Detroit’s 80-foot Uniroyal tire was actually born in New York … as a Ferris wheel

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Flickr/Carlos Felipe Pardo

If you’ve driven past the giant Uniroyal tire alongside I-94 near Detroit, you know it’s a big wheel. A very big wheel. It’s so unusual that celebrities are drawn to it. Fantastical stories have been told about it (no, it never rolled onto the freeway). A book was written about it. Yet, while an estimated 100,000 or so cars pass the landmark every day, it’s likely that many of the drivers have little or no idea of how it came to be.

The giant tire was created for the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, not as the 80-foot-tall billboard it is now, but as a Ferris wheel. It was originally part of a static design that featured a tire wrapped around a globe, meant to symbolize the automotive boom of the early 1960s. World’s Fair officials ultimately decided to use the globe by itself as the event’s central figure, calling the steel structure the Unisphere (it still stands in Flushing Meadows).

US Rubber Company Ferris Wheel 1964 Worlds Fair
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

They didn’t give up on the tire idea, however. Conceptual drawings were created of a unique Ferris wheel—appropriate, considering that George Washington Gale Ferris debuted his famous invention at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, the same architectural firm behind the Empire State Building, the towering New York World’s Fair Ferris wheel was shopped around to tire companies. U.S. Rubber bought in, but only after it was guaranteed exclusivity as the only Ferris wheel at the event. The tire originally read “US Royal Tires” and included 24 barrel-shaped gondolas that could carry four passengers each. Among the 2 million fairgoers who enjoyed the picturesque ride were Jacqueline Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, John F. Kennedy Jr., actor Telly Savalas, and the Shah of Iran.

At the end of the fair’s second six-month season in October 1965, the giant tire was offered to anyone willing to dismantle it and haul it away. U.S. Rubber found no takers, so it decided to gut the Ferris wheel components and place the outer structure near its headquarters along I-94 between the Detroit Metropolitan Airport and the Motor City. As Steven J. Frey, author of The Giant Tire – From New York’s World Fair to Detroit Landmark, told Michigan’s Press & Guide last year, the tire company really didn’t have much choice in the matter—and not only because World’s Fair exhibitors were contractually obligated to disassemble or demolish their structures.

Giant Uniroyal tire - 1964 Worlds Fair postcard 2
New York World's Fair Corp.

“They tried very hard to give it away,” Frey said. “Can you imagine the publicity disaster if the world’s largest tire went to a landfill? So, they decided if they can’t give it away, they have to keep it.”

The tire was shipped to Allen Park in 116 sections, loaded onto 22 railroad cars, and reassembled in 1966.

Although it looks like a giant rubber tire, the 12-ton structure is constructed of steel and polyester resin with a fiberglass surface. Of course, that hasn’t stopped people from trying to “deflate” it, as arrows have been removed from time to time. Uniroyal even stuck an 11-foot, 250-pound “nail” into the tire in 1998 to promote its self-repairing tires. When the nail was removed five years later, a real estate agent bought it for $3000 and used it to promote his business.

Uniroyal Tire take on nails
Wiki Commons/MJCdetroit

The tire sits on a structure supported by pylons set 15 feet into the ground, and the pedestal is surrounding by fencing. The tire, by the way, is not round—it’s flat at the bottom where it attaches to the base, further dispelling the 1974 hoax that it had rolled onto I-94.

The tire’s wheel/hub design and lettering have changed only slightly over the years, as U.S. Rubber became Uniroyal and then merged briefly with BFGoodrich before the Uniroyal brand was acquired by Michelin. It sits on property now owned by Baker College; sale of the land was contingent upon Baker promising to keep the tire right where it is.

Giant Uniroyal Tire - 1964 Worlds Fair toy
New York World's Fair Corp./eBay

To say that the Uniroyal tire is a celebrity is a bit of an understatement. It has been featured on products ranging from official World’s Fair toys to Christmas ornaments and can even be seen in music videos like “Silly Love Songs,” released by Paul McCartney and Wings in 1976, and Kid Rock’s “Roll On” in 2008.

McCartney first saw the tire when the Beatles opened their 1965 U.S. Tour at Shea Stadium in Queens, not far from the World’s Fair. For security reasons, the wildly popular Fab Four took a helicopter to the fair’s Port Authority Heliport, then rode inside a Wells Fargo armored truck to the stadium. Though the concert became legendary, McCartney never forgot the tire, which he only saw from a distance. When Wings made a tour stop in Detroit in ’76, McCartney and the band just had to check it out.

Giant Uniroyal Tire - Paul McCarthy and Wings 1976
Paul McCarthy and Wings, 1976. Twitter/Detroit Street View

Similarly, when Super Bowl XL was played at Detroit Ford Field in 2006, members of the Seattle Seahawks asked to visit the tire too.

As the Detroit News so wistfully wrote in 2015, once upon a time Uniroyal plants in Detroit employed 10,000 workers who produced 60,000 tires a day, but now “the plants and corporate building are gone. The tire endures.”

In our hearts, in our minds, and alongside I-94.

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