Michelin

In 1889, two brothers, André and Edouard Michelin, embarked on a great human and industrial odyssey to develop modern transport solutions through ceaseless invention. - By Annie Haddad

If you were born in the city of Clermont-Ferrand, in the centre of the Auvergne, from the late nineteenth century onwards, you grew up in the bosom of Michelin. Work was passed down from father to son. Employees and their families lived in the workers’ housing estate where the houses had hot water and a bathroom — a luxury at that time. Children’s education was taken care of. Employees had access to a purchasing cooperative (the precursor of the supermarket), a Michelin swimming pool and a Michelin stadium. Michelin provided job security and the assurance that employees would never want for anything.

The Michelin story is the story of two brothers, André and Édouard. André studied at the École Centrale (a Parisian university specialising in engineering science), was passionate about metal structures and had a strong instinct for communication. Édouard was a graduate of the École des Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts). Both brothers were visionaries who foresaw how important rubber was going to become and created a veritable international empire.

The pneumatic revolution
At the end of the nineteenth century, roads were bad, chaotic and frequently caused broken wheels. Journeys were long and tiring. The only means of travel were bicycles, trains or animal-drawn carriages. At that time, wheels were encircled by iron and that sparked the Michelin brothers’ genius idea: if they could cover the wheels with rubber, it would ensure greater comfort for the passenger. They started with the bicycle and developed the first removable pneumatic tyre in 1891. To prove the superiority of their invention, they persuaded champion cyclist, Charles Terront, to adopt their invention for the Paris–Brest–Paris race in September 1891. He won, arriving eight hours and twenty-seven minutes ahead of the runner-up. After this, one hundred thousand cyclists adopted the new tyre.

And so began the Michelin tyre factory in Clermont. Michelin tyres were then used on horsedrawn carriages and hackney coaches before the brothers invented the car tyre in 1895. Rubber is an ideal material because it can be used to make anything from balls, waterproof fabric and toys to kitchen and medical utensils. It also absorbs vibrations and bumps. Rubber production intensified in the Congo and Amazon between 1890 and 1910.


Ubiquitous Michelin: maps, guides, signs, logo
During World War I, Michelin became a pioneer in bomber aircraft and converted some of its factories in order to produce Bréguet planes. It supported the soldiers at the front and their families by sending regular packages. After conquering the roads and the skies, Michelin set its sights on railways and broke new ground with the rubber-tyred Micheline Paris–Deauville train in 1931. Later, in 1951, it equipped the tyres of the first métro in Paris.

But the Michelin brothers went even further: the Guide Michelin, known as the Guide Rouge since 1931 when its colour was changed from blue to red, was first published in 1900 and remains to this day the restaurant bible. They put up roadsigns on the French roads and, from 1910, provided car drivers with road maps. The green tourist guides were first published in 1926 and, nowadays, three million are sold annually.

And who could forget Bibendum, the Michelin Man? Created by caricaturist O’Galop in 1898, the character is still the company’s mascot today. One of the most well-known logos in the world, it was voted logo of the century in 2000. Bibendum easily blended in to different cultures and allowed messages about road safety to be passed on in a good-natured manner. He is the company mascot and numerous objects bearing his image are a joy to collectors.


Innovation at the heart of Michelin’s strategy
Michelin is everywhere: in agriculture, civil engineering, motorbikes, Formula 1 racing, aviation. The company spends over 500 million euros on research each year. Worldwide, 6,600 people are employed in research and development alone. It has 69 production sites in 18 countries and 115,000 employees on five continents.

In 1998, Michelin became the world’s leading tyre manufacturer. Tyres are made of a complex material consisting over twenty different gums and 250 ingredients. To reduce excessive overheating, engineers invented a hooped frame made of a type of tube topped by two layers of metal cables. Patented in 1946, the radial tyre would revolutionise the world. Today, everything from bicycles to motorcycles, trucks, racing cars and agricultural engines to the latest A380 planes are equipped with radial tyres. All of Michelin’s competitors have ended up adopting this radial technology.

Did you know?
François Michelin died in 2015, aged 88. The grandson of Edouard, one of the founders of the Michelin dynasty, François was highly respected by all his peers. He was what French people call a captain of industry.


The 400-hectare Ladoux Technology Centre, near Clermont-Ferrand, develops the latest technology. The greatest challenge is the future of mobility. In 2030, the number of vehicles in the world will have doubled to reach 1.6 million. The challenge is to continue to ensure road safety while, at the same time, reducing energy consumption. A tyre should fulfil three objectives: security, longevity and fuel efficiency.

Dresden University has compiled research on 20,000 accidents, which Michelin is working on to better understand the causes of accidents and to develop the future of tyre manufacturing. American competition is fierce but Michelin sees the bigger picture and makes quick progress to ensure its dominance. A recent product of its R&D, the lunar wheel, was adopted by NASA.


Always keeping up with the latest trends, Michelin has recently started making sports shoes (www.michelin-footwear.com) with partner brands including Kempa (handball), Babolat (racket sports) and Le Chameau (gumboots).

Lastly, there is the famous Michelin Challenge Bibendum. Created in 1988, this international sustainable mobility event brings together vehicle manufacturers, equipment makers and energy suppliers to share ideas and information about the future of mobility. Michelin has always been one step ahead of its competitors. As the advertisement goes: “Demand the best. Demand Michelin”.

Discover the Michelin family’s story from the nineteenth century to today at L’Aventure Michelin (www.laventuremichelin.com) in
Clermont-Ferrand and find out how this dynasty of entrepreneurs revolutionised transport worldwide.


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Author
Annie holds a Bachelors degree in Journalism from France and a Diploma of Education from La Trobe University. Annie first moved to Australia 20 years ago and a few years later settled in Lebanon as a French teacher, librarian and Career advisor. During all those years, Annie also worked as a freelance journalist, discovering the interesting craftsmen and traditions from the Middle East.