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The voyage of the Michelin Man

James Spender
25 May 2016

125 years ago, two brothers from a small town in France created a business that would grow into a giant of the tyre world.

Number 81 on London’s Fulham Road is a striking sight. In among the Victorian town houses, utilitarian flats and boutique shops sits an art deco building of tiled columns, ornate wrought iron and elaborate stained glass. Looking down from a window is an imposing figure. Pince-nez glasses perched on his rotund face and mouth agape, a champagne glass in one hand and a cigar in the other, the iconic Michelin Man – or Bibendum to his friends – has been toasting passersby from his perch at Michelin House since it was built 1911. Above his head is the Latin phrase Nunc est bibendum: now it is time to drink. Only this tyre man isn’t talking about alcohol.

‘His glass isn’t filled with champagne but rather nails, broken glass and stones,’ explains Gonzague de Narp, chief curator at Michelin’s L’Aventure historical centre. ‘In 1893, during a car builders convention, André Michelin declared that his pneumatic tyres could “drink up obstacles”. So what Bidendum is saying is that now is the time for the Michelin pneumatic tyre.’

Rubber men

While Bibendum is a fictional character, there were in fact two very real Michelin Men: brothers André and Édouard. Having taken over the family business in 1889, which made rubber parts for agricultural machinery, the first major product the Michelin brothers produced wasn’t a tyre, but rather a rubber brake pad. 

‘Up until then a vehicle’s braking was done by an iron brake on an iron rim,’ says de Narp. ‘There were two issues with this: the efficiency and the noise. But the rubber brake block dampened the sound, and hence the brake block was dubbed “The Silent”.’ 

While The Silent was successful, the real break for Michelin came one day in 1891 when a cyclist arrived at the factory with a punctured tyre.

‘Édouard was intrigued, and he set about trying to repair the cyclist’s tyre. It was a Dunlop “sausage”: a tube stuck to the rim of the wheel and wrapped in fabric. In total it took 15 hours for the repair – three hours to fix it and then another 12 waiting for the rim glue to dry.’

In the morning an excited Édouard couldn’t wait to test the tyre, so he set out from the factory courtyard on the bicycle, only to return moments later with another flat. But quite apart from being put off, this short trip convinced him of the potential of this pneumatic marvel. It just lacked one thing – the ease of repair. 

Victorious persuasion

Spurred on by the experience of the Dunlop, Michelin set about making a more user-friendly tyre, and by the end of 1891 the ‘Detachable’ had arrived. 

‘The Detachable attached to the rim with 16 screws holding the inner tube in place,’ says de Narp. ‘So when you had a puncture all you had to do was remove the screws then repair or replace the tube. The time it took for repair went from 15 hours to 15 minutes.’

Michelin had faith in the Detachable, but the public still needed convincing, so after various negotiations Michelin managed to convince local cycling hero Charles Terront to take a gamble on these unknown tyres and ride them in the 1,200km Paris-Brest-Paris race. Terront duly won, returning to Paris nine hours ahead of his nearest rival, Joseph Laval (a Dunlop rider who had been offered the Detachable but rejected it) in a time of 71 hours and 18 minutes. He had punctured along the way, but if anything that was the point. Puncturing was a fact of pneumatic life but, up until then, the ability to quickly remedy it wasn’t. The reputation of the Detachables grew, and Michelin wanted more.

‘In 1892 the brothers organised the “Nail Race”,’ says de Narp. ‘It was reserved for riders on Michelin tyres, but they learned that a cyclist equipped with Dunlops had decided to participate. They let him, but they threw nails onto the course so that everyone punctured. Of course the Michelin tyres could be quickly repaired, but the Dunlops could not.’

The plan paid off, and that year Michelin received orders for 20,000 Detachables, and in doing so shifted its attention entirely to tyre manufacture. But bicycles were just the beginning.

Speeding cars

By 1895 Michelin had developed the world’s first pneumatic car tyre. Only there was a problem: people didn’t trust it.

‘No one believed you could run a 1.5-ton motorcar on inflatable tyres, so the brothers built their own car from a Peugeot chassis and a Daimler-Benz boat engine. The car was very heavy – 2.5 tons – and the engine was rear mounted, which meant it was very hard to steer. They called it L’éclair, which in French means “the lightning flash”, because it would zigzag all over the road like lightning. They proposed to enter L’éclair in the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris motorcar race, but because of the steering no one wanted to drive it, so the brothers took on the challenge themselves.’ 

In racing terms it was a failure, L’éclair puncturing along the way and finishing last, but in the eyes of the motor industry it was a success. Out of 46 entrants only nine finished (the rest having succumbed to mechanical issues), so by returning to Paris intact, Michelin had proved that pneumatic tyres on cars were a viable option.

As with the Nail Race, Michelin felt further publicity was needed, so in 1899 when a Belgian by the name of Camille Jenatzy (nicknamed ‘The Red Devil’ because of his ginger hair) proposed to break the 70kmh barrier in an electric car, Michelin jumped at the chance to provide his vehicle, La Jamais Contente (‘The Never Satisfied’), with its pneumatic tyres.

‘At the time the French Academy of Medicine declared that it was impossible for the human body to accept speeds of over 70kmh,’ says de Narp. ‘If you exceeded that, they said, your body could explode! Jenatzy proved them all wrong, reaching not just 70kmh but over 100kmh. In doing so Michelin had showed you could put tyres on a vehicle that fast without risk.’

Enter Bibendum

All these publicity stunts were adding up to a great deal of coverage for Michelin, but it was during this time, in 1898, that the brothers realised Michelin needed more than just a newspaper presence.

‘Michelin had a stand at the 1894 Universal Exhibition in Lyon, either side of which were stacked two pillars of tyres – big ones at the bottom, small at the top. When the brothers saw this, Édouard said to André, “Look, if we added arms to this pile of tyres it could be a man,”’ says de Narp. 

‘Several years later in 1898 a French cartoonist called O’Galop went to present an advertising project to Michelin. In his portfolio was a poster for a brewery that had been rejected. It depicted a drinker in a funny costume and a glass of beer in his hand – with the slogan Nunc est bibendum. Remembering the piles of tyres, as well as André’s pronouncement that Michelin tyres “drink up the road”, they asked O’Galop to change the man into a pile of tyres with arms and replace the pint of beer with a champagne glass full of road obstacles.’ And so Bibendum was born.

Over the years Bidendum has morphed from a corpulent, aristocratic character into a smiling, muscular figure, having been depicted as a knight of the realm, a Roman gladiator, Descartes and even Napoleon along the way.

‘As the size of tyres increased, the number Bidendum was made from decreased,’ says de Narp. ‘He moves with the times. Officially he’s now made up of 26 tyres. In the original posters he was depicted as a rich man, because only rich people could afford cars. But over time he lost his trappings of wealth as cars became more affordable. In the 1980s we created the “Running Michelin Man”, a more dynamic figure to reflect current trends, and then in 1998 we slimmed him down, because maybe he was considered too fat!’ One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is Bidendum’s colour. 

Contrary to popular belief, Bibendum has never actually been black (commentators have cited Michelin coloured Bibendum black to reflect its tyres, but then later reneged for socio-racial reasons – something that Michelin firmly denies).

‘As far as the logo goes, Bibendum has always been white. This is because natural rubber is cream coloured, and he was invented before carbon black was used in the tyres [which makes tyres black]. Also it’s because the early tyres were luxury products and were sold in white silk paper. However, Bibendum has appeared in different colours on posters, for example in the 70s when he was orange, which was a popular colour at the time.’

But whatever his hue, Bibendum has become synonymous with Michelin, representing both the spirit of the age as well as his masters’ provocative and supremely confident attitudes.

‘Britain was the country of Dunlop, so building Michelin House in London was like saying, “You better pay attention to us!” One of its stained glass windows shows an advert from 1905 where Bibendum is doing a low kick, showing the studs on the soles of his rubber shoes. It was an advertisement for a new tyre with rivets in the tread, but it was also meant as a sort of message to Dunlop. It is saying we are using a French boxing kick to tell you, the English boxing man who only boxes with fists, that we are on your territory.’

Of course the battle with the Brits over tyres has long since petered out, and rather fittingly Michelin House is now a restaurant rather than a tyre depot. But one thing’s for sure: with Bibendum at the wheel, Michelin looks set to drink up another 125 years. À la vôtre!

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