Written by Kevin Jennings
Since their invention, cars have been more than just a means of getting from point A to point B. They are a status symbol, a way to express one’s self, and a way to compensate for anatomical shortcomings. Long before Xzibit was pimping people’s rides or John DeLorean showed us the definition of form over function, Goodyear was trying to give consumers a way to bling out their cars that would forever change the tire industry, or so they hoped.
The idea was simple, and it didn’t actually originate with Goodyear. An independent research and development firm presented them with the idea in the late 1950s. It was important for industry professionals in Detroit, the Motor City, to keep an eye on all the market trends. One thing they noticed was the increasingly crazy and luxurious tires that people were putting on their custom cars. If the people wanted crazy tires, Goodyear was going to deliver. Their plan was to make colourful, illuminated tires to revolutionize the industry forever. Not to spoil the ending for anybody that hasn’t seen a car in the last 60 years, but their plan was going to fail.
When the idea was presented to Goodyear, they had already been experimenting with a number of synthetic rubbers in an attempt to improve tire production. They already had the perfect material to use for these tires: neothane. Neothane is a synthetic polyurethane rubber, and the tires were much easier to produce. While traditional tires require multiple layers of rubber and fabric, a neothane tire was simply molded from the synthetic rubber into a solid tire shape. The material could also be poured into molds and baked in a 250 °F (121 °C) oven, much cooler than traditional tires required.
What made neothane so appealing to Goodyear for this project is that the material was damn near transparent. This meant it could easily be dyed into various colours. The different colour tires could be used to match with the car’s interior or exterior colour scheme.
In some overtly sexist 1960s style quotes, Goodyear also believed that women would want their tires to match their hair or eyes, or even be frequently changed by their husbands to match their outfit. In a press release, Goodyear said, “Imagine, if you will, one girl telling another: ‘But, my dear, green tires just don’t do a thing for your complexion.’” Goodyear’s development manager John J. Hartz said in 1962, “Someday a wife may tell a husband: ‘Charlie, go out and change the tires. I’m wearing my blue dress tonight.’”
The company clearly had some pretty big dreams for their new tires, including motorists owning multiple sets of tires to accommodate the fickle whims of their bored housewives. But the dream wouldn’t end there. The goal was for the brightly coloured tires to be illuminated, and so they were mounted on wheels containing 18 light bulbs to light up the wheel well and the ground, making the translucent tires glow whatever colour they had been dyed. There were controls inside the car to adjust the level of illumination as well, in case you wanted to be able to drive your bright pink Cadillac fitted with yellow tires without making a scene. Surely these tires would be a sight to behold, and Goodyear hoped to have them rolling off the production line within a couple of years.
Initial tests were promising, with the tires working exactly as they were designed. The brightly coloured tires had a luminous glow, creating a marvelous spectacle and emphasizing just how cool and desirable the owner of the car must be. Of course, these tests were all of stationary cars inside a factory. The glowing, neothane tires looked like they were supposed to, but how did they work?
Unsurprisingly, the answer is “terribly”. The tires were an absolute nightmare on the road in every conceivable way. Under perfect driving conditions, the tires offered a smooth and quiet ride. If anything was even slightly less than perfect, the results went downhill extraordinarily quickly. The synthetic neothane did not handle on wet roads well, creating a dangerous situation.
Even if the tires were only taken out on beautiful days, they were still going to prove to be quite dangerous. One of the appeals of neothane was that the lower melting point made production much easier. What the engineers should have realized is that this meant the tires were going to be extremely prone to melting. You’ve probably smelled burning rubber from car tires at least a few times in your life. Modern tires are made from vulcanized rubber and are designed to withstand the demands of modern driving, yet situations still arise where they can begin to break down because of the heat. For the more fragile neothane tires, simply applying the brakes was enough to begin melting the tires.
So the tires were unsafe for driving, but at least they looked completely badass, right? Well, yes and no. Goodyear did a few trial runs to garner attention for their new product and gauge public interest. The public was definitely interested, but perhaps a bit too interested. In the 1960s, a car with glowing tires was something straight out of a science fiction movie, so people couldn’t help but stop to stare. This didn’t just include pedestrians, either. Other drivers would either stop completely to gawk at the tires or just turns their heads and stare while driving through stop signs and red lights.
Maybe this could be chalked up to how novel the tires were. The public was definitely captivated by them, and if they had the chance to own their own set of glowing tires surely they’d have jumped at the opportunity. And with more sets of these tires on the road, the less of an oddity any individual set of tires would be, meaning the spectacle would no longer cause traffic to halt. Everything should be good!
Or at least, everything should be good for the first couple miles. It didn’t take long under normal driving conditions for the translucent neothane to become covered in soot and other grime from the road. Even a thin layer of dirt was enough to negate the illuminating effects of the tire, meaning that they would either need to be frequently and obsessively cleaned, or they would just be dangerous, expensive tires for no particular reason.
Also, while John Hartz’s dream of a man changing the tires on their car daily to match his wife’s outfit sure sounds nice from the perspective of a wealthy, 1960s businessman, he was out of his damn mind if he thought any person would do that. As previously mentioned, the tires were made of solid neothane, which was much heavier than the normal rubber used for tires. This meant that Goodyear’s illuminated tires weighed 150 pounds (68 kilograms), roughly seven times more than a normal tire. At 600 pounds per set of tires, if a person was that insistent on their outfit matching the tires, they should probably just change outfits rather than swapping too massive sets of tires.
So Goodyear’s tires were dangerous to the driver, other motorists, and pedestrians, they were needlessly heavy, they provided no tangible benefit, and after a few miles of driving they would no longer illuminate. Of course, none of that was enough to scrap this project, because people are idiots who will buy anything [Insert plug for Rotting Turtle perfume]. What ultimately killed the product was cost.
While neothane was easier to make tires from than traditional methods, the material was too expensive. The cost of all the wiring to the wheels to illuminate the light bulbs was also far too high. The tires never made it to market so it is unknown how much these brightly coloured death traps would have cost, but whatever that number was, it was more than they felt the general public was willing to pay.
The Golden Sahara II
Only one set of Goodyear’s illuminated tires ever made it to the public. In 1954, custom car builder and designer George Barris took a wrecked 1953 Lincoln Capri and transformed it into the living embodiment of a jet engine. He later went on to design the Batmobile for the 1966 Batman TV show starring Adam West.
More famous than Barris’s Golden Sahara was the Golden Sahara II, built by Jim “Streets” Skonzakes. He began work in 1956 and spent over $75,000 (nearly $800,000 today) transforming a run of the mill car into a futuristic legend. The side of the car features over 3,000 gold coloured radio knobs as ornaments. Hidden among those knobs is a button that electronically opens the car doors. Electronic door locks were only beginning to become common in 1956, and only on luxury cars.
Once inside, the center console in the front seat featured a black and white television, and there was a corded telephone below the glove compartment on the passenger side. The phone was purely ornamental and did not function in any way, it was just a prediction of things to come in the future. The back seat contained a concealed refrigerator unit where drivers could store everything they needed for that mid-commute cocktail. The car was also upholstered with mink, because why not.
Much of this is luxurious, but it wouldn’t necessarily seem unreasonably futuristic, even to the people of the 1950s and 60s. To up the ante, Jim designed the car so that the engine could be turned off and on by remote control. The remote could also opened the doors, and accelerate or break the car.
The steering wheel was also just for show and could be stowed away, as there was a single control in the middle of the front seat that could handle driving. This yoke, that looked like something from the cockpit of a plane, could be pushed forward for gas, pulled back to break, and moved left and right to steer the car. The Golden Sahara II required a single hand and no feet to operate.
The windshields were removed and replaced with Batmobile style domes. Oh, and there’s about $4,000 of 24 karat gold plate covering various sections of the car.
This project caught the attention of Goodyear, and Jim was permitted to become the single consumer to own a pair of illuminated Goodyear tires, which he proudly displayed and referred to as “glass tires”, not that actual glass tires would have been much less safe. The Golden Sahara II was even featured in the 1960 comedy film Cinderfella, though it was still sporting a pair of whitewall tires at the time.
Jim toured his creation around the country and it became extremely famous. It was one of the most popular and recognizable cars in the country, with its fame spreading across the world. Then, still in the 1960s, Jim stopped touring with the car and went silent. People wondered what happened to it, assuming it had been scrapped for parts, but no answers would come until Jim passed away in 2018.
It turned out the Golden Sahara II had just been parked at Jim’s home in Ohio the entire time. Over the years, this one of a kind collectible car fell into disrepair, to the point that parts of the futuristic car were being held together by duct tape. The car went up for auction and automotive museum Klairmont Kollections purchased it for $385,000.
The car was fully restored and put on display at the 2019 Geneva International Motor Show. As part of the restoration, Goodyear agreed to furnish the car with a new set of tires. Instead of neothane, this time the tires were made out of urethane and were solid the entire way through, whereas the original tires could hold air. This meant that the new tires could only be driven at extremely low speeds, not that this car was intended to be anything more than eye candy anyway. The new urethane tires were also fitted with colour changing LEDs, allowing the user to either change the colour of the tires at will or program a pattern for the lights to follow.
Goodyear truly believed they were onto the next big thing with their innovative, illuminating tires. It wasn’t entirely a novelty feature, either. They believed that brightly lit tires could increase visibility in certain, hazardous driving conditions such as intense fog. They were so confident that they spent ten years attempting to design and develop colourful tires that could be driven on safely and retain their luster for more than a few miles, but to no avail.
Will we ever see tires like these in the future? Probably not. Tires are the foundation of an automobile, and in the interest of safety for both the driver and everyone around them, it’s best not to fuck around with something so important. Besides, there are easier ways to achieve this effect now.
Light up rims have existed for years and do not pose the safety risks that the neothane tires did. Custom cars are often even fitted with underglow lights now, which emanate coloured light from the undercarriage. Of course, just because science and technology say that we can do something doesn’t mean that we should. The initial test exhibitions of Goodyear’s tires were a major distraction to drivers and pedestrians alike, and newer, safer light sources are no different. Due to the potential danger of distracting other drivers, some states have outlawed light up rims, underglow lights, or both, so be sure to check your state’s laws before you try to design your very own Golden Sahara III.