By Ariejan Bos:
In the early days of the automobile, the pneumatic tire suffered from punctures, rapid wear and blowouts that could cause serious accidents. At that point in time, the future of this type of tire was not at all certain. In 1906, pneumatic tires would last for around two thousand miles if fitted to a standard sized touring car. However, if fitted to a heavy limousine or sedan which could weigh more than 2 tons, the life span of the tires might decrease to only about two hundred miles. Moreover, the price of tires in the early days was considerable and formed a large part of the yearly operating expenses of a car. Consequently, other solutions were sought to secure comfortable and safe driving without the worries of regular tire repairs and replacements.
One of the solutions at the time seemed to be the elastic or resilient wheel. The first person who worked in this field was actually the inventor of the pneumatic tire, the Scottish born Robert William Thompson. His patent dates from 1845 and an example of his aerial wheel can be seen at the Science Museum. Technology, however, was not advanced enough yet to produce reliable thin wall rubber inner tubes and out of frustration Thompson started to develop elastic rubber tires for road locomotives. At the end of the 19th century, the pneumatic tire returned, first for the bicycle and later for the automobile. Despite it’s potential, the earlier mentioned drawbacks of the pneumatic tire were the cause of a continuous stream of elastic wheel inventions, like the well-known one invented by the Count De Cardegnan, mounted here (below) on a circa 1903 Bardon.
Finall, in 1906, the French magazine L’Auto decided to organize a contest for elastic wheel inventors and producers to investigate the potential of the available elastic wheels and tires. They could be roughly be divided into flexible metal systems (with metal springs), wheels based on elastic rubber and those using the combination of rubber and springs. The first contest was a reliability test from Paris to Nice and back (1337 miles) lasting 10 days. The interest in this contest was international and reports can be found in all major French and international magazines of the period.
There were 10 contestants of which only 3 reached the finish in Paris. The winner was the E.L. wheel developed by engineer Edmond Levy that was based on an inner and outer metal rim with elastic rubber rings in between. Similar contests were organized in 1907 and 1908 and in both years, L’Automatique Ducasble, a type of massive rubber tire with air chambers, took away the first prize. It soon became clear that resilient wheels based on elasticity using metal springs were not satisfactory, although they looked like a possible solution to the tire problem at the time.
After 1909 interest seems to have diminished, although the elastic wheel idea was not abandoned completely. Even as late as 1913, as seen above, an American ad promoted the Ideal resilient wheel with the certainty that there will be no tire troubles, no punctures, blow-outs, rim cuts or leaky valves. In Germany during the First World War, there was a revival of the resilient wheel caused by a rubber shortage that was the result of the Allies’ naval blockade.
For heavy vehicles like trucks however, the use of these wheels would continue until the early ’20’s when satisfactory pneumatic tires would start to become available. Until that time, elastic solid tires like L’Automatique Ducasble were commonly used, but still some inventors put their energy in the development of the metal elastic wheel alternative such as the Lipkowski wheel or the Suspension Compound, as it was called seen above and below. More resilient wheels can be seen here on The Old Motor and also at Hemmings Daily.
- *Update* It appears that this is a Pipe that was made in Belgium. The wild coach work is by French coach builder Henri Labourdette, 1910
Editors Note: Ariejan Bos of the Netherlands, who authored this post, is very knowledgeable about the subject of early cars from all around the world. He is a frequent contributor here on The Old Motor, identifies many mystery cars and often provides his expert input. He is a member of Conam a society of automotive historians from the Netherlands.