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Nitrogen pioneer: Olin Mott Tire first offered nitrogen 40-plus years ago. The company is selling it again by promoting the service's timeless benefits, including fuel savings

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Nitrogen pioneer: Olin Mott Tire first offered nitrogen 40-plus years ago. The company is selling it again by promoting the service's timeless benefits, including fuel savings

The ad promoting Olin Mott Tire Co.'s nitrogen inflation service isn't all that unusual. It shows a friendly picture of company founder Olin Mott along with copy touting the benefits of nitrogen inflation:

"Nitrogen is a known coolant."

"Properties of nitrogen minimize deterioration of rubber and tire cords."

"Used in airplane and racing tires."

Plenty of tire dealerships that offer nitrogen inflation make similar claims. What's unique about this particular ad, however, is that it appeared in 1963.

Yes, Olin Mott Tire was filling tires with nitrogen 40 years before nitrogen became an industry buzzword!

And three years ago, the Tampa, Fla.-based dealership began offering the service again. In total, Olin Mott Tire sells close to 2,600 nitrogen-filled passenger, light truck and medium truck tires each year.

The company is on course to fill even more tires with nitrogen as word about the service's availability spreads, says Chairman Rick Mott.

"Part of being a professional in this business is having this type of service available to the consumer. Nitrogen is really working for us. Awareness is improving week by week."

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A Royal service

Olin Mott, 86, opened Olin Mott Tire in 1955. His company now has six retail stores and one truck tire center, all in the greater Tampa area.

From the start, he's always been on the look-out for ways to differentiate his business, even drawing inspiration from other industries.

"I happened to be familiar with the aircraft industry's use of nitrogen in tires," he says. "When you get up to 35,000 feet, the air becomes thinner and the pressure in the tire expands. The porosity of the rubber opens up more if the tire expands. The molecules of nitrogen are larger than air and retain pressure better.

"Race car drivers used nitrogen back in the 1960s, too. They wanted to maintain as much pressure as they could. We were looking for a niche at the time, and I happened to know these things."

He decided to give nitrogen a spin. Mott bought cylinders of nitrogen and began offering nitrogen inflation at no charge.

The experiment lasted one week. Cylinders cost $28 apiece and one cylinder could only inflate about 12 tires. "We found it was very expensive to do it at no charge."

At the time, Mott was a major distributor of U.S. Royal tires. Mott's top-selling tire was U.S. Rubber Co.'s Royal Master. ("We were the largest seller of Royal Master in the country.")

So Mott made nitrogen an exclusive for consumers who bought Royal Masters. The line, he explains, was suffering from separation problems. "Nitrogen helped solve that."

Mott also promoted nitrogen's preservative qualities. "It slowed down the deterioration of the rubber. You had less expansion in the tire than if you used air. You had less air loss."

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His customers liked nitrogen; so did his techs, who simply hooked up air hoses to cylinders "and bled the nitrogen into the tire."

Mott offered the service up through the early 1970s, when the Royal Master line was phased out.

He figured he had a good run with nitrogen, and it was now time to explore other niches.

Little did he know that some 30 years later, nitrogen would emerge as a hot topic within the industry and a service he would offer once again.

Profitable rediscovery

Three years ago, Mott was thumbing through an issue of Modern Tire Dealer when he came across an ad from Ingersoll-Rand touting the company's nitrogen inflation machines.

"When we found out they were making generators we immediately ordered one for each of our six retail stores and one for our truck tire center," says Olin, who officially retired in 1997 but is still involved in the day-to-day operations of the business.

Olin and Rick shelled out around $5,500 each for the retail machines and $7,500 for the truck tire generator. Now they had to get the word out.

The Motts ran lots of cable television ads. Soon an unexpected opportunity fell into place. Representatives from the ABC, NBC and CBS affiliates in the Tampa area contacted the dealership about running their own tests "to see if we were lying or not," says Olin.

The Motts were more than happy to participate. A test was established in which "they drove their cars for two or three weeks without nitrogen and checked their mileage. Then we put nitrogen in their tires and they drove for two more weeks.

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"In every case, they reported anywhere from 5% to 12% savings on fuel consumption."

That generated a lot of favorable publicity. Meanwhile, the Motts used direct mail to promote the service.

"We never try to over-emphasize the benefits of nitrogen to the consumer," says Olin. "We do say, however, that you should realize improved fuel consumption with nitrogen."

They also emphasize points they made way back in the '60s.

"Nitrogen is better for rubber than air because it slows the deterioration of rubber and metal," says Rick.

"You get people who'll ask, 'If I need to add air to my (nitrogen-filled) tires, is that a problem?' It's not. You can put regular compressed air in with nitrogen; all you're doing is decreasing the percentage of nitrogen in the tire."

They also dispel other myths about nitrogen.

"It's amazing that people don't know the difference between nitrogen and hydrogen," muses Olin. "They want to know if nitrogen will blow up!"

"They also confuse nitrogen with nitroglycerin," says Rick.

"Of course, that's all word-of-mouth and it creates conversation," says Olin. "I don't mind that at all."

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Competitive edge

Unlike many independent tire dealerships that offer nitrogen, Olin Mott Tire doesn't charge for the service.

"We include it in the purchase of the tire," says Rick. "We're not here to sell nitrogen; we're here to sell tires. But we do talk it up a lot when people call to price tires.

"We use nitrogen as a reason for people to buy tires from us. It's an added value. We're after repeat and referral business, and nitrogen is an enhancement for the customer. That's how we approach it."

The dealership's sales force is trained to play up the practical benefits of nitrogen. "Less tire maintenance is a big item," explains Rick. "People don't want to take the time to check air pressure."

"We also promote it as a fuel savings device," says Olin, which has been particularly effective in light of recent sky-high gas prices.

"And you can feel the difference in the way the vehicle handles. This has been reported to us by just about every customer who's used nitrogen."

The Motts aren't opposed to using the service to generate a few dollars here and there. If a customer brings in some tires and wants to fill them with nitrogen, he or she will be charged $4 per tire.

But they've found that building nitrogen into customers' total out-the-door price gives them a competitive edge over new car dealerships in the area that also offer nitrogen -- and in some cases charge upward of $125 for the service.

"We look at nitrogen inflation as a niche," says Rick. "You need to have a separate niche. People are recognizing this as an added benefit, especially with fuel prices being so high.

"When the consumer becomes satisfied with the product you offer and it surpasses what they expect, they will come back. And it also creates referral business."

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Not just for consumer tires: Nitrogen also helps truck tires, says Mott

In addition to its retail stores, Tampa, Fla.-based Olin Mott Tire Co. also offers nitrogen inflation at its commercial truck tire center. The program has become a hit among the company's fleet customers, says Olin Mott.

“We have a big customer who uses Michelin X One wide-base tires. He runs nitrogen in every one of those things. We charge him $15 per tire to fill them up with nitrogen." (The company normally charges $5 per unit to fill medium truck tires with nitrogen but charges more to fill wide-base tires because they hold more volume.)

"He swears he's getting 12% to 15% better fuel mileage by running nitrogen. Those big fleets check their mileage like crazy; they watch it very closely."

Motor home customers are taking a shine to nitrogen as well. Olin Mott Tire services three or four motor homes each day. "We had a man drive all the way down from New York with his motor home. He bought more than $3,000 worth of tires and had all of them filled with nitrogen."

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