They came from a variety of backgrounds-as former blacksmiths, operators of general stores, livery stables and carriage shops or any of dozens of other less likely occupations. All shared a dream of earning a livelihood and perhaps getting rich selling and repairing tires for 1921's growing fleet of motor vehicles.
Yet, ironically, had it not been for the difficulties plaguing tire merchandising from the very first, there might never have been a National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association.
Early-day tire retailers and vulcanizers were fiercely independent and often regarded other dealers as competitors rather than allies.
Many dealers today seem to enjoy trading ideas and experiences with fellow association members. But few independents in those days would have seen fit to band together except to tackle problems otherwise too large for them to resolve individually.
It was precisely the need to address such problems that brought tire dealers to Chicago 75 years ago to found what would become the NTDRA.
Organizers knew that their newly founded ``National Tire Dealers Association'' (as it was called at that time) must try to put retailing's own house in order before setting out to right the tire industry's many other wrongs.
Among the purposes of the association, organizers said, was to rid tire retailing and repairing of the ``gyp'' artists who were giving it a bad name.
With the automobile still in its infancy and many rules of tire retailing not yet worked out, the NTDRA's founding fathers saw much wrong in the way tires were sometimes sold and serviced in that day.
One of the resolutions adopted at the association's first dealer gathering in Chicago called for mutilating unsafe tires in order to prevent their use by unwary motorists.
It was the first of many ethical and public-spirited causes to be championed by the association over the years to come, including truth in tire advertising and federal minimum safety standards for tires.
Considering the frontier nature of the tire business in that day, perhaps it's not surprising that previous attempts at bringing tire dealers together often were met with failure.
Fiery George Burger of New York, who later served variously as president and secretary-general manager of the association, said he was surprised tire dealers actually could sit down and spend an enjoyable evening together.
Much of what is now known about the association's earliest history has been taken from news accounts or drawn from the memories of Mr. Burger and other administrative officials, such as the late W.W. ``Bill'' Marsh and Philip P. Friedlander Jr., the NTDRA's current executive vice president, who has served on the association's staff since 1953.
Historians say the first local dealer association in the U.S. was formed by Milwaukee tire merchants in 1917.
Not long after that, similar organizations could be found in other large cities as well. And as the number oflocal associations increased, so too did interest in forming a national association for dealers.
Present for the association's founding in Chicago four years later were representatives of 10 such local dealer groups-Milwaukee, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Kansas City, Baltimore, Memphis and Cincinnati. Also on hand were individual dealers from areas such as Jackson, Tenn., Melvin, Ill., Wallworth, Wis., and Little Rock, Ark., where local groups did not exist.
Besides Chicago, several other local associations, including Cleveland, Milwaukee and St. Louis, had wanted to host the national association's organizational gathering. However, they had stepped aside, reasoning that the ``Windy City'' would attract a larger and more geographically diverse attendance.
Thus when the Chicago Tire Dealers Association invited their counterparts from all across the U.S. to gather there on Jan. 31, 1921, some 500 independents ``answered the call.''
Thomas F. Whitehead, vice president of the Chicago group, was elected the new association's president and selected his cabinet to reflect as wide a geographic base as possible.
Association founders elected to restrict membership only to ``legitimate'' tire merchants, thereby excluding ``fly-by-night'' retailers and others such as the grocers, druggists and taxi drivers who merely sold tires as a sideline.
Furthermore, ``legitimate tire merchants,'' as defined by the association's organizers, were those: 1) selling tires at retail (wholesalers were banned unless they also did some retail business); 2) whose policies weren't dictated by tire manufacturers; 3) who operate out of a permanent place of business; and, 4) who derived their ``major profits'' from the sale or servicing of tires, tubes and tire accessories.
Ironically, were this rule applied today, many dealers who have diversified into automotive service as a means of offsetting declining tire profits, no longer would qualify for NTDRA membership.
However, the association in 1985 modified this rule and now requires only that members generate one-third of their sales-rather than profits-from tires.
It also was decided some 10 months later at the association's Cleveland convention that membership further be limited to those belonging to local dealer organizations-to encourage continued participation in such groups. Adopting the slogan, ``Progress and Conservatism''-apparently hoping to please everyone regardless of political leanings-the young association was not nearly so restrained in condemning any manufacturer involvement in retail tire operations or in otherwise selling products directly to consumers.
Dealers at the Cleveland convention also adopted a resolution urging that car dealers not be sold tires at the same low prices afforded carmakers.
Attendees also decided the association's convention would be held each year in October or November, when the average dealer's business was thought to be slow. This later was changed to September or October after November turned out to be the start of the snow tire selling season.
Financial troubles during the Great Depression of the 1930s prompted the group to reorganize in 1935 under a new name-the ``National Association of Independent Tire Dealers.''
The NAITD did not formally take over the old NTDA. Nor did the NAITD assume the financial debt of the earlier organization.
Mr. Burger, a former NTDA president, was hired as secretary and general manager of the new association, which was headquartered in New York City, where the first office telephone was a coin-operated unit registered in Mr. Burger's name.
With the establishment of the Tire Retreading Institute (TRI) in 1955, the association's name was again changed-this time to the ``National Tire Dealers & Retreaders Association.'' (The word ``Independent'' was deleted for reasons of brevity.)
TRI was organized around concepts set down in the 1940s by the National Institute of Treading Standards (NITS), a group of independent retreaders in California.
TRI began by updating the old NITS shop manual and ultimately came to establish its own retread shop inspection and certification program.
The Institute also conceived the idea of a national advertising campaign for upgrading the image of retreading. (Making it a forerunner of the short-lived ``Retreading Industry Action Committee'' of the 1970s and today's ``Tire Retread Information Bureau.'')
However, the cost of such a campaign proved too ambitious for TRI's membership and left it in debt to the NTDRA. TRI's membership ultimately was absorbed by the association in the 1980s. TRI exists mainly on paper today, but its inspection and certification programs remain part of the NTDRA's services to retreader members.