The Return Of The Dutch India Company

Tim Marrs

The last time we checked in on Vredestein was ten years ago, when the semiobscure Dutch tire company airlifted a large deportment of international journalists to party for thirty-six hours in Jerez, Spain. At least, as best as that rolling affinity group of chronically jet-lagged blaggards known as the automotive press corps can be expected to party on no sleep. In other words, surprisingly well.

The goal in 2002 was to introduce the public to the latest fruit of the partnership between the world's then-independent, thirty-first-largest tiremaker and Giugiaro Design, the fancy-pants Italian styling house that's now a clip-on, adjunct design wing of the Volkswagen megaempire. Vredestein and Giugiaro had together crafted what purported to be the world's first designer production tire, the high-performance Ultrac. The Ultrac's coming online in 2002 was cool, but that's about it for what I remember.

Being a serial user of Vredestein's Sprint Classic old-car tires, however -- for the simple reason that they offer the three unbeatable, rarely combined benefits of being good, affordable, and widely available in what have suddenly become hard-to-find 1960s and '70s sizes -- I've often found myself wondering how the company was faring. They are, after all, a vital Tier 1 supplier in the Kitman motoring cosmos.

Clearly, I'd not been following the business press closely enough, for when Vredestein invited me to Budapest the other month, I was woefully ignorant of some critical developments in its recent history, including two outright sales with a brief layover in bankruptcy court. Fortunately, while I was sleeping, the company's ship had been righted and again achieved an even keel, catapulting itself -- as part of the new Apollo Vredestein group -- to seventeenth position in the cutthroat race to sell the world as many of its billions of tires as possible. Of course, I didn't know any of this when I arrived on Vredestein's junket (yes, I'm that good a reporter). I was just happy to be there.

Visiting Hungary's capital city on the Danube River for the first time was reward enough. Remarkably lovely on a year-round basis, I'd wager, Budapest was blessed by a freak, pan-European heat wave on the March afternoon I arrived, making it even lovelier. Nor were impressions hindered by the view out our window at the Four Seasons hotel, a glorious art nouveau edifice on the banks of the river's downtown, or Pest, side. A former twin city, like Minneapolis-Saint Paul, Budapest has comprised the former Pest and Buda (the latter incorporating the former Obuda) since 1873. Reminding us of another river city -- Pittsburgh -- Budapest has two distinct sides along a central river, with a grand residential area set atop a soaring cliff on one shore, complete with funicular railway and, across the drink on flat lowlands, a busy, opulent downtown. There are many bridges spanning the two sides, although comparisons to Minnesota and Pittsburgh should have already ended.

The facts of Vredestein's current condition came to light that first evening. One big change: those footing the bill were no longer strictly Dutch. For years, the Dutch government held an interest in Vredestein (pronounced fred-uh-styne and founded in 1946) unenthusiastically, like the quasi-socialist caretaker it was. This wasn't entirely a bad thing; Vredestein was a pretty cool, pretty focused, distinctly Dutch company. But in 2005, the government grew tired of maintaining its ward and put Vredestein on the block. In piled Amtel, a Russian consortium that purchased the brand and its plant at a discount price. Then, having become Russia's largest tire manufacturer, Amtel went spectacularly bankrupt in 2009, having overexpanded and overleveraged itself just in time for the global recession. Only a month later, the Vredestein part of the failed company was snapped up, rescued Dutch factory and all, at a fire-sale price by the ownership of hard-charging up-and-comers Apollo Tyres of Gurgaon, India, which also added Dunlop holdings in Africa to its portfolio, causing its ascension into global tiredom's top twenty.

Dutchman Rob Oudshoorn, who hosted us graciously in Jerez and later visited Automobile Magazine's New York bureau, has assumed additional duties to become the CEO of Apollo Vredestein BV. But the change in the former order became clear at a gala dinner in Budapest's Museum of Applied Arts -- another of the city's art nouveau gems, this one from the 1890s -- as Oudshoorn introduced the first of several visiting waves of scribblers to his new boss. Onkar Kanwar, the older Indian gentleman in a Sikh's turban who got up to speak, brimmed with enthusiasm and optimism but also coherence. From our blinkered, very American perspective, he was a reminder that there's a new set of auto-industry suits on the way, and many will come from the developing world -- India, China, South America, and maybe one day Africa. What an overdue and exciting thing it is.

Having grown Apollo into India's biggest tiremaker from humble beginnings in the 1970s, with a big business in truck and replacement-automobile tires as well as local OEM work, Kanwar, who works with his son Neeraj, was astute enough to appreciate the value a boutique-y, technology-oriented European company might provide. For it must be said that the workaday Apollo tires on display, even in stylized slide presentations, were old school in the least-exciting sense, unlikely to cause sleepness nights in the homes of high-performance tiremakers, Vredestein included, making the two companies' marriage perhaps a perfect one.

As if to prove the point, and because what multinational tire company couldn't profit from a little Italian sex appeal, Fabrizio Giugiaro -- son of the great Giorgetto, founder of Giugiaro Design -- got up to remind us that the family firm's long association with Vredestein continues. Even as the company further integrates into the Volkswagen Group, it's front and center at the launch of the tire company's latest-generation Ultrac super-high-performance tire, the Vorti.

Rated for speeds in excess of 186 mph, we know it's good. But Vorti? What is a Vorti? Why, it's the past participle for the Norwegian Nynorsk word verte, which means become, if you must ask. Meaning aside, I don't know how it scans to Indian or Dutch ears, but to an American it sounds Euro-goofy, if not to say deeply effeminate. Fortunately, better names have been chosen for the rest of Vredestein's line. Besides, as Vredestein fans, well-rested or not, have long known, an American-sounding name does not a good tire make.

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