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Motorcycle History

Motorcycle History: Pirelli Tires

Motorcycle History When it comes to motorcycle tires, every major manufacturer has its country of origin, and it’s own unique “way” of operating that goes with it: Bridgestone from Japan (the name is derived from a translation of the founder’s name, Ishibashi); Michelin, from France; Dunlop, from the U.S.; Continental, from Germany.Then of course, there’s Pirelli – unmistakably Italian, not just because of it’s thoroughly Italian-sounding name, but because, almost without fail, you can find the brand’s high-performance rubber stretched around the wheels of the most desirable Italian cars and motorcycles in existence: Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Maseratis, Ducatis, Aprilias, and MV Agustas all come, almost without exception, with Pirelli tires.And it’s not just Italian vehicles that wear Pirellis either – Pirelli has also carved out a reputation as one of the most high-end tire manufacturers on earth due to a long tradition of racing, and Pirelli is currently the single tire supplier to Formula 1, where multi-million dollar prototype race cars push Pirelli tires to over 200mph, and in World Superbike, where superbikes from manufacturers all over the world do the same. Pirelli is synonymous not only with being Italian – Pirelli is synonymous with performance.But it wasn’t always that way – in fact, Pirelli has a surprisingly humble origin. Founded in 1872 in Milan by Giovanni Batista Pirelli, a young entrepreneur who started the business at only 24 years old, Pirelli started not as a tire company, but as an elastic rubber products company. In the 1870s, rubber was a revolutionary new material only just beginning to find industrial uses, and the early investment into the expanding industry of rubber product would prove to pay off handsomely for young Pirelli.

 

An early look at Pirelli’s factory, c. 1920s.

 

In the 1870s, one of the first forays of Pirelli’s rubber company was into the business of making sheathing for phone and electric cables. Electricity and phone, just like rubber, was a new technology that was poised to change the world – and at the time, utility companies were laying cable as fast as they could to expand their new services, and every inch of cable needed a sheath of rubber to insulate it. Pirelli’s business emerged at the right time and grew quickly – in fact, Pirelli’s rubber even made its way to the bottom of the ocean, as Pirelli’s sheaths were wrapped in some of the first trans-Atlantic communication cables that stretched the 4300 km between Europe and North America.

In 1890, Pirelli entered another rapidly growing enterprise – the manufacture of pneumatic bicycle tires, which were replacing the solid rubber rings that served as tires in the years prior. Pirelli’s first tires were for bicycles, where one of their earliest important innovations was a revolutionary manufacturing process that helped tires stay in place on wheels in 1894. But bicycles soon became motorized, and Pirelli expanded into motorcycle tires too, and cars followed soon after, with their first car tire patent being registered in 1900. By the turn of the century, Pirelli, already a huge enterprise in commercial cable manufacturing, had become an international tire manufacturer as well.

In 1908, Pirelli, trying to gain market share in the burgeoning U.S. market, modernized its image with a new logo designed at the New York headquarters, using an elongated “P” that covered all other 6 letters in the name. That recognizable image worked well, and stuck with the brand, having been the company’s logo for over a century and is still in use to this day!

By the 1920’s, Pirelli’s racing heritage began to take shape. In 1924, Pirelli introduced the Superflex tire, a newly-designed low-pressure tire that was lighter and more comfortable to ride on than tires of the day. That tire technology is what helped an Alfa Romeo driven by Gastone Peri to win at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1925, becoming world champion. Pirelli made sure the world knew its tires were on the championship car!

In 1938, Pirelli made another leap forward in tire construction – they replaced cotton with rayon in the belts that form a tire’s carcass, which was much more resistant to heat, allowing for lighter, higher performing tires. In the next few years, Pirelli would discover the benefits of synthetic rubber manufacturing too, opening the first synthetic rubber factory in all if Italy in the early 1940s.

But the big revolution – the one that would truly change the way tires were made, for both cars and motorcycles, permanently – was Pirelli’s invention of the radial tire in the early 1950s. First mentioned in a company report in 1952, Pirelli introduced the Cinturato, made with a completely new construction that used cables running across the tire bead to bead to create the carcass instead of layers of heavy cloth plies. The lighter, cooler-running radial tire was an instant hit, and it opened up a whole new world of tire manufacturing techniques that would develop over the next 70 years, for both cars and motorcycles. Click Here…

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