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Concept Cars Need Concept Tires

    DETROIT, Jan. 10 When we say tires are "groovy," we
really mean it at the North American International Auto Show.

    Consider the 20-inch Goodyear concept tires on the conceptual Volkswagen
Microbus, a symbol of flower power, grooviness and everything that's hip from
the 1950s and '60s.

    The Microbus harks back to a great tradition, starting in 1950 with the
first VW bus.  But don't expect the reincarnation to come with flowers painted
on the sides.

    "Twenty-inch rubber on Volkswagen's concept car isn't as outlandish as it
seems," according to Bill Egan, chief engineer of original-equipment advanced
tire technology.  This isn't your grandfather's "love bus."

    Technology and a dynamic appearance abound in the latest Microbus version.
Wide wheel arches highlight the massive P245/45R20 Goodyear tires that give
the Microbus a commanding presence, Egan said.

    Electronic power doors provide easy access to three rows of seats.
Monitors in the center console and backrests make it a veritable car cinema.
And backeye cameras give the driver a rear view when backing up.

    Egan said the tires on the Microbus represent a trend in the auto
industry, namely massive tires to carry vehicles down the road.  Most of
Goodyear's tires on display at the Detroit show range from 18- to 22-inch rim
    Consider the Goodyear concept tires P265/50R20 (front) and 21-inch rears
on the bold Cadillac SUV/performance-wagon concept, the Vizon.  Or the light
truck 265/55R19 Goodyear tires on the GMC Terracross concept, which is aimed
at young, sophisticated, stylish consumers.

    The list goes on:  19- and 20-inch tires on the Pontiac REV, a rally
sports coupe that can carry a "mountain" of sports equipment and 19-inch
Formula 1 race-tire-like treads on a Mitsubishi RPM 7000 show car.

    Egan said concept tire development "puts us out front and center on these
cars.  It helps us get noticed by the automakers as well as consumers.  It
also gives us a chance to work with their design studios to determine what
they're thinking."

    In many cases, the unconventional idea is an open door to Goodyear tire
designers.  The best designs are when form follows function; where beauty is
balanced with performance, he added.

    Tire designers begin with a clean slate on the computer, where fashion and
style are important.  When the vehicle and tire designers reach an agreement,
expert tire carvers use hot knives to apply tread designs on a blank tire.
The process takes up to 24 hours, he said.

    "Many people are surprised to learn that the concept tires we build have
to be road-worthy, capable of carrying these high-interest automobiles on
various journeys.  Some may be driven only in and out of various exhibition
halls, but others are put through their paces by both vehicle designers and
the automotive press."

    The concept tires "are all round and black, but they vary according to
their performance levels.  They also must be balanced between form and
function.  If they're the most beautiful tires in the world, yet don't perform
in the real world, who would want them?

    "And if the tread design looks like a bucket of worms, the tire has no
future," he said.

    Spinoffs from concept tire designs are plausible "as long as we continue
to improve traction, treadlife, handling, ride, rolling resistance and noise.

    Automakers' renewed vigor for vehicle styling ensures that tiremakers will
continue their focus on tread designs and developing larger tires,"Egan said.
    So, too, will auto show visitors continue to see wilder treads on concept
cars.  Back in 1983, Goodyear produced just two models of concept tires.  Five
years later, designers came out with double-digit concepts.  By 1995, the
Akron Technical Center designed 50 different models.

    And this year, several "groovy" models are highlighted.