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Sidewall styling: What's hot, what's not and the trend toward serrated designs

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Sidewall styling: What's hot, what's not and the trend toward serrated designs

Does the design on a sidewall help to sell a tire? The answer is yes, and no, depending on whom you ask.

Especially in recent years, tire manufacturers have spent a great deal of time and money creating sharp-looking sidewalls for their tires. But still many tire shoppers prefer to check out the more publicized features such as tread patterns, performance capabilities and cost-per-mile of operation.

There are plenty of exceptions, however. Often, high-end performance tire buyers, older drivers and younger drivers who want to create an image, SUV and light truck owners and off-roaders do care about the tire's appearance or special sidewall features.

With these customers, tire dealers often can upgrade the tires sold, increase their profit and send customers away feeling they have made the right choice. This service also separates them from mass merchants or price clubs with lesser knowledge that sell run-of-the-mill tires mostly on the basis of price.

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Personality plus

As tire technology has evolved and improved over the years and some tire types have taken on their own "personalities," more attention is being paid to sidewalls. But they are still the most often overlooked tire component.

Tire manufacturers increasingly involve marketing people in planning for and developing the "look' of new tires. Tiremakers get input from their dealer councils. Focus groups of consumers are asked directly for their preferences.

For manufacturers, the sidewall is the "billboard" on which they display their logo. It's the first thing a customer sees when looking at a tire in a dealership. It's the tiremaker's chance to make a statement about his product, to leave an impression about how "cool" the tire is and to imply how safe it is and how well it can perform.

It may even help convince a replacement tire customer to stay loyal to the tire brand that came on his or her car.

Marketing people contend that even if a customer doesn't comment directly on the sidewall's appearance, he or she is swayed, at least subconsciously, by the tire's looks.

They say it's well worth it for dealers to consider the age, sex, driving habits and financial status of customers in making their sales pitches. Even the dealership's location can make a difference.

For instance, Terry Westhafer, president and general manager of Central Tire Corp. in Verona, Va., says white letters and sidewalls on tires are more popular in the southeastern United States, and he stocks tires accordingly.

So does Douglas Blaine, president of Tire Depot in Toms River, N.J. Many of Blaine's customers are retirees who relate to the era when white sidewalls were the "in" look on passenger car tires.

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Kevin Edens, owner of Sherwood Tire Service in Sherwood, Ark., believes women may pay closer attention than men to the sidewall design of standard passenger tires. It's not a bad idea, he says, to call attention to sidewalls when dealing with them.

He and most other dealers surveyed also know men often like the white letters, white outlined letters and other touches that add an aggressive look to tire sidewalls on light trucks and SUVs.

Designer sidewalls

Manufacturers also are paying more attention to sidewall style. In 1997, Dutch tiremaker Vredestein Banden B.V. even hired an internationally known design firm to give its products a distinctive look. The designer, Giugiaro Design, also works on products in a variety of fields such as cars for Volkswagen AG and cameras for Nikon Corp., among many others.

Among recommended changes is a redesigned company logo that is now used on the sidewall of the new Vredestein ultra-high performance passenger tire (the Ultrac Sessanta) introduced in Europe and the U.S. this year and, eventually, on all Vredestein tires.

The new logo design is "more streamlined and the lettering is more powerful. The new logo is more in line with Vredestein's image and Vredestein's quality products in the top sports segment," the company reports.

Peter Roest, manager of the Vredestein Tyre Information Center in Holland, says Giugiaro also has created a whole new "outside appearance" for its tires -- changing the profile as well as the sidewall. This new look will be featured in the Dutch company's upcoming marketing campaigns.

Why bring in an outside designer?

Roest says Vredestein wants its products to be unique and appealing and to establish rather than follow sidewall trends. Its tires sold in the U.S. are all blackwall products with the same sidewalls as those it markets in Europe.

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John Gamauf, president of North American consumer replacement tires at Bridgestone Firestone North American Tire LLC, says the company has introduced a number of unique sidewall treatments lately.

The new Fuzion XTi has a different sidewall design on each side of the tire. The Bridgestone Dueler H/L Alenza features Ever-Black, a compound that permits black sidewalls to keep a new tire sheen that won’t fade with time. Ever-Black might be used in other products down the road.

Paul Maxwell, senior tire designer at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s Tire Design Studio in Akron, is convinced the company's serrated tire sidewall concept has opened up many new possibilities for a variety of eye-catching tire designs.

The serrated tire's indentations give it a variety of looks when viewed from different angles and under different lighting conditions. Maxwell says Goodyear already builds tires with upward of 30 different variations of that concept.

More than 'skin' deep

And not all sidewall improvements are in outside appearance.

Mark Ludlow, Michelin North America Inc.'s marketing manager for ultra-high performance tires, points to advances in technology that make sidewalls more resistant to abrasion from curbs and the stress of potholes. This is especially important in the era of low profile performance tires, whose narrower sidewalls put both tire and rim in more danger of road hazard damage.

This protection also involves thicker and tougher rubber in the critical area of stress around the narrow sidewall's tire rim.

"During the life of an 80,000-mile passenger tire, the sidewall flexes more than 50 million times," points out Bill VandeWater, consumer products manager in sales engineering at Bridgestone Firestone.

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How many materials of any kind, he asks, could stand up to that kind of wear and abuse?

Still, it's unlikely that anytime soon tire ads and promotions will feature sidewalls. So it's understandable that emphasis in this area varies with customers and tire dealerships.

"I don't think sidewalls are a deciding factor in a tire sale very often," says Dave Coppess, owner of Petro's Tire Sales and Service in Indianapolis. Ind.

He believes the sidewall design seldom comes into play if you start by matching the general type of tires you recommend with the interests of the customer's age group or the style of the tire for which he's shopping.

Ernie Caramanico, who owns Amityville Firestone in Amityville, N.Y., says he "can't remember" anyone ever asking for a tire with a particular sidewall design.

Douglas Blaine, the New Jersey dealer, sees "almost no connection" between the tire's sidewall appearance and the customer's choice of a tire. But he is also aware that the age and interest of the tire buyer influences the tires he shows them.

Some 95% to 97% of customers don't care about the sidewall, estimates Bonnie Moreland, owner of Golden State Tire in Texarkana, Texas. Doug Swanson owner of Modern Auto Care in Eden Prairie, Minn., puts the "don't care" number at 75%, but Tim Seehusen, boss man at J&L Tire and Auto in nearby Hopkins, Minn., says the sidewall importance in a tire-buying decision is "about a 50-50 deal."

He doesn't put a number on it, but Ronnie Thomason, owner of Thomason Tire Inc. in McKinney, Texas, has noticed that tire buyers are more aware of sidewalls than they used to be.

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New sidewall demands

Tire improvements continually put new demands on sidewalls.

Run-flats require sidewalls strong enough to support the weight of the vehicle for considerable distances.

Wraparound treads that creep up the sidewalls are used on off-road vehicles to provide extra traction in mud and the ability for rock climbing vehicles to crawl upward in rough going with tires that wrap themselves around irregular objects -- all while carrying only six or eight pounds of air pressure.

Modern technology requires sidewalls that rapidly adapt to new needs, but historically, sidewall design changes have evolved slowly.

Early in the 20th century, virtually all tires were simply black. Sidewalls were plain and not very pretty with few or no embellishments.

But in 1914, a Chicago chauffeur named Harry Hower changed all that by introducing the idea of white sidewall tires. They were marketed as a high-end product by Vogue Tyre and Rubber Co., a private label company that is still thriving and now sells S- and H-rated passenger tires and SUV and light truck tires, many with gold and white stripes, as well as accessories for luxury vehicles.

Though the white sidewall idea was adopted by tire manufacturers, it was slow to win widespread acceptance.

For one thing, in the bias-ply days of the '20s and '30s, the white rubber used in white sidewalls was less resistant to heat and oxidation than the carbon black in tires. This, plus the bias-ply design, put a lot of stress on the cords and rubber, says Michelin's Mark Ludlow. This greatly increased the possibility of tire breakdown or separation.

With development of radial tires, mileage increased and new additives greatly enhanced the properties of white sidewall rubber, he notes. The inflated shape of radial tires also places less stress on the rubber.

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(Even so, Tony Talbert, General tire brand manager for Continental Tire North America Inc., says that in all but a few cases, he would not recommend use of white rubber in performance tires with an "H" or higher speed rating because heat buildup could still risk tire separation.)

Popularity of white sidewalls increased rapidly during the '70s and into the '80s, and the whitewall treatment enhanced what was then considered the classic look of the tire and car.

Whitewall popularity peaked in the late '80s. But by then, the width of the white sidewall stripes was becoming narrower and narrower.

By 2005, Modern Tire Dealer Facts Issue statistics showed only 0.2% of original equipment tires were whitewalls, down from more than 5% as recently as 1997. However, last year close to 20% of replacement tires still came with white stripes on at least one sidewall, compared to about 44% in 1997.

Though new car manufacturers have virtually stopped using white sidewalls on passenger car tires, they are still popular with older drivers who hark back to the days when they were considered a styling plus. They're available also to permit drivers of older cars to match white sidewall tires that are already mounted on their vehicles.

Popularity of solid white letters on sidewalls also has declined rapidly, dropping by as much as 20% per year, according to Bridgestone Firestone's Gamauf. They are still in use, however, on SUVs and light truck tires. Raised outline white letters, however, continue to gain in popularity, especially on SUVs and light trucks.

Colored stripes on sidewalls achieved short-lived popularity some 30 years ago, but never really caught on for long. Red, blue, green and yellow stripes popped up briefly.

Old-time dealers who sold these tires say they were hard to coordinate with many colors of vehicles and even when they matched, they tended to detract too much from the style of the vehicle itself.

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Vogue Tyre, however, continues to buck this trend.

Raised black letters, of course, have been around for many years and are still popular.

Tire manufacturers no longer need color to fancy up the sidewalls, and auto manufacturers insist on conservative OE tires that don't compete for attention with the vehicles in their dealers' showrooms.

And nobody wants sidewalls that clash with the fancy chrome wheels favored by auto enthusiasts.

Symbolic sidewalls

There has been a recent trend to use symbols and logos on sidewalls of tires of people with special interests.

Among them are the Firestone Firehawk Indy 500 tires that sport white letters and the winged wheel logo of the Indianapolis Speedway.

And the Goodyear Eagle #1 NASCAR tire has solid white letters with the Goodyear logo and tire name as well as the raised white letter NASCAR logo in race-style lettering.

And Pirelli sells a light truck tire, the Yellow Scorpion, with a yellow scorpion design on the sidewall.

Since tire molds cost $15,000 to $20,000 each, tire manufacturers use much less costly mold inserts to add logos and other smaller embellishments to sidewalls of otherwise standard tire lines.

(Goodyear also supplied special SUV tires to All Sports Tires Co. before the Orlando-based company went out of business. All Sports distributed the tires to tire dealerships near the campuses of five southern colleges. Fans at each school could drive around with the name of their college and the nickname of its athletic teams in solid white letters on their tire sidewalls.)

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Though more and more passenger tires are black, matching them can still be tricky at times.

Owner Joe McCarthy of McCarthy Tire Co. Inc. in Martinsville, Ind., is one of several dealers who said they must be careful when mounting tires with serrated sidewalls.

Automakers have specified different serrated patterns for different new car models that use OE tires of exactly the same size and type. One of McCarthy's service techs mounted the proper sized tire on a customer's car. But later the driver returned to say he'd discovered his new tire didn't match the others on his car. So the new tire had to be dismounted and suddenly turned into a used one.

Another familiar dealer lament is that varying sidewall designs, added to the exploding number of sizes and types of tires, requires them to stock larger and larger inventories.

But that's not all bad, say some dealers like Davis Martin, vice president of purchasing and distribution for Martin Tire Co. of El Paso, Texas. To him it's "a blessing in disguise."

"It helps keep the dealership alive," he says. It gives Martin Tire the opportunity to provide customers with products and expertise that price-conscious outlets like Wal-Mart can't hope to match.

Low profiles may be great and technology protects them from the additional risk of road hazard claims, but some dealers say the increased amount of rim damage can be a hassle.

For instance, when damage does occur, it often involves the rim as well as the tire. Says Dave Coppess of Indianapolis, "We can usually fix the tire, but sometimes not the rim."

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At Golden Star Tire in Texarkana, Texas, Bonnie Moreland agrees. She sees "quite a lot of wheel damage."

Still, not one dealer who was asked said he loses money selling road hazard protection.

Doug Blaine of Tom's River and Joe McCarthy of Indianapolis were among dealers who said tire sizes are hard to read on today's narrower sidewalls that are filled with DOT and UTQG information required by the government. It's hard for customers, too, when they look for sidewall size information when inquiring about replacement tires.

One dealer said the required information runs completely around some tire sidewalls in small type and "you have to stand on your head to read half of it."

Despite improved tire additives and technology, Guy Norton, owner of Junction Tire Inc. in Mesa, Ariz., says older, often original equipment tires, crack and dry out over time -- say, six years or so -- in the hot and dry Arizona climate.

This can create a safety problem, especially for people who see that their tires have good tread wear remaining. Norton's employees routinely look for this damage and recommend replacement tires.

Dealers, especially in rural areas, say some of the same people who buy serrated tires because they like their cars to look sharp, complain that the indentations make them hard to keep clean.

There are fewer instances of discolored tires caused by bleed-through of tire additives, say dealers. For years, tires tended to turn somewhat brown over time.

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Future trends

What about tire sidewalls of the future?

There's no doubt the exterior of sidewalls will continue to change as tiremakers compete to come up with the most modern look.

But the most comprehensive short-term change may well be in the interior of the sidewall.

Michelin's Mark Ludlow envisions the expanded use of the computer chips now used in heavy truck tire sidewalls in sidewalls of tires used on all types of vehicles. These chips will monitor not only mileage, but also will reveal tire abuse such as running with low air pressure, other internal tire damage not readily visible and other potential safety hazards.

With hand-held devices, dealers will be able to scan the tire quickly for hidden problems and reduce on-the-road tire failures.

And, just maybe, such improvements will at long last give the tire sidewall the recognition and attention it has so long deserved.

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