BRONX, N.Y.—It was one of those New York moments: An ice storm had traffic snarled to a standstill in the "Big Apple." Nothing was moving. Not even the buses. In the bowels of the Bronx, flooring specialist John Hynes and his crew were rehabbing a building, doing ceramic tile work. The shiny sheets of ice outside may have looked pretty twinkling in the near dusk, but they made it impossible for the crew's van to leave the job site at quitting time.
They faced a dilemma: Leave the vehicle there in a not-very-nice neighborhood and hope to find at least a hubcap left in the morn; stay with it all night, an option nobody liked; or figure a way out.
Necessity being the mother of invention, as the saying goes, Mr. Hynes, a self-professed doodler, and his son, Robert, gave it some thought, then grabbed some wire lath from the back of the van. Fashioning crude tire chain-like gizmos, they used them to ease the vehicle on its way.
The ice eventually melted, but the idea stayed with Mr. Hynes, who pleads guilty to being a dreamer. For nine years, he said he "putzed" with the notion.
After a buddy suggested using old rubber tires for the device instead of wire lathing, Mr. Hynes got out his Sawzall, cut a scrap tire into four strips, made a harness to attach it to his van's tires, and easily drove it out of some sand in which he had purposely got the vehicle stuck.
Up until then, he kidded, "the only thing I ever had to do with tires was I've had a lot of flats."
He sketched and resketched the apparatus a number of times before finally coming up with a design for what he calls the "Snow Cap"—a "road- and environmentally-friendly" device to help motorists extricate their vehicles from winter's snowy grip, or from being stuck off road.
Armed with some admitedly "rough" drawings, Mr. Hynes took his concept to Polytech University in Brooklyn where a professor took it on as a class project.
It cost the inventor some $2,700: He had to compensate the school for computer usage plus pay students for their time. They created a computer prototype, a physical mockup, and conducted rudimentary testing of the Snow Cap.
And they found that it increased the traction of a tire/wheel more than 450 percent—and at least five to 10 times that of a tire chain, said Mr. Hynes, who received a U.S. patent for the Snow Cap on Jan. 25.
The 57-year-old former U.S. Marine is dogged, if anything, in promoting the Snow Cap to whomever will listen. It is, he pointed out, a "green" product in that it can be made from 100-percent recycled materials, including the scrap tires for the tread and steel for the harness.
Still, his dilemma is finding someone—a partnership or individuals—to take the project under wing, then secure the funding and manufacturing to take it to market.
"The money will come if the right team is together," he insisted, noting that "The Club" vehicle security device was patented in the early 1980s but took almost 15 years to come to market.
"I've been in sales all my life. Everyone I've presented Snow Cap to in the market says it's a novel idea. Everybody likes it," he said.
Well, almost everybody.
Mr. Hynes has spoken with representatives at most of the major tire manufacturers—Goodyear, Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., Pirelli Tire North America and Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. "But of course they manufacture snow tires, so they weren't really interested."
He has also been in contact with a number of tool makers and parts distributors and found some interest in the Snow Cap.
The American Automobile Club expressed interest in putting the product in its consumer catalog, he said, and the U.S. Postal Service told him it would be willing to test it on a fleet, but only after the Snow Cap had undergone lab testing.
"Anybody will make the product for me," Mr. Hynes said, adding that the biggest problems he has had to overcome are that he is not an engineer, and Polytech is not a credible testing facility. The Snow Cap now needs some fine-tuned engineering and a certified laboratory to evaluate its traction claims.
"It's like a child," he said. "This came from an idea and developed into what it is, and you want to see it get up and run."
As conceived, one size of Snow Cap fits all, since it would be adjustable to fit any tire, Mr. Hynes said. The first model he plans to develop is for emergency situations—a motorist would hook it to the drive-wheel tires to free a stuck vehicle. A second model could be left on a vehicle for continuous road travel, while a third could be developed for use on emergency vehicles, but would have to be cylindrically balanced for high-speed applications.
The Snow Cap would be perfect for a tire recycling operation, he said, estimating that although it takes only about $8.50 to produce, it could be retailed in the $65 price range, comparable to the cost of snow chains, and would yield a "tremendous profit margin."
A similar product, made of plastic and requiring a special wheel cap, is currently being marketed for $300, he said.
Getting his creation from the drawing board to reality has been a formidable challenge, but Mr. Hynes is used to that.
Back in early 1988, after years as a manufacturers' rep, he realized a dream by purchasing the 30,000-sq.-ft. carpet store he worked in, only to lose it that May when the city took it, through eminent domain, to make way for an urban renewal project.
That same week his 18-year-old son, Kevin, was beaten to death "by two punks. I lost everything—my store and my son," he said. Then for two years his life was wrapped up in little else but the trials. Eventually, one of his son's killers got 1.5-4.5 years in prison, the other four to 12 years.
"I'd get more time in jail for not paying taxes than they got for murder," Mr. Hynes lamented.
Yet, in retrospect, he now feels his son didn't die entirely in vain. At the time of the trials, the only thing a crime victim in New York could do was write "victim impact" letters, he said. "You're totally, 100-percent impotent."
After hounding state officials, the parole board and anyone who'd listen, Mr. Hynes claims he was instrumental in getting the state's procedures changed to allow victims to face criminals in court. He said he was the first person in New York allowed to meet in person with the parole board and object to an inmate's parole.
Today, Mr. Hynes drives a limousine full time. That is, when he's not out beating the bushes—"making a pest of myself," as he puts it—on behalf of his pet project.
People often get fleeting ideas for a new product and, "after a six-pack of beer, everything looks good," Mr. Hynes joked. "But this one stuck with me. I believe in it, and think it does make sense."