Rubber Match

Detroit’s Uniroyal plant helped put the world on wheels before succumbing to technology and age. But the gunk and crud remained – until now.

When Doc Linaweaver started at the United States Rubber Co.’s Detroit plant in 1926, the electric knife that cut blocks of raw rubber didn’t so much grind as it did purr. Amid insufferable heat in the mill room, the rubber from Indonesia was combined with carbon-black pigment and sulfur in huge Banbury mixers. The factory’s odor made nearby streetcar riders hold their noses, while tunnels between factory buildings were filled with “rats, steam leaks, oil, dirt, and crud,” recalls longtime engineer George Young, who worked at the plant for nearly 40 years.

Tire manufacturing began at the site at East Jefferson and East Grand boulevards in 1906. Casting its eyes on the burgeoning auto industry, the Morgan & Wright Bicycle Tire Co. moved its operations from Chicago into 900,000 square feet of space in Detroit. At first, in addition to continuing production of bicycle tires, some 750 employees turned out 350 car tires per day, hand-forming them around iron cores. As production grew, blacks from the South and immigrants from Europe easily found work here, although they often got the hardest and dirtiest jobs.  In 1914, U.S. Rubber acquired Morgan & Wright. 

Amid the grit, some glamour arrived with the 1922 Detroit Auto Show. Worker George Pike remembers seeing the new Rickenbacker automobile at the show, being held in the still unfinished, seven-story factory building being constructed for the company’s expansion. A decade later, U.S. Rubber recognized the United Rubber Workers union during the Great Depression and, for the sake of job-sharing, the union negotiated a six-hour workday. 

Production peaked during World War II, with nearly 10,000 employees turning out 60,000 tires daily, along with self-sealing rubber fuel tanks for aircraft. In 1946, Frances Barnes worked the 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift and walked home afterward. When the plant closed for good, she said her 34 years in the factory were primarily spent “in the wire department, where you start the rims of the tire.” An Alabama native, Barnes never considered the work difficult. “It was steady and fast, but it was good work. I enjoyed it.” 

U.S. Rubber became known as Uniroyal in 1961. In the same decade, it benefited from two incomparable marketing initiatives. First was the famous tire that has long sunk its treads into the ground along Interstate 94 on the way into Detroit from Metropolitan Airport. Its debut came at the 1964 New York World’s Fair, where the giant tire was created to be a Ferris wheel. After the fair, the 86-foot-tall tire with hubcaps on either side was dismantled and shipped by train back to Detroit, where it was reassembled outside the company’s sales office in Allen Park — and it hasn’t moved since. 

The second marketing initiative was the unforgettable ad campaign for Uniroyal Tiger Paws. The animated TV spots showed no tires whatsoever; rather, a tiger with an automotive grille for a kisser and a windshield for a face bounded over a mountain road, across a bridge, and then pranced along proudly. Jungle drums and flutes heightened the tension. “That’s what Tiger Paws are made for,” the narrator said, daring the viewer to try them out. 

The advent of longer-lasting tires with radial rather than bias-ply construction doomed the Detroit factory, as overall demand deflated during the recessive 1970s. Foreign competition also pressured Uniroyal, the fifth largest  tire manufacturer at the time. As Uniroyal retooled for radials and consolidated its national operations, the 3-million-square-foot industrial complex on 44 acres was deemed obsolete. The plant closed in 1980, and knocking it down (while leaving all the gunk and “crud” onsite) took a year. Today, Detroit Economic Growth Corp. is leading a cleanup of the site in preparation for mixed-use development. Meanwhile, the Uniroyal brand still exists within the Michelin Group, but the giant tire along I-94 is all that’s left standing to represent the local industry’s blowout. db