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

Cameron Neveu

Visitors to Detroit for the 2024 NFL Draft this month will likely amazed (or confused) by the enormous Uniroyal tire sitting on the south side of Interstate 94 in Allen Park, not far from the Detroit Metropolitan Airport. It’s a sight Detroit commuters have viewed since 1966. Even Detroiters may not know, however, that the tire made its first appearance at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. April 22 marked the 60th anniversary of opening day, so we’re resharing the tale of the tire, published here originally in July of 2022, for that reason. –Ed.

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.

Uniroyal Tire Statue Detroit Michigan closeup
Cameron Neveu

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.

Uniroyal Tire Statue Detroit Michigan fence
Cameron Neveu

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
eBay/New York World's Fair Corp.

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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    I am shocked everytime I drive by this it is still there. I am glad they kept it up as the ownership of US Royal went to BFG and now Michelin. I recall the nail being put on the tire. I was doing work for BFG at the time and the un official name for Uniroyal was Unrich.

    I hope they keep this preserved for future gens.

    This is like the giant signs that tire factories in Akron used to have. They became landmarks.

    The large Firestone signs were at the south end of plant 2 and the north end of Plant 1. The plant two sign was destroyed when they tore the plant down.

    Firestone did save the last sign and move it to the building her they build the Indy tires. It is only one story up and now LED lit but it looks good again.

    Goodyear had a large sign on top of Goodyear Hall across from the headquarters plant one. It is about 90 years old and the lights were out but they recently restored it and it shines bright. The theater under it is now back in business hosing many big named music acts. The sign can be seen miles away and from Interstate 76 in Akron.

    The tech center and new headquarters ha a new sign facing the highway and it is modern and more modest.

    The General and BFG signs are all gone and left to history.

    I remember seeing it at the 64-65 fair, as I lived about 10 minutes from Flushing Meadow park as a kid and went to the fair a lot. I also recall the first Beatles concert at Shea, but that was a whole other story…

    Whats also funny is that its been updated at least 2 or 3 times from the original bias-ply white wall to the white lettered radial it is today, the hubcap has been changed a few times too.

    This Gen xer says thanks for the information !
    Love the photos and details.
    I imagine the view on the ferris wheel might have been impaired slightly
    but seriously a giant tire with cars at the fair must have been a sight and experience for sure !

    Have known about the origins of the tire from the time it was placed in its current location. However, these are the first photos I’ve seen of the tire as a Ferris wheel. Thanks.

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