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Fifty Years of the Uniroyal Giant Tire

Motor City Blogman

Todd LassawriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

ALLEN PARK, Michigan - No visitor to Detroit coming into the city from Metro Airport can possibly miss Uniroyal's Giant Tire, a 12-ton, eight-story-high former Ferris wheel that would fit a 200-foot-tall car, according to the Michelin division's brand manager, Ray Fischenich. It's our Champs d'Elysee, our Statue of Liberty, a reminder that the auto industry didn't die off here after 2009.

Uniroyal hosted an Automotive Press Association luncheon (I'm an APA board member) on Wednesday in a tent next to its Big Tire. We got to snap selfies and walk inside the tire, which is a mass of steel girders added as part of a $1 million renovation in 2003. Thanks to the interior framing, the imposing tire doesn't look as tall as eight stories from inside.

A radio reporter who arrived before me took the steel service ladder to the top. After that, public relations executives from Michelin restricted everyone to the first landing, which is plenty tall enough. Anyway, it's really much more impressive from outside when you're zipping along I-94 at 70 mph.

"For Allen Park, it is our landmark," says William B. Matakas, mayor of the blue-collar suburb a few miles east of Detroit's Metro Airport.

The Big Tire began life as Uniroyal's contribution to the 1964-'65 New York World's Fair. It was an 80-foot-tall Ferris wheel with 24 barrel-shaped gondolas that could carry four passengers each. It had a 100-hp motor and offered 10-minute rides for 25 cents.

Bigger corporations built mid-century postmodern pavilions at the World's Fair. Ford unveiled its 1965 Mustang there, and General Motors held its last Motorama at the exposition. Chrysler was there, too, along with such American industrial heavyweights as General Electric, IBM, US Steel, DuPont, RCA, the Bell phone company, and Westinghouse.

After the World's Fair, Uniroyal shipped the Ferris wheel by rail to Allen Park, where the tire company has a sales office. US Rubber was established in 1892 and became one of the first companies on the Dow Jones Industrial Average (it made a lot of shoe soles and launched Keds). It changed its name to Uniroyal in 1961, and Michelin bought it in 1990.

It's in the "Tier III segment," Fischenich says of the brand's current lot in life, offering "a dependable, long-lasting tire at value prices, supply, and coverage," which means you'll find them as replacement tires on midsize sedans and minivans, not original equipment on Porsches or Cadillacs.

But at the time of the New York World's Fair, when I was a kid who perked up for any car-related commercial on television, Uniroyal supplied OEM tires for the Pontiac GTO. The tire company caught my attention with its Tiger Paw tires commercial, a wonderful 60-second animation of a tiger-car hybrid, its paws tightly gripping a curvy mountain road "full of twists and turns … that's what Tiger Paws are made for."

Uni, Roy, and Al, played by three real actors who ushered in the radial tire era a few years later, paled in comparison.

Uniroyal makes car tires in 20 factories across the United States, alongside Michelin's eponymous brand and its BFGoodrich rubber. But it's hard not to think of Uniroyal's current position as the purveyor of low-priced tires for used cars as a sort of metaphor for Detroit's auto industry and the struggle here to rebuild American premium and luxury brands as true competitors for Stuttgart, Munich and Ingolstadt. Whither the Pontiac GTO?

But never mind that. Uniroyal is part of a strong global corporation (Michelin has made tires in local markets since the beginning of the automobile age) and has maintained the Big Tire through automotive boom and busts since the Ferris wheel arrived in late '65. Uniroyal added neon lights and a new hubcap in 1994, painting over its dual-stripe whitewalls somewhere along the way. In 1998, it embellished the Big Tire with a giant nail for its NailGard promotion, and it spends $16,000 per year just on upkeep and lawn maintenance. It might not be beautiful like the Statue of Liberty, but the Big Tire is a fitting welcome sign to visitors and to those of us returning to metro Detroit from more exotic locales.