It was a real eye-opener when I first visited an Italian retread shop in the mid-1960s. I saw workers turning out retreads with new-tire appearance and quality using advanced, automated equipment similar to what I'd seen in new-tire factories.
Regular readers of this column are well aware of the respect I developed for both the high quality of European retreads and the caliber of the equipment used to produce them.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend several weeks touring Italy, and I thought a little information about that country's retreading industry-which is still among the most aggressive in the world-might be of interest.
By ``aggressive,'' I mean Italian retreaders process everything that is technically and economically retreadable, and produce a finished tire that has a high level of quality, productivity and appearance.
The Italian retreading industry is not dominated by new-tire manufacturers, either in retreading or in the supply of raw materials. The majority of Italy's retreaders, like their counterparts in the U.S., operate small-business concerns employing fewer than 15 people.
Of course, many tire makers do supply tread rubber, and some of them even operate their own retread facilities. A number of independent producers of tread rubber and repair materials also enjoy a healthy share of the market.
Although independent retreaders still control a major share of the Italian market for truck tire retreading, it is an area in which tire makers are looking to increase their market penetration.
However, the independent retreader has a greater interest in promoting retreading, since it represents his ``bread and butter.'' This would not be the case if tire manufacturers dominated truck tire retreading, because they are more interested in the sale of new tires. For them, retreading operations are simply a means to an end.
It can be argued that Italian equipment manufacturers have done more than any other country's to prepare retreaders for the radial age.
When the radial tire hit the market, they developed precision machines to do the job more efficiently, responding to needs from a labor standpoint, as well as from the standpoint of precision.
Automated retreading machines also eliminate human judgment/error and assure the required uniformity.
Every maker of retreading equipment in Italy has a nearby retread plant where they try out new ideas. Some of the companies were involved in making retreads long before they thought of making machinery for the industry.
Because of this background, most of their concepts for new equipment spring from practical shop floor experience, rather than from ideas hatched in an abstract, costly development department.
The Italian companies that make retreading equipment have been exhibiting at trade shows on this side of the Atlantic for a number of years, but many U.S. retreaders have been slow to accept the superiority of these products-not unlike the way U.S. tire makers dragged their heels in accepting the superiority of the radial tire over its bias-ply predecessor.
Aggressive independent retreaders who are willing to work together to promote their industry have done much to enhance the popularity of retreading in Italy.
Italian retreaders retread everything they possible can, and retreads still are a large part of their tire industry. The problem is: there's less and less that can be retreaded.
It's not the users, but a dwindling number of retreadable casings that is causing Italian retread output to diminish. Almost half the casings submitted for processing are rejected, and production is off by 20 percent.
An aging vehicle fleet is partly to blame. In Italy, almost half the cars and trucks in use are 10 or more years old. In the U.S., the average vehicle age is about 8 years.
Also contributing to the decline in retreading is the radialization of the market, which has more than doubled tire life, and the drastic reduction in the number of miles driven annually: partly due to consumer reaction to the increased costs of motoring; partly due to the rising number of multi-car families, which further reduces mileage per vehicle.
Rubber on the road
Returning from my trip, I was astounded by the amount of tire debris I encountered along the highway driving from New York's Kennedy Airport to my home on Long Island.
On that 50-odd-mile trip, I saw enough tire debris to fill a pickup truck. By contrast, while traveling more than 1,800 miles over Italy's expressway system, the Autostrada, I had noticed only a scattering of failed tire carcasses.
I don't know if Italy has the world's most efficient rubbish removal system along their well-groomed expressways, or whether Italian consumers practice far better tire maintenance than their American counterparts. But I strongly suspect it's the latter.
Surveys have shown that American consumers hardly ever give their tires a second thought-they're just there. Italian consumers seem to be more knowledgeable about their vehicles and tires.
The American image of Italian drivers as dangerous is a misperception. Most are highly skilled-they have to be-and proud of their reflexes. And they tend to take good care of their cars.