Motorists slammed on their brakes and pedestrians froze in their tracks. Crowds gathered at intersections to stop and stare.
A sleek white convertible cruised the streets after dusk. Its four tires glowed a fiery red, blinking and winking at gawkers. The lighting effect was as startling as it was beautiful.
In the early 1960s, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. conducted colorful experiments on ‘’the tire of tomorrow,’’ a translucent model with tiny light bulbs mounted inside the wheel rim.
The Akron company predicted a revolution in ‘’future auto styling’’ when it rolled out exotic tires in shades of blue, yellow, red, green and orange.
For one shining moment, glow-in-the-dark tires were the hottest thing on wheels.
Goodyear scientists made the experimental tires by pouring dyed compounds of Neothane synthetic rubber into special molds and heating molasses-like batches to 250 degrees.
This was a big departure from the standard method of building tires piece by piece with plies of rubberized fabric.
‘’It’s something like baking a cake,’’ Goodyear research chemist William M. Larson explained in 1962. ‘’You just mix the ingredients, pour them into a mold and pop the mold into an oven.’’
Larson developed the process in the late 1950s with Goodyear chemist Anthony F. Finelli. Neothane was Goodyear’s trade name for a polyurethane compound derived from petroleum and synthetic chemicals.
The molecular structure was similar to ‘’a three-dimensional fishnet.’’ The cordless, tubeless tires resisted punctures and cuts, and performed well in road tests up to 65 mph.
‘’The experimental tires run quietly and smoothly, and our tests indicate they eventually will provide tread wear far beyond today’s standards,’’ said John J. Hartz, Goodyear tire development manager.
Synthetic rubber could be dyed in a rainbow of hues, an aspect that greatly pleased the marketing department.
‘’Goodyear’s translucent tire can be produced in any color to match the car . . . or perhaps the wife’s new outfit,’’ the company noted. ‘’Some day a wife may tell a husband: ‘Charlie, go out and change the tires. I’m wearing my blue dress tonight.’ ’’
Engineers installed 18 tiny bulbs in each rim to make the wheels shine in the dark. Wiring devices supplied electricity to create an eerie glow.
A control switch inside the automobile allowed a driver to make the tires blink individually or in unison.
Goodyear invited Life magazine to visit the Akron testing ground in 1960. A photographer took beautiful nighttime pictures of cars decked out in green, yellow and red tires.
A reporter noted that the tires could improve auto safety in bad weather or be wired to light up when the driver hit the brakes.
However, street tests were causing some confusion.
‘’Other motorists have been so enthralled by the pretty colors that they have gone through red lights or just stopped to stare,’’ Life magazine reported.
That certainly was apparent when Goodyear took its show on the road.
The company equipped a white Dodge Polaris convertible with red wheels and drove it around downtown Miami.
Traffic halted in the streets. Pedestrians gaped in awe.
Next, a red-wheeled Chrysler Silver 300 rolled through Manhattan, drawing crowds at Times Square, Rockefeller Center and the United Nations.
Spectators asked the driver where to buy such tires. They were disappointed to learn that the product wouldn’t be on the market ‘’for several years.’’
‘’We still have a lot of work in developing this tire, but it takes only a little imagination to see it as the tire of the future,’’ Goodyear research and development director Walter J. Lee said.
Although they weren’t in showrooms, the tires continued to cause a stir at public exhibits and parades.
A glowing red wheel dazzled visitors at the World of Rubber museum at Goodyear Hall.
The U.S. Information Agency borrowed a tire for the ‘’Plastics USA’’ exhibit that toured the Soviet Union. Communists from Moscow to Kiev waited in line for hours to view the latest in American ingenuity.
It’s anyone’s guess how many Soviets were left with the impression that all U.S. cars had incredible devices.
Goodyear allowed only one private collector to put the futuristic tires on an automobile: Dayton resident Jim Skonzakis, a custom car owner better known as Jim Street.
His show car, the Golden Sahara, a remote-controlled, bubble-topped dream, looked extra snazzy in four golden tires. The $75,000 vehicle appeared in the Jerry Lewis movie Cinderfella in 1960 and the TV game show I’ve Got a Secret in 1962.
Scientists spent the better part of a decade trying to perfect Neothane tires, but they couldn’t get past the experimental stage.
For one thing, the translucent tires had poor traction on wet pavement. They began to lose stability around 65 mph. They began to melt under heavy braking.
On top of everything else, they cost more than regular tires.
Even if engineers had solved all of those problems, the glowing lights probably would have been too much of a distraction for night driving. Generally speaking, it’s unwise to hypnotize other motorists.
Goodyear quietly pulled the plug on ‘’the tire of tomorrow,’’ ending a colorful experiment in local transportation.
Husbands never got the opportunity to change the tires to match their wives’ outfits.