VALE – Australian Tyre Manufacturing
The last Australian tyre manufacturer, Bridgestone in Adelaide, has closed the doors on their factory (April 2010). So ends a long history of tyre manufacture in Australia, which commenced only four years after the patents issued to John Boyd Dunlop in 1888 for the pneumatic tyre.
Many manufacturers have been and gone.They included Dunlop 1902, at Montague , Port Melbourne, and later at Drummoyne in Sydney. Goodyear established in 1927 at Granville in Sydney, later extending to Thomastown in Melbourne. Perdriau was absorbed by Dunlop, (1929) and Barnett Glass, established in Launceston, also by them in 1933. The Rapson Tyre Company also failed, and its machinery provided the basis for Beaurepaire’s new enterprise.
Many of their key personnel transferred to Olympic, established by Sir Frank Beaurepaire in 1933. His history reads like a movie script. An Olympic exponent of the revolutionary Australian crawl, on the way home from the Antwerp Olympics of 1920, he saw tyre retreading in Canada as a future business enterprise. In 1922, he and another lifesaver rescued a shark attack victim at Manly beach, at considerable risk to themselves. A daily newspaper opened a public subscription to reward their bravery, and the $6000 raised consolidated him in the tyre business as a retreader. Later, the other manufacturers declined to supply his stores, because he discounted the prices of new tyres. So he started his own Olympic tyre factory in Footscray, Melbourne to ensure supply.
Meanwhile Hardie established in Sydney, later being taken over by Firestone. South Australian Rubber Mills in Adelaide formed a joint venture with Uniroyal of America in the sixties, later taken over by Bridgestone; and B.F.Goodrich set up a factory at Somerton in Melbourne, later absorbed by Olympic.
Now well into the sixties, Dunlop and Olympic got together and established joint venture factories called “Tyremakers” in O’Connor, W.A., and Elizabeth in S.A. Olympic had built quite a good sized unit at Geebung in Queensland in 1951.
Accompanying this was a corresponding expansion of the manufacture of chemicals required by the tyre industry- nylon and rayon tyre cord, steel wire coated with brass, carbon black (in both Sydney and Melbourne,) and synthetic rubbers, again in both capitals. A long line of petrochemical plants was built in Altona, a western Melbourne suburb, to feed these industries. Some used Bass Strait oil, for some, it was not suitable. In many cases, their establishment was due to “me too” political pressure from State governments wishing to augment their manufacturing base, with the ever present threat of loss of government business.
Then along came the radial tyre, first textile belted, then steel belted. Mileages doubled, demand dropped, and the writing was on the wall. Finally, all that was left was Dunlop, (which had merged with Olympic), Bridgestone, and Goodyear. Goodyear merged with Dunlop Olympic, the venture called South Pacific Tyres, which closed its last factory in 2008.
Factories had become larger and more efficient, being designed around production modules that produced 40000 tyres a day, because of the large investment required in machinery and technology to produce the modern tyre.
So now, they’ve all gone, as far as Australia in concerned anyway. Probably for the past two decades, design, evaluation, testing was all controlled from a computer terminal in an overseas headquarters. The chemical manufacturers have moved on too; even the wire producer at Geelong has closed down.
What have we lost? In a word -“expertise”. This industry was the training ground for many engineers, industrial chemists, production managers, designers, toolmakers, pattern makers, equipment designers, computer programmers involved in “just in time” supply, warehouse operators, maintenance engineers; the list goes on. Also tyre designs developed and tested to be eminently suited to Australian conditions, particularly in the agricultural sphere.
Tyre assembly being labour intensive, many a migrant family got their start in their new country working there. Fathers and mothers used to exchange their children at the watch-house at the change of shifts- both working to become established in their new country.
Strange to think that this scenario is now being played out in an overseas country, in a factory probably owned by a multinational tyre company. That’s progress!