Carri-Anne Kelly can’t remember if it’s the suit that maketh the man, or perhaps it’s the shoes? After a trip to the Continental Tyre factory in Port Elizabeth, however, she came away with a new one-liner: “the tyres do indeed maketh the car.”
As part of the Continental Adventure we got a tour of the Continental Tyre S.A. factory in Port Elizabeth (P.E.). It was one of the most fascinating things. Every conceived notion I had of how a tyre is made was completely false. Actually, I’m not too sure what I had thought about the production of a tyre, it certainly wasn’t this. Continental are one of the top tyre brands in South Africa and globally the company boosted sales by more than 7%, to approximately €32.7 billion in 2012. In November 2012 they were winners of a tyre shoot out by one of South Africa’s premier outdoor magazines. Their General Tyre AT (All Terrain) Grabber beat 14 competitors in sand (the Kalahari), wet handling, wet braking, dry handling, dry braking, gravel handling and gravel braking; no small feat.
Being that we in South Africa, sell a vast amount of SUVs and 4x4s, this is a huge accolade. According to Gishma Johnson of Continental Tyre S.A: “The compound and tread pattern were developed with a focus on maximum safety for both off and on-road driving”. Continental Tyres S.A. manufactures all tyres at its plant in P.E. Everything from the ‘marie biscuits’, to the 700 kg commercial vehicle tyres, standard road specification and off road tyres; they’re all under one roof. Watching the care and finesse taken with every single tyre manufactured is reassuring as a consumer. To begin with tyres are made up of several compounds which include natural rubber, imported from India, synthetic rubber, made in South Africa and imported depending on supplies and a product called Carbon Black, which is used as a pigment and reinforcer.
Dependent on the tyre in the production line, the ratios of the ingredients change; it’s not a one recipe for all tyre types. In short, the ingredients are melted down and turned into huge mats of rubber with fibres or steel running through them. These are then sliced into ribbons to create the ‘tread’ section that has contact with the road. Next, the ‘Optimus Prime’ of Continental Tyre S.A, the machine that binds the ‘tread section’ with the side wall, does all the necessary fusing and beading. Tyres don’t magically fit on rims, a beading is needed in the same way that a t-shirt has a collar, it provides reinforcement, shape and a contact point to the rest of the product.
From there the tyres go for a little medical exam. No really. Quite literally, every tyre has an X-ray before it graduates from the plant. The x-rays can detect any flaws within the tyre that could develop into a latent defect, for example: air bubbles, blisters within the layers of material, threads embedded within the rubber, or areas that don’t line up correctly. If the tyres don’t pass their medical exam, they don’t graduate.
The rest of our Continental Adventure itinerary was a sojourn to some 4×4-ing, followed by track time the following day, all in a bid to demonstrate the various tyres made by Continental and how they handle in the real world. A complete cross section of 4x4s was made available: the Jeep Wrangler, Mitsubishi Pajero, Suzuki Grand Vitara, Ford Ranger, Mazda BT-50, Nissan Navara and the Chevrolet Trailblazer. As a new comer into the South African market, the Chevy Trailblazer definitely proved itself to be a serious contender, by handling all ruts, rocks, stones, bumps and humps with comfort and ease.
Also at hand were more soft-road biased SUVs to sample on the rutted farm roads between our hotel and 4×4-ing location, such as the Kia Sportage, Citroen C4 Aircross, Peugeot 4008, Lexus RX, Hyundai iX35, BMW X6 and the latest Audi Q3. The sophisticated little Audi quickly became my preferred chariot on the ridiculously rutted roads where comfort is needed ahead of anything else.
Track time at Aldo Scribante bought a smörgåsbord of vehicles for us to play with. Okay, some were akin to our sporting quota selection system and were clearly not talented enough to run with the ‘big boys’ on the racetrack. Cars like the Suzuki Swift Sport, with a lack of power, torque and a bias towards under steer on a tight track, were flanked by others equally out of their depth; think benchwarmers like the heavy Opel Astra GTC and Volkswagen Beetle. Some had big enough flair to make a fun impression however, such as the Abarth 500 and the pointy Audi A1 S-Line.
The rest of the cars available read like the Springbok rugby team and their attributed ‘talents’. There was the gutsy Nissan 370Z that is slightly unstable and feels like it would be happier doing some eye gouging ala Bakkies Botha. The veritable Beast Mtawarira of the track, with big muscles, a thumping heart and blitzing speed was the ever-sonorous Chrysler 300C SRT8. The complete blind side of an all-rounder, that dances around the track with all the finesse, skill, balance, poise and braking of the languid JP Petersen was the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X. The rangy centre (think Jean De Villiers) that just does everything, including snagging a few surprise intercepts and does it all fantastically, was the underrated Peugeot RCZ.
The Renault RenaultSport Clio Red Bull Racing edition would be the wing flying down the outside to score tries complemented with the other very aggressive, fast and imported Italian winger in the shape of the sporty Alfa Mito QV Sport. Finally you have the big guy, the Audi S7, which is phenomenal and everyone loves it, though on our day it had a bit of Victor Matfield glory moment and had to retire from proceedings. Lastly, while not having the biggest engine, nor the fastest or most aggressive handling, we had the driving perfection of the BMW 335i Coupé.
Continental Tyre S.A. have a variety of road tyres from the ContiEcoContact, ContiSportContact and the ContiPremiumContact range, with the latter being launched in South Africa in 2012 for luxury vehicles. Setting these tyres apart from the competition is: the reduction of braking distances in the wet by up to 15%; reduced rolling resistance by up to 8%; increased mileage by up to 12%; as well as improved ride comfort, sportiness, handling and a speed rating of up to 270 km/h.
Continental engineers have managed these advances thanks to the design of the tyre sidewalls, wherein they’ve increased flexibility to the shoulder area and reinforced the beading even further. Tyres of our hi-tech era are now required to have minimal rolling noise so there are ‘whisper bars’ in the shoulders of the ContiPremiumContact 5s to reduce the noise.
With the idea of the carbon footprint of the Continental Adventure beginning to weigh heavily on my mind I was pleased to learn that Continental Tyre S.A. has a strong policy of environmental ethics. With the growth of tyre production in the last few years, Continental Tyre S.A. have managed to keep emissions at constant levels, with the implication of greener policies.
During Arbour Month in September 2012, the Living Continental Green Campaign was launched with the planting of trees around P.E. to show the company’s commitment to ecological challenges. This is an initiative of the Wilderness Foundation South Africa, to help with adaptation to a new thinking of responsible and restorative best business practice. Through this partnership, Continental Tyre S.A. aims to reduce CO2 emissions from the manufacturing process by a total of 12% by 2015. No small task given the growing demand for tyres.
With Continental Tyres S.A.’s focus on environmental protection and sustainability, however, this goal to minimise the use of natural resources and reduce pollution looks like a realistic one that shall be met. On reflection of the Continental Adventure, my belief that the ‘tyres maketh the car’ remains unshaken. It doesn’t really matter what you drive, because if you use sub-standard or incorrect tyres, you won’t be staying on the black stuff, even if you are Sebastian Vettel.
To put damaged or substandard tyres into perspective, think of the game Twister. Now think of playing it with baby oil on your palms. Unfortunately the average driver doesn’t give much thought to tyres. Most people don’t realise that a car’s contact with the road is dependent on four patches of synthetic and natural rubber, each smaller than the size of your hand. Believe it or not, tyres are everything to a car. Tyres are to cars what Bernie Ecclestone is to F1, they’re what make it all come together and happen.