Of all the various parts of a car that an automotive enthusiast might like to talk about, tires tend not to be all that high on the list. Sure, you’ll hear plenty about the stuff inside the engine, upgrades to suspension and handling, and you’ll probably even hear about the wheels, but chances are that you will rarely hear more than a passing mention of the rubber wrapped around those wheels. Although the importance of having a good set of tires on your car cannot be overstated, tires are, for the most part, boring. If you’re sitting next to some hot little sportscar at a stoplight, chances are you’ll pay attention to the wheels, but five seconds after the light turns green you probably wouldn’t be able to tell someone what kind of tires the car had on it if you were asked. After all, from a purely aesthetic standpoint they’re pretty much just big black donuts of rubber that happen to go around the wheels. In earlier years, whitewall tires were a common sight on many cars. In fact The earliest rubber tires were all white rubber (as seen on the 1898 version of the Michelin Man above,) and black tires came later as carbon came to be added to the tread portions of the tires to improve wear. Ultimately, as tires improved, the whitewalls became purely aesthetic (although desirable for luxury cars,) and eventually fell out of favor entirely, now being virtually nonexistent except on classic cars which originally used them.
For the most part, drivers don’t pay much attention to the tires on their cars until they stop behaving they way they’re supposed to. Being stranded on the side of a busy freeway tends to have that effect on people, but more often than not tires will wear out long before falling victim to some random road hazard (in 13 years of driving, I’ve only had it happen once.) It is in this situation that I recently found myself as the factory-installed tires on my car recently began to approach the end of their useful life, and it came time for the ordeal of shopping for a new set of tires. I’d like to think that I have a reasonable amount of knowledge concerning cars and the stuff that makes them work, but I have to admit that when I started this, I was pretty much lost when it came to tires. From the very beginning of the process you’re confronted by arcane sets of numbers and letters like 195/65R15 91H and 215/75R16-95v that, at least until you have the good sense to write them down somewhere, you will probably need to go back to the car, bend over and read off the tire again every time you get asked for your tire size. Once you’ve got that, and figure out the 3 or 4 possible tires that a place has which will fit your car, you get to take a look at a bunch of big black things with seemingly random tread patterns on them, and pretty much no information to figure out which ones are any good. A few particularly dedicated car junkies or tire design engineers who just happen to be out shopping for new tires might actually have some clue what they’re doing, but there’s a pretty good chance you will be neither of those. If you aren’t feeling all that ambitious you do have the option of picking the one with the coolest looking tread pattern, at which point you might be able to skip a few steps.
So after a bit of random wandering around town trying to make heads or tails of all this stuff you can head for the Internet and figure out that for the most part, the good tires are the ones that no store within 100 miles of here carries (at least not in your size, which you probably had to go out to the car and look up AGAIN.) You’ll also find them a lot cheaper than you’d find them locally… Well at least you would until you figure out that you need to add 40 bucks worth of shipping to the price, making the whole thing just a tad pointless unless the local places are really gouging on their prices (but at least sometimes they’ll throw some free beef into the deal to make it up.) Usually you’ll also find out that those tires with the cool looking treads tend to suck pretty badly once you actually try putting them onto a car.
Eventually you’ll find some reasonable compromise between price, performance and ratings, find some place that actually has the things in stock (or bite the bullet and get them shipped) and settle on a set of tires. This doesn’t mean you’re out of the woods yet, because you still need to get them installed. This usually involves a process of handing over your keys to some random guy with his name on his shirt and sitting around in a dingy waiting room with a staticky 15-inch TV playing college basketball for two hours (or three if you go on a Saturday.) It seems that tire installation is one of those tasks that requires all sorts of deep voodoo that ordinary humans could not hope to comprehend (or at least a whole bunch of equipment that very few people are going to happen to have sitting around the garage at home.) Even if you know the inside of a small block Chevy like the back of your hand, it is highly unlikely that you’re going to be able to mount, balance and align your own tires at home. Even for the most dedicated of car nuts, there are still some tasks that are best left to the professionals.
And what do you get for all that effort? Well, for one thing, you’ll probably have a wallet lighter by at least the better part of $500, if not much more (if you’re lucky enough to own a Bugatti Veyron, you can look forward to paying upwards of $38,000 for a set of tires, and more than $11,500 each for a new set of wheels at every fourth tire change) and you’ll quickly go back to not noticing the tires on your car for a while. If you got a set of high performance tires, you might also be able to zip around the corners with slightly less risk of incinerating yourself or others in a horrific fashion while doing so. All in all, it’s one of those things that has to be done eventually, kind of like going to the doctor and getting shots. Not much fun now, but it prevents stuff that would be a lot less fun later on…
As for my car, I ended up with a set of these when all was said and done. The tires that came on the car when I bought it (Continentals) actually handled reasonably well for the most part, but they were pretty much worn out after 30,000 miles, and they were also a bit on the noisy side. So far, I think I have all of about five miles on the new tires, so I haven’t had a chance to really try them out yet. If I get really bored and/or short on Blog material, I might post a bit more on this later… And yes, that’s probably a threat.