kept snow chains in his trunk should he become inextricably stuck. His father also instructed his boomer boys to keep a shovel and a bag of sand or salt in the trunk, both for emergency use as well as adding a bit more weight on the rear wheels for better traction.

So why did the popularity of snow tires wane as the 1960s became the 1970s? It looks like a perfect storm of circumstances conspired to hasten their downfall:

• Studded tires were banned in many states, as they were destructive to roadways.
• Many states experienced milder winters in the 1970s.
• County and city governments acquired better snow removal equipment.
• The oil embargo of 1973 caused many Americans to demand more mileage from their vehicles.
• Innovations in polymers and tire manufacturing in the mid-60s were applied to tires, producing the first all-season tires.

It is this last one that many people point to as the breakthrough needed for radial-style tires to become commonly available in the U.S. The first radial tires appeared in France in 1948, and were standard on European and Japanese vehicles from then on. Since radial tires cost much more to produce, American tire manufacturers were hesitant to accept retooling their factories for a technology they didn’t think had a viable future in the consumer market. American auto makers were wary of what they might have to do to retool their suspension systems to accept the harder-driving radials, so the two industries kept the use of radials at bay for the next twenty years.

Goodrich introduced the first steel-belted radial in the U.S. 1965, but since the auto industry turned its back on radials, the product failed. Goodyear finally found the middle ground in 1967 by releasing a bias-belted tire. It was technically not a radial, but rather a hybrid — blending a bias-belted tire with a layer of fiberglass — that could be retrofitted on any vehicle, and could be made without a large increase in machinery costs. Shortly thereafter, more innovations occurred to produce the first all-season tires. How could the snow tire stand in the way of progress?

Snow tires are still sold today, of course, but sales peaked in our early boomer years, and it doesn’t look like the industry will see those kind of numbers again. Who would have thought that snow tires would be another fixture of early boomer life that would be slowly fading into history?

Did you buy snow tires for your first car, boomers?