Top Gear calls modern tyres ‘a disgrace’. Really?

In a May 2023 opinion piece appearing on the Top Gear website, motoring journalist Paul Horrell concludes that modern tyres are a disgrace. More specifically, it’s their vulnerability that is disgraceful. His reasoning runs as follows:

Cars, during their R&D phase, are tested against all manner of climates and assaults, just to be sure they deserve their lengthy guarantee. No such luck with their tyres. A one-inch nail or sharp pothole will strand you, and you’ve got no warranty against that.

He goes on to say:

After all the pain of a product that can’t even do the principal job it’s made for – reliably encasing a certain number of air molecules – we then have to face the fact it’s the first part of the car to need replacing.

Rounding out the argument, Mr Borrell suggests that, although he’s not a conspiracy theorists, the failure for tyres to improve may well be a conspiracy perpetrated by the manufacturers. Though that bit is probably satire.

OK, we’re commenting on a ten-month-old article, but it’s new to us. And as ten months has done nothing to diminish the weirdness of the argument, here’s our take on it.

Top Gear vs Physics

Paul Borrell is an accomplished journalist, a great writer, and someone who has forgotten more about cars than we’ll ever know. But on this particular issue, maybe his expectations are a tad unrealistic.

Let’s take the example of tyres being penetrated by a one-inch nail. Using some ballpark figures and a bit of secondary school physics, we can make a guess at the amount of pressure at the tip of a one-inch nail. In imperial figures:

  • The tip of a one-inch nail might be around 0.1″ wide, so the area of a blunt point nail could be 0.0079″.
  • The weight on one tyre in, say, a Nissan Juke carrying two people could be around 825lb.
  • That gives us a pressure at the nail tip of over 104,000 psi.

For comparison, the chamber pressure inside a modern firearm, Wikipedia tells us, is about half that.

Even if our figures are way out, you don’t need a physics degree to grasp that putting a huge amount of weight over a teeny-tiny area is going generate a colossal amount of pressure. Expecting any rubber compound to withstand that is unreasonable: it’s like complaining that Kevlar can’t stop rifle bullets, or that metal pipes corrode. In other words, manufacturers in all fields eventually run up against a material’s limits.

What does ‘reliable’ mean?

The Top Gear article suggests that tyres can’t reliably perform their principal job of ‘reliably encasing a certain number of air molecules’. We guess that depends on what one means by ‘reliably’.

A back tyre might last for 40,000 miles. That’s 40,000 miles over the UK’s crappy pot-holed, littered with everything the British public sees fit to hoof out of the window; over bits of glass, razor sharp stones, speed bumps, gravel, temporary road surfaces, and all this in temperatures that range from below freezing to the high thirties. The vast majority of these tyres, the overwhelming majority, will get to the end of their lifespan without any punctures – despite natural oxidation, attack from UV light, corrosive pollutants, and minimal owner monitoring.

We’d call that pretty reliable.

Also, reliably encasing air molecules isn’t the only principal job that tyres have, is it? There’s the small matter of generating sufficient friction to allow the car to accelerate, decelerate and corner. In fact, modern tyre design is a balancing act where manufacturers have to balance competing needs. Reliability has to be horse-traded with cost, performance, ride comfort and probably several other key desiderata.

Not perfect, but so much better

Let’s take a trip down memory lane. And you do so, cast your eyes over to the gutter… because they’re littered with tyre debris.

A few decades back, the sight of drivers jacking up their cars  – with a bored, miserable family waiting to get back in – was a guaranteed fixture of any long journey.

Obviously, that does still happen today, but it’s far, far, far less common. The fact that up to three-quarters of millennials can’t change a car tyre isn’t just down to better breakdown services. Modern tyres are so reliable that they’ve never had to learn –  something that would have been unthinkable for previous generations.

Instead of complaining that tyres – like every other human artefact – aren’t perfect, maybe we should celebrate just how far they’ve come.  From that point of view, modern tyres aren’t a disgrace, but a triumph.

The BK Tyres blog carries news, views and information on tyres and related subjects. BK Tyres supplies and fits tyres throughout South Oxfordshire, including the communities of Abingdon, Didcot and Henley on Thames. As an independent, family run mobile provider, we provide exceptional levels of service and affordable prices. Contact us today.