AKRON—Except for some scattered companies still making a go of it, the tire industry pretty much nailed the lid of the coffin shut on passenger tire retreading about seven years ago.
That's when Les Schwab Tire Centers Inc., the 800-pound gorilla in that retreading segment, exited the business, choosing to put all its bananas in new tire sales. In 1999, when the dealership began phasing out its passenger retreading business, it was producing 156 units per day, using about 1.41 million pounds of rubber.
Passenger tire retreading had been on the wane for years.
Now, however, as prices on new tires continue to rise—exacerbated by the escalating cost of raw materials—does it make sense to take another look at passenger tire retreading? Harvey Brodsky thinks so.
He's the guy prying up the lid of the coffin to take another peek inside at the viability of doing just that. The managing director of the Tire Retread & Repair Information Bureau floated that possibility this fall at the International Tire Exhibition & Conference in Akron.
In his talk, “Passenger Retreading: Time for a Rebirth?” he harkened back to a time when there were “thousands of retreaders throughout North America and most of them retreaded passenger tires.” That was in the early 1970s, when Brodsky worked for Big O Tires Inc., where he said “we offered a better warranty on passenger retreads than on new tires,” and the company sold roughly 10,000 retreads a month in Northern California alone.
Brodsky has been banging the drum for the retreading industry since before 1981 when he joined TRIB, based in Pacific Grove, Calif. He said at one time nearly 20 percent of all passenger replacement tires sold in the U.S. were retreads.
“But slowly the decline began,” he said, “partly because of the less-than-great quality and performance of the passenger retreads being produced—but mostly as time passed—by the low prices of new tires coming into the U.S. from other countries.”
Brodsky still uses retreads on his personal car—as do his wife and son on their cars—and has done that “practically from the first day I got into the business.” He purchases his retreads from Green Diamond Tires of New York Inc. in Elmira, N.Y., one of the few companies that still produces passenger retreads.
The firm claims the tread is easier on road wear than studded tires, for the same price. As the tread wears, new carbide granules are exposed on the surface, offering continual gripping features.
The retreads on the Brodsky family's vehicles are practically indistinguishable from new tires, he claims, and are of the bead-to-bead variety. “They not only look like new tires but they also handle like comparable new tires. The only difference is that they cost less.”
There's the crux of Brodsky's argument for a resurrection of passenger retreading on a grander scale. It's the “cost less” part.
He cited as an example 59 sizes of the Goodyear Eagle P205/R 16 at prices starting north of $70 per tire. “We can beat the pants off these prices,” he said.
Then he ticked down a list of other new tire prices such as a Conti Contact UHP size P275/55R20 tire weighing in at about $206.95 or a Michelin 275/30ZR19 Pilot Sport at $306.50—both prices before taxes.
“These prices are not cheap,” Brodsky noted. “Tire dealers in their showrooms today need a cardiologist for when a customer walks in and nearly has a heart attack over the prices for tires nowadays.”
Passing along some information that Bridgestone Corp. is looking at passenger tire retreading in Japan, he then asked, “Is there a new-tire manufacturer today who would admit their passenger tire casings are not retreadable? I don't think so.”
The highest and best use for a worn car tire casing, he contended—providing it passes a retreader's strict inspection process—“is to retread it and give it a second life.”
Brodsky then issued a challenge: “Who wants to be the first company to step forward and say passenger tire casings can't be retreaded today?”
The 'green' angle
With all the movements afoot for companies and individuals to “go green,” he said, “it's becoming a big problem answering why people can't buy retreaded passenger tires.”
Although there are just a few passenger retreaders left in North America, Brodsky said those companies “are doing a very decent job.” He mentioned two in Canada: Techno Pneu Inc. in Rimouski, Quebec, and Eastern Tire Service Ltd. in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, each producing about 600 passenger retreads daily.
Their retreaded car tires are sold throughout Canada and a few other countries in Central America and Europe, as well as to most of the taxi companies in New York City, he said. “Both companies claim the passenger retreading side of their business is strong and are very optimistic about the future of passenger retreading in Canada.”
The few passenger retreaders left in the U.S. also are “very optimistic,” Brodsky continued, “in view of the ever-increasing prices of new passenger replacement tires—especially those new replacement tires in some of the unbelievable sizes that are now being seen.”
Although those U.S. retreaders have much smaller production numbers, “they also see growth and according to what they tell me, their passenger retread business is good,” he added.
While consumers over the age of 40 often allude to some of the “horror” stories about recaps coming apart or quickly wearing out, Brodsky said he often gets blank looks from those under 30 when he asks about their thoughts on passenger retreads. “Many of them have no idea what a retreaded tire even is. The prejudices of their parents have not been passed down to them. This is a very important fact.”
Such consumers are ripe for retreads because they can save money, get performance and go green all at the same time, Brodsky said.
Regarding the looks and performance of car tire retreads, Brodsky said he believes bead-to-bead retreads are “the only way passenger retreading can be reborn and have a chance to succeed.”
Years back when he was still jockeying tires for Big O stores, “we used to feature our line of retreads in our showrooms,” he said, “and they would always be prominently displayed right next to the highest-priced comparable-size new tire in our line.” And although they were fine-looking retreads, they simply did not look like a new tire.
“Imagine how it would be if a tire buyer could not tell the difference between a bead-to-bead retread and a new tire by looking.”
Not that he's suggesting retreads be misrepresented. Brodsky said that if the industry “can produce a top quality product, we should sell it with pride and never misrepresent it.”
The executive said retreaded tires can have a higher profit margin than comparable new tires. “The retreader makes more and the consumer pays less.”
The cons of the premise include the high cost of getting into the passenger retreading game. Some of other drawbacks are:
* Because a bead-to-bead retread looks better than a regular retread, the tire must be mold cured in size-specific molds. “Unfortunately, this can stop the discussion in its tracks.”
* Molds are very expensive, and unless enough tires can be retreaded in the mold to amortize the mold cost, “it would not make economic sense. End of story.”
* The mold would have to be designed to accommodate the sidewall design for the bead-to-bead final product. This would further add to the cost.
* Related equipment such as presses further adds to the cost of starting a mold cure plant for passenger retreads.
* The availability of good casings may or may not be a problem, depending on the size and brand of the original casing.
* One of the biggest technological improvements to retreading is the use of nondestructive testing. “The problem is that this equipment is not cheap,” Brodsky said.
He contended that the “first new tire manufacturer that would be brave enough” to say its passenger casings are suitable to be retreaded “would score major points with the environmental community and probably with the federal government as well.”
So, is it possible?
“It will depend on the willingness of a retreader to make the serious commitment required to gear up to produce enough tires to make the investment profitable. I believe the market is absolutely there and that well-made, top-quality, great-looking passenger, right-priced retreads would fly off the shelves.”