Retro Rubber

test

Written by Tom Suddard

From the March 2014 issue

Posted in Features

Enthusiasts pore over nearly every inch of their cars. You make sure the paint is shiny, the engine runs perfectly, and the interior is spotless. If something isn’t right, you know it. Your cars are your babies, and you’ll do everything conceivable to keep them in tiptop shape.

But many owners still overlook the four most important parts of their cars: the tires. Relegated to an afterthought of classic car ownership, tires are a car’s only link to the road, and they are just as important on a weekend toy as they are on a daily commuter. Tires are to cars what foundations are to buildings; without good ones, things could go horribly wrong. How many skyscrapers are built on cracked, substandard foundations? Few, or at least few that are still around today.

The situation gets worse when modern roads–and the modern cars that frequent them–are brought into the equation. Classic cars need to be able to safely stop and turn as quickly as their modern counterparts, but they lack the brakes and suspension to make that possible. Classics also need to soak up the bumps and potholes that come with an aging infrastructure, in spite of their delicate nature.

Good rubber can hide these weaknesses, making a classic car safer, more reliable and more enjoyable. So it’s odd that the only factors most people consider when it comes to tires are cost and appearance. New tires look funny and cost a lot of money, so many enthusiasts just leave old tires on their old cars.

For the classic car enthusiasts who do care about performance, real data points are few and far between. There’s a wealth of information about the fastest racing rubber, but that doesn’t help Spitfire owners who spend most of their time on public roads. This raises a question: What is the best tire for the average classic car enthusiast?

There’s really only one way to make an informed decision: Round up a bunch of tires, then try out all of them–all on the same car. Obviously, the average enthusiast can’t swing this, but Classic Motorsports can.

We called Coker Tire, which has carved out a niche for itself by making vintage-looking tires that perform like their more modern counterparts. They offer antique, brand-name tires that have been remade with modern rubber. Coker offered to send us three of their top-selling brands, sized for our test car.

It wouldn’t be fair to test classic car tires without a classic car. We picked a 1956 MGA for our test mule because it represents what’s in the average Classic Motorsports reader’s garage fairly well. Our example hadn’t had any major modifications since it left the factory, and it even rode on wire wheels. We borrowed it from Wire Wheel Classic Sports Cars, a reputable classic car dealer that has always gone out of their way to help us out.

Our goal? Find the best tire of the bunch. Oh, and we should also mention that these tires are at three very different price points. Do you really get what you pay for? Or will the underdog be victorious? We headed to the Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park, a 430-acre motorsports facility in Central Florida, to find out.

Test Method

Each brand of tire underwent three blind, scientific tests. The tires were mounted on identical wheels and inflated to the same pressure. The test drivers had no idea which tires were on the car during each run, and the test order was randomized.

Test One: a 15-mile drive over all sorts of roads at different speeds. This test evaluated each tire’s road manners.

Test Two: a nearly clinical evaluation of each tire’s physical attributes–think diameter, weight and tread depth. This test teased out the subtle differences between the tires and gave us a chance to rate their appearance.

Test Three: an autocross session with multi-time SCCA National Champion Dan Shields and an AiM Sports Solo DL digital lap timer. This test simulated the sorts of emergency maneuvers that are occasionally required to avoid an accident.

Michelin XZX - 3rd

The Michelin XZX rings the till in at just more than twice the price of the least expensive tire we tested. The Michelin name certainly carries a lot of weight, but is it worth the price premium?

In our testing, the answer is “Not really.” The Michelin’s physical measurements landed it smack-dab in the middle of the other two tires, and that set the tone for the rest of the test. The Michelins earned second place in the road noise, braking, comfort and appearance categories, and took home first place in only one category: prestige.

In the autocross, the Michelin was the slowest, and our driver ranked it as the worst-feeling tire of the group.

Although the Michelin earned a third-place overall ranking, it isn’t a bad tire. Still, we don’t think it’s worth the price premium over the less expensive Vredestein and Firestone offerings. Some will undoubtedly prefer the Michelin name, though.

Rankings

Road noise: 2nd

Handling feel: 3rd

Braking: 2nd

Comfort: 2nd

Appearance: 2nd

Price: 3rd

Specs

Size: 165 SR15

Price: $208 each

Tread depth: 0.30 in.

Tread width: 5.75 in.

Diameter: 25.50 in.

Weight: 17.5 lbs.

Avg. lap time: 64.684 sec.

Prestige: 1st

Autocross: 3rd

Firestone F560 - 2nd

The Firestone F560 was the least expensive tire of the bunch, and it showed in certain areas. This one had the narrowest, deepest tread and the most weight of the three that were tested.

It also had the harshest manners on the street, and it seemed to lock up faster than the other brands under braking. However, it placed second in the autocross, with our driver calling it the “best-feeling tire” when driven at the limit of adhesion. The Firestone also won the appearance category thanks to its authentic classic looks.

Overall, the Firestone is a good choice, especially at a price that halves the most expensive one in this lineup. We ranked it second overall and would have no problem recommending it to the average car enthusiast. It represents an excellent value at about $80 each.

Rankings

Road noise: 3rd

Handling feel: 1st

Braking: 3rd

Comfort: 3rd

Appearance: 1st

Price: 1st

Prestige: 2nd

Autocross: 2nd

Specs

Size: 165 R15

Price: $80 each

Tread depth: 0.35 in.

Tread width: 5.38 in.

Diameter: 25.25 in.

Weight: 18 lbs.

Avg. lap time: 64.391 sec.

Vredestein Sprint Classic - 1st

The Vredestein has long been a favorite for Classic Motorsports project cars, and our blind testing backed up this preference. It’s priced solidly between the Firestone and the Michelin but is the lightest and the widest of the crop. Its tread is the shallowest, too.

These attributes make the Vredestein sound more like an autocross tire than a street tire, and it was at home on the track. It had the fastest average time, and Dan posted his most consistent runs of the day on a set. Dan did say that the Vredestein didn’t feel as good on track as the Firestone, though.

On the street, the Vredestein also excelled. It earned first place in the subjective road noise, braking and comfort categories, though its shallow tread may pose issues in the rain. We liked this tire the best on the street.

Perhaps the only issue is its appearance; our classic car dealer pointed out that the Vredestein name didn’t carry the same weight as Firestone or Michelin and that the Vredestein’s tread looks “a little funny from the side.”

Overall, the Vredestein earned a well-deserved first-place ranking. It isn’t the least expensive or the most attractive rubber, but its driving manners–both on and off the track–sealed the deal for us.

Rankings

Road noise: 1st

Handling feel: 2nd

Braking: 1st

Comfort: 1st

Appearance: 3rd

Price: 2nd

Prestige: 3rd

Autocross: 1st

Specs

Size: 165 HR15

Price: $119 each

Tread depth: 0.25 in.

Tread width: 6 in.

Diameter: 25.25 in.

Weight: 16.75 lbs.

Avg. lap time: 64.175 sec.

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