There's a building in Greenville, SC, that doesn't have a name on it. How the mailman finds it is anyone's guess. The people who work there carry no business cards.
What they do in this building is so secretive that in a prior life they must have been wartime spies willing to chomp arsenic pills in the event they were captured by the enemy.
For now, the secret is safe. But its keeper, French tiremaker Michelin Group, stepped precariously close recently to lifting the curtain on the vaunted C3M tire production process that takes place, X Files-fashion, in this hiding-in-plain-sight building.
BF Goodrich Tires, a division of Michelin, unveils at a press conference in Detroit one of the first commercial tires produced through the C3M process. The Scorcher T/A is the world's first high-performance tire produced in color - Raging Red, Screaming Yellow and Blazing Blue.
C3M is what makes the color treads possible. Without discussing details, BF Goodrich folks say the system adds a new dimension of flexibility to tire production by allowing quick changeovers for low-volume specialty tires.
Ultimately, C3M is not expected to replace conventional tire manufacturing by Michelin or BF Goodrich. But the new process is being applied at a plant in Greenville - which produces Scorcher T/A - as well as a new facility in Reno, NV.
Why color tires, you ask? It all started with a pair of running shoes, Nike TN Airs, which rank among the most expensive running shoes on the market at $133. BF Good-rich engineers spotted the shoes, which feature black soles highlighted by distinctive blue inserts visible only from the bottom, and decided a color tire tread could do for a car what the TN Air does for the foot.
Through consumer research, BF Goodrich discovered serious interest on the part of "young and sporty" car enthusiasts, most of them male, who spend disproportionate amounts of money on aftermarket gadgets to customize their production vehicles with special wheels, neon-lit underbodies and superchargers.
BF Goodrich executives admit that most car buyers want simple black tires, but that car buffs find the product exciting. Color accents, they say, are the most common modification applied by car buffs.
The color is built into the tread of Scorcher T/A, so it is visible mainly to people behind or in front of a vehicle. The color lasts as long as there is tread on the tire. The company plans to introduce more colors and at some point could allow customers to order any color they like.
Scorcher T/A comes in 16-, 17- and 18-in. sizes. Yellow is the first color on the market, available as of Aug. 1. The tires are capable of speeds up to a V-rated 149 mph (238 km/h) and 130 mph (208 km/h).
The tire is available as an original equipment option on the 1999-'00 Chevrolet SLP Seeker high-performance truck. BF Goodrich also has equipped a 53-ft. (16-m) tractor trailer to tour the country this year in rolling out Scorcher T/A for consumers.
Pricing will be set by retailers, but Scorcher T/A should sell for about 20% more than high-performance tires, which go for about $175 apiece.