Welcome to 2018. Welcome to the New Year and celebrate the heck out of it because it is a brand new year. New is good. New is always better. It just is. Better features, better technology, better everything. That old iPhone? It’s scrap! Last year’s clothes? To the op-shop! Everything today ages like a month-old carton of milk, so nobody is going to miss yesterday’s gem for today’s crisp-packaged darling.
As for me, I want a brand new set of performance tyres. And what do you know, there are plenty of choices out there today. How’s about Bridgestone’s greatly-improved Potenza RE003? Or the capable Continental ContiSportContact 5P? Why not opt for the supercar-ready Michelin Pilot Sport 4? Surely you can’t go wrong with that?
Well yes, you can go wrong with that, especially when you aren’t driving something pushing north of 300PS. Can I get something a bit cack? Something like Yokohama’s recreation of the Advan HF Type D for cars like the Toyota Corolla AE86? Something made for a car of modest means, such as a car which will crack 8sec to the 100km/h only when it is shoved off the back of a C-5 Galaxy whilst loaded with breeze blocks.
What’s wrong with me? Well a lot of things really, but mostly because I still like my cars to be a bit ‘vintage’, and modern performance rubber delivers a little bit too much for what’s necessary.
Speaking from personal experience I’ve had a first-generation Mazda MX-5 on three different modern entry-level performance tyres and you’d need to do something brave and stupid to get the car to get it anywhere close to the edge of its adhesion. While this is all very safe and secure it is rather unnerving to not know where exactly that edge is, something which I hazard to guess takes more stupidity than bravery to uncover. So I didn’t. And to this day the best tyres I had were a set of old Yokohamas that easily allowed me to exploit is wonderful chassis with easily induced power oversteer on what little muscle the 1.6-litre could muster.
Holding down more than 1G through a corner is fun when you are in something that can press your innards everytime you go near the go-faster pedal, and when fitted to something a lot rickety and a lot slower, it doesn’t gel with the nature of the car. Octane magazine columnist and avid classic car racer Tony Dron once wrote that the grip generated by modern rubber compounds was so much that it caused the chassis of old race cars to bend as racers pushed them through corners far faster than they were originally designed for back in its day of bicycle width tyres and prayers.
So why not buy a budget tyre if I’m not that interested in having all that grip? For starters, most budget tyres aren’t made for steering feel or turn-in responsiveness. Case in point, everyone’s favourite driving car in their minds, the Toyota 86, which uses touring tyres shared with the Prius. Knowing that the 86’s engine is a little too feeble to break the traction circles of performance rubber, Toyota’s engineers fitted tyres that wouldn’t negate the 86’s power outputs and dull it tail-happy tendencies.
While they did achieve that goal, the touring tyres never quite managed to deliver the steering feel and responsiveness that many drivers hoping. On the other hand, when TRD fitted sticky Potenza performance tyres to their 86 package, the steering feel and responsiveness returned but you had to really abuse it to shake that tail like it should.
This need for not-so-great tyres, however, doesn’t mean getting ‘performance tyres’ from unknown brands, such as those from China. Unlike fashion brands, established tyre brands aren’t just selling tyres based on their brand image. Instead, they wield enormous resources and talent to deliver well-developed tyres that have been thoroughly evaluated and honed by engineers to ensure that it is still able to deliver the goods come rain, shine, and on-the-limit. And it is that last part that is kind of important. Ever experience snap-oversteer? It doesn’t bode well for the condition of your undergarments I can tell you that.
Furthermore, since all tyres have a use-by date, you can’t buy a mint-in-package tyre from the 80s and expect it to perform as intended. Time and tide always have a way of turning malleable rubber into brittle plastic, which is why we still depend on manufacturers to keep producing a fresh batch since they can’t be recreated by third-parties.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that these tyres from the 80s are better than today’s rubber, though it would be great fun to experience old school tyres on modern cars – in a controlled environment, preferably with lots of padded walls. Tyres are a lot like fashion, they are best suited for its time period, which in this case are for cars that are more powerful and heavy. Besides, they wouldn’t fit in with today’s cars and its gigantic wheels.
Since I can see myself driving modern classics for the foreseeable future, and with more and more modern classics being driven and maintained these days, there is a steadily growing market for people still wanting period correct tyres, not just to sate an innate desire for a 100% completion, but simply to capture and preserve the car’s characteristics in its entirety.