February 12, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Harvey Firestone

In 1895 Henry Ford, a machinist fiddling with new gasoline engines, walked into the Columbus Buggy Company store in Detroit. Harvey Firestone sold him a set of rubber carriage tires. The two men wouldn’t meet again for ten years but when they did it changed the automotive industry.

The son of an Ohio farmer, the 22-year old Firestone joined his uncle’s buggy company as a salesman in 1890. Firestone quickly demonstrated a flair for sales; by 1892 he was in charge of the entire Michigan district. The sale to Ford proved to be one of his last as the buggy business went bankrupt in 1896. By that time, however, Firestone had seen the future: rubber tires would surely replace bone-rattling iron-banded wheels.

A friend staked him to a retail tire venture in Chicago and it prospered mightily. He sold out for $45,000 in 1900 and left for Akron, already the rubber capital of the world. Firestone took with him not an improved rubber tire but a patent for attaching tires to rims. He organized the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, contributing his patent and $10,000 to acquire 50% of the company which was capitalized at $50,000.

For the first few years other companies provided Firestone with tires but when he began manufacturing his own solid tires the firm became established.
He developed a pneumatic tire which caught the fancy of Henry Ford, who placed an order for 2,000 sets to carry his new runabouts. It was the largest single order for tires ever placed by an auto manufacturer.

The Ford Motor Company sold so many cars that one in every 14 Americans soon owned a car (the figure in Europe was on the order of one in 150).
Most of those cars traveled on Firestone tires. Flushed with Ford money Firestone developed into the world’s most innovative rubber company, producing the first dismountable rim for easy tire changes, the first balloon tire, and the first low-pressure truck tire.

Firestone was the foremost advocate of truck transportation in America, campaigning for improved highways and the elimination of railroad grade crossings. He promoted his tires aggressively in racing competitions to prove their safety and durability.

World War I eviscerated the world rubber market and the post-war depression threw Firestone into a debt approaching $43,000,000. He slashed prices to reduce inventories and was able to completely pay off his obligations by 1924. But when the British put restrictions on rubber production in her possessions Firestone had suffered enough of the vagaries of the world rubber market.

He arranged to lease up to one million acres of Liberian land in Africa in return for a $5,000,000 personal loan and an agreement to improve the Monrovian harbor. By 1936 sixty thousand acres had been planted and during World War II the plantation turned out to be a valuable source of rubber for the Allies. Firestone also acquired textile mills, steel and rim-making plants, and cotton plantations.

Having taken some steps to shore up the supply side of his operation Firestone turned to the retail side. His tires were sold through a network of over 30,000 dealers but was facing stiff competition from the great mail-order houses, Montgomery Ward and Sears, who were beginning to sell tires in retail outlets. Firestone pioneered one-stop service stations offering gas, oil, brakes and,
of course, his tires.

Firestone and Henry Ford forged a relationship outside their business dealings. Together with Thomas Edison the three men frequently disappeared into the wilderness on camping trips. America’s most celebrated campers also enjoyed reunions at their winter homes in Florida.

It was while vacationing on his Florida estate in 1938 that Firestone died at the age of 69. He spent his last hours before passing away in his sleep doing what he enjoyed best: riding in a sulky behind his favorite horse on his hand-built bridle path. He had never quite accepted that horseless carriage.


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