On the eve of the twenty-first century, the worldwide tire and rubber industry was in the hands of five major producers. In the nineteenth century, long before the invention of synthetic rubber and only a few decades after the discovery of vulcanization, hundreds of rubber and tire companies vied with one another. A very unlikely city, Akron, Ohio, was dubbed the "rubber capital of the world" in the late nineteenth century, and it was in Akron that the General Tire and Rubber Company was established in 1915. It is one of the few original American tire companies to have survived to the present day.
The founder of the company, William F. O'Neil, was a native of the city, although he and his partner, Winfred E. Fouse, had first entered the rubber tire business in Kansas City, Missouri. In early 1909 O'Neil and Fouse pooled their capital and established the Western Rubber & Supply Company (renamed the Western Tire & Rubber Company in 1911), which only sold already made tires. Both partners, however, had bigger dreams; they were natives of Akron, where O'Neil's father, a wealthy merchant, agreed to give the two young entrepreneurs a loan in order to open a tire manufacturing business. In 1915 The General Tire & Rubber Company was launched. While O'Neil's father was president of the new company, William O'Neil, in the role of general manager, wielded most of the authority, and delegated little of it until his death in 1960.
Although there were hundreds of tire companies in the United States at the time, it was a propitious era for tires; in 1915 the number of passenger cars in the United States had surpassed two million, with one million produced in 1915 alone. In addition, World War I boosted the U.S. economy in almost all respects. Even the lower middle class by then could afford Model Ts. Because of more frequent blowouts, the vast majority of cars in those days came equipped with two spare tires, and the more expensive models even came with four spares. Hence business was more than ample for tire companies, and The General Tire & Rubber Company even turned out a profit in its first year of operation.
One year later, the company manufactured its first tire bearing the General name. It was the first oversize tire on the market, especially fitted for passenger cars. No stranger to advertising, O'Neil paid $5,000 in 1917 to the prestigious Saturday Evening Post for a full page ad introducing his new tire. While large scale national advertising was common, it was highly uncommon--for a tire company at least—ø appeal to individual car owners rather than to the car manufacturers in Detroit. O'Neil's was an innovative marketing approach, and it worked. Franchised tire dealerships became crucial to the success of the General Tire & Rubber Company. The company also initiated the concept of trading in used tires for a complete set of "Generals," as the tires were dubbed.
The growing importance of trucks and their particular tire needs did not escape the company's notice. Almost from the outset of its existence, truck tires became a specialty. The General Tire & Rubber Company pioneered the recapping of truck tires and came out in the 1930s with a series of low-pressure truck tires. By 1934 the company's research and development specialists had experimented with a revolutionary new "drum method" for producing truck tires that dramatically slashed the cost of manufacturing them and at the same time accelerated the speed at which they were manufactured by 50 percent. Without the "drum method" of truck tire production, the tremendous wartime demand for tires would not have been met. In 1940 The General Tire & Rubber Company produced the largest truck tire in the world.
In 1923, only eight years after General Tire's establishment, it had earned its first million dollars in sales after taxes (forty years later, the company would achieve its first billion dollars in sales). Its product innovations continued apace. The company had already come out in 1920 with its "General Jumbo" low pressure tire, which became a great success with car owners because of its superior mileage and maneuverability. In the late 1920s and throughout the financially difficult years of the Great Depression, General Tire not only pioneered in the development of truck tires, but entered the airplane tire business and continued to churn out new automobile tires, such as the Dual 8, the Dual 10, and the Squeegee. The company had acquired its first subsidiary in Mexico, and was exporting its tires throughout the world. Despite these signs of vigor and the fact that the 1930s witnessed the biggest vehicle registration in history--surpassing the 100 million mark by the mid-1930s--the company made no profit throughout most of the decade. Its survival alone had to stand as testimony to its vitality.
The survival years of the Depression gave way to prosperity during World War II. The dearth of natural rubber and the initial poor quality of synthetic rubber, however, hindered General Tire's profit potential. There was virtually a halt to all civilian automobile tire production, and many smaller tire companies were closed by the government or turned into munitions plants. While The General Tire & Rubber Company continued to function, the company built a munitions plant in Mississippi and operated it for the duration of the war. It also fulfilled other wartime requests, including building intricate pontoon bridges and improved gas masks.
At the beginning of the war, with founder O'Neil still at the helm, the company had ventured outside the tire business by purchasing a 50 percent interest in the Pasadena, California-based Aerojet Engineering Corporation, which would become Aerojet General in the near future. This purchase marked the onset of an explosion of growth and diversification at the end of the war, which, among other distinctions, would make General Tire the country's biggest private radio and television owner by 1960.
The postwar years heralded great prosperity for General Tire. As for the tire business, the company began to supply General Motors, hence entering the new car or "original equipment" market in a significant way (it had already entered the original equipment market for trucks in the 1930s, as a supplier for International Harvester). Plant expansion was initiated: in 1959 the world's largest tire test track was completed in Uvalde, Texas; in 1967 the company's fourth tire plant in Bryan, Ohio, was completed, followed in 1973 by the construction of a radial tire manufacturing facility in Mt. Vernon, Illinois. William O'Neil did not live to see the company reap its first billion dollar sales in 1963. By then, however, he had witnessed radical changes in his company.
In the postwar years, The General Tire & Rubber Company gradually ceased to be exclusively a tire manufacturer and marketer. It entered the entertainment business, followed by tennis ball, wrought iron, and soft drink production, as well as chemicals and plastics manufacturing; in the early 1980s General Tire even began motion picture and video production. The identity of the company had altered so drastically that by 1984, the shareholders agreed to change the name and transform the company into a holding company consisting of four major subsidiaries. General Tire, Inc., emerged as the tire manufacturing entity, a separate corporation operated independently. GenCorp, Inc., would be the name of the new parent company.
Close Up of Vignette:
Common Stock, issued in the 1970’sPrinter: American Bank Note Company Dimensions:
8” (h) x 11 3/4” (w)State: OH-Ohio Subject Matter: Automotive and Related
| Auto Parts and Service
| Tire Makers Vignette Topic(s): Allegorical Featured
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Vertical fold lines, punch hole and stamp cancels in the signature areas and body, staple holes and toning and edge faults from age.