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Detroit's Eiffel Tower Turns 50

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 6/1/2015 Frank Markus

If you've ever entered or left Detroit's western border via I-94, you've driven by the Giant Tire. We locals have passed it countless zillions of times, but this year, on the occasion of its golden anniversary, a select few of us are getting the chance to get up close and go inside the Motor City landmark. My chance came courtesy of the Automotive Press Association. Before we go inside, let's review the tire's history.

The United States Rubber Company — one of the 12 companies originally listed in the Dow Jones Industrial Average and best known in the early 20th century for inventing the flexible-rubber soled "sneakers" we know and love as Keds — constructed the giant tire near its pavilion at the 1964-'65 World's Fair in Flushing Meadows, Queens, New York, to showcase its U.S. Royal tire brand. The gigantic bias-ply tire originally served as a Ferris wheel with 24 barrel-shaped, four-person gondolas that were rotated around the circumference of the tire by a 100-hp motor. It is made not of rubber but of a Uniroyal-developed flame-resistant polyester resin reinforced with glass fiber.

Research

Uniroyal Giant Tire© Provided by MotorTrend Uniroyal Giant Tire The Giant Tire was designed by the architectural firm of Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, which is also credited with the Empire State Building. As a Ferris wheel it provided more than 2 million rides (at 25 cents each) to such well-known fairgoers as the Shah of Iran, Telly Savalas, Jacqueline Kennedy, and children Caroline and John Jr. When the fair was dismantled, the tire was, too. It was separated into 188 sections and shipped by rail to Detroit, where it was erected — sans gondolas — near the company's sales office in the suburb of Allen Park. The company rebranded the tire with its new corporate name, Uniroyal at the time, but otherwise its appearance remained largely unchanged for years, even as radials pushed bias-ply tires out of the market.

By my calculations, in today's tire sidewall nomenclature the Giant Tire would work out to be something like a 7315/65R-679

Its first big makeover came in 1994, with new neon lighting showing off Uniroyal's new wordmark font and with a hubcap that looked less like an Olds Cutlass wheel cover and more like something from the contemporary Pep Boys catalogue. Four years later, it got another makeover to promote Uniroyal's NailGard technology, with that logo and an 11-foot-tall nail was added protruding from the top of the tire. (That nail was later auctioned off for charity.) Finally, in 2003 Uniroyal treated its iconic landmark to a structural renovation that saw the internal steel structure sandblasted and reinforced, the base redone, storm drainage improved, neon lighting upgraded, the hubcap repainted, and the Web address added.

Uniroyal Giant Tire© Provided by MotorTrend Uniroyal Giant Tire The interior is a spider web of steel support struts with little or no evidence of its Ferris wheel past remaining visible but with the back side of the original Cutlasslike wheel cover clearly evident. It is possible to climb the eight-story interior height via ladders in the center, but we were only allowed up to the first level, from which better photos of the structure could be obtained. More fun was to be had outside, where a giant penny made to scale confirms that in 50 years, the tire still enjoys full 6-inch tread depth. Of course, any tire expert will tell you that age and ozone damage would augur against fitting this new-old-stock tire to your 569-foot-long, 91-ton Chevy Tahoe and heading off on vacation.

I suggest a Tahoe due to the obvious high-profile sidewall, which scales to about a 65-series truck/SUV tire in today's market. Of course, it was surely meant to look like a mainstream sedan tire back in the day. By my calculations, in today's tire sidewall nomenclature the Giant Tire would work out to be something like a 7315/65R-679. Happy 50th anniversary, Giant Tire!

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