(Editor’s note: We did a series of stories back in October on tires, from a visit to a Brazilian tree farm to a ride in the Goodyear blimp and stories on the importance of winter tires and on monitoring tire pressures. But we had one story that we hadn’t quite completed, so consider the following another part of that series.)
Although it introduced tires that didn’t need inner tubes in 1947 and in 1965 was the first American company to develop longer-lasting, smoother-riding and safer radial tires, car enthusiasts referred to BFGoodrich as “Granny Goodrich” because it’s primary emphasis was producing tires for mundane family vehicles.
But the company, which supplied the tires for Charles Lindberg’s “Spirit of America” airplane and is celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2020, changed its image with the introduction of a radial tire for the new class of “muscle cars” that Detroit was producing.
Nonetheless, it was one thing to produce such tires and quite another to convince people to buy them.
“BFG had been notorious for years for being innovators,” said Bob Bowers, who retired from the company as performance tire market manager. “It was the first company to figure out how to build a radial tire in the United States (the Europeans were not too benevolent in sharing such technology), and at the same time they invented another creation, a 60-series radial tire. Nobody had ever done that before in the world.”
While Europe didn’t need such a tire, it was the ideal fitment for the so-called muscle cars that were rolling out of Detroit automotive assembly plants and being purchased by a new generation of American car enthusiasts. It also led to what Bowers called “a culture clash… a struggle within the BFG brand.”
At the time, many inside and outside company facilities referred to BFG as “Granny Goodrich” because it primarily produced tires for mundane family cars. But now, BFG engineers had come up with a remarkable breakthrough — the Radial T/A — a tire that was ideal for higher-performance vehicles.
But how to get that point across, within the company and to the tire-buying public?
Seems there was a contingent of BFG staffers who enjoyed going to the nearby Barberton Speedway race track, and someone got the idea to put a set of the company’s new radial tires on one of the race cars. They worked. They won. And soon they were winning on other tracks, and soon there was a promotional fleet of Pontiac Firebirds re-dubbed as the Tirebirds competing and winning in sports car races as well.
“They beat race rubber at Watkins Glen on street radial tires,” Bowers recalled of the way passenger car tires outperformance made-for-racing rubber on the track.
Another innovation followed, the 50-series radial, and BFG teamed with road racer John Greenwood to put its tires on his Chevrolet Corvettes for the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where they not only won their class, but were clocked at 219 mph on the Mulsanne Straight.
“On street tires!” Bowers said. “He was crazy! Now we know better.”
The need for a high-speed radial became clear, Bowers said, and led to the development of the BFG Comp T/A, an even higher-performance radial.
Again, however, producing a tire is one thing, selling it is another. Which is where Bowers came in.
To try to convince car enthusiasts of the viability of its new radials, BFG sent tire engineers to car-club meetings. Bowers was part of a Van Nuys Boulevard Corvette club in Los Angeles, heard one of those early presentations and ended up being hired by BFG, which realized that car enthusiasts willing to learn about tire chemistry and construction might be the best people to convince others of the radial’s viability.
“In the process of all of that, we learned how to do this, how to build a performance tire brand,” Bowers said. “It was driven by car guys.”
Those car guys went to custom car shows, to race tracks, to tire dealerships, to events for shag-carpeted vans (remember, this was the late ’70s and early ’80s), and they not only made the Radial T/A the tire of choice with enthusiasts, but they helped push BFG develop tires for motorsports on pavement, the Comp T/A, and for off-road, the All-Terrain T/A.
Speaking of names, another retired (after 48 years) BFG staffer, Richard Winchester, recalled that the first run of Radial T/A tires actually were labeled with the phrase “Trans Am” on the tire sidewall, the Trans Am in reference to the popular racing series featuring Mustangs, Camaros and other new Detroit pony cars.
The Sports Car Club of America owned the rights to the Trans Am name and was getting $5 from Pontiac for every Firebird Trans Am that rolled off an assembly line.
“The SCCA wants 50 cents a tire,” Winchester said. Rather than pay what would have been hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of dollars to the racing group, BFG avoided payments by using the T/A nomenclature.
Winchester also shared the story of how BFG became the tire of choice with van owners.
“The van craze was going on,” he said, noting that BFG showed a van with larger radials on the rear and smaller ones on the front. The result was not only a new look, but a lower center of gravity and a large van now “handled like a sports car.”
And speaking of sports cars, Winchester recalled parking-lot events with a pair of identical cars, one wearing its factory-installed bias-ply tires and the other with BFG radials. People simply were asked to move each car by pushing them. Eyes were opened, he said, when people realized how much easier it was to push the car on radials.
He also did dynamic demonstrations that showcased the radials’ performance, and then pointed out their durability, often good for twice as many miles before needing to be replaced.
“Word got out pretty quick,” he said.
From the road to the race track, the BFG radials grew in popularity with car enthusiasts. Perhaps they’d also work away from pavement?
Again, BFG would follow its newly developed but successful radial marketing program.
“We worked with grassroots people rather than the programs, didn’t buy our way in but worked out way in, worked with the people, pick the right enthusiast to carry our image,” Bowers said.
For off-road, that person was Frank Vessels, a young off-road racer.
“Right away he won on them,” Bowers said. But, he added, Vessels reported that he had to change his driving style to do so, because while the radial construction beneath the tread seemed bulletproof — “He could hit things straight on at speed and they were literally impossible to kill” — the sidewalls were vulnerable. Vessels response was to change his driving style. Instead of steering around rocks, he simply took them head-on.
Bowers said the demand for the what were branded at first as the Radial All-Terrain tires became so great with off-road racers that at events in Mexico’s Baja California, he was kept busy running back and forth across the border, buying tires at U.S. BFG dealerships and hustling them back to Mexico to sell to the racers who had been using on other brands.
Granny Goodrich had become the tire of choice for car enthusiasts on and off pavement.