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Genius Tyres: Making extreme off-road tyres in Brazil

Genius Tyres Extreme 4x4 44Looking at the tread of a strangely named Ignorante* tyre I wonder how Eugenio Roberto Antunes came to design it. I imagine him looking at a normal mud terrain and a house brick lying next to it. Perhaps synapses in his frontal cortex flashed as he wondered how to stick a dozen of them to the carcass to make a 40mm deep tread pattern… It didn’t happen quite like that. Constant R&D over the past decade in a 10 acre mini-rainforest behind the factory and feedback from clients meant that prototypes were constantly tested and improved to become what could quite possibly be called the ultimate off-roading tyre.

*Ignorante doesn’t translate to well from Portuguese. In Brazil it means ‘just go anywhere without thinking’… Which is actually quite an apt description.

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After breakfast in the local Pannicentre where an espresso in a big cup with added hot water is now called Robby Coffee, we went to the factory to meet Raquel, the effervescent translator. “They said you are from whales or dolphins, or somewhere,” she smiled, cheekily mocking my Welshness.

The story starts in the shade of an old mango tree with rolls of rubber stacked a bit haphazardly. They don’t look like much, a pile of discarded sleeping bags actually, but these about to become the insane tread patterns.

The first process is to cut the rubber into chunks and then feed them into a huge grinding machine, a bit like how my coffee gets done in the morning. The bits get mashed together into bigger mat-shaped pieces and then added to until they become a metre long strip. This is then fed into a roller machine and pressed into a strip of a certain thickness. Some treads obviously have deeper knobbles than others.

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Then it starts to get technical. The strip is cut into an exact length and width and laid on top of a mould. The chunks that go on the side walls, the lugs, are cut out squares that are just laid next to the strip at this point. It looks like some strange, giant novelty cake. This is then all covered with a material that makes an abrasive surface as this part will get glued to the tyre carcass and so needs the biggest contact area. This then gets fed into a huge press and cooker machine where three hydraulic cylinders compress the rubber into the moulds at 1000lbs and 260C. About 15 minutes later what comes out is instantly recognisable as the tyre tread pattern.

Now it goes to a distinctively low tech process. With a big knife a guy cuts rough triangles out of the side so it can be wrapped around the carcass.

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There is a shed out the back stacked high with old tyres and here’s what looks like the bum job in the factory. Stripping the old rubber off the carcass is a dirty job. A sanding machine is pressed against the spinning tyre and with the horrible smoke it looks like hard work. This freshly sanded carcasses is then rolled next door where a 2 metre long strip of new tread is waiting and has been cut to a precise length.

The bigger tyres, those 40 inches and above are actually re-used aircraft tyres. Beto says that they are such good quality that they will last through 4 or 5 re-treads!

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The measuring guy has oriental features and his nickname is Fake Japanese Guy. He adds a strip of glue to the back and cuts the tread through the thickest part, as close to the length of the circumference of the tyre it’s for as he can. The thickest part has to join together as it has the biggest contact patch the glue. A second guy in the same room drapes the new tread over the carcass and sees how much he has to stretch it to make the ends meet exactly. He was about 10 cm out on the one I watched so he wound it back and then pulled it tight every quarter turn. By the time it was back to the start it joined up perfectly. Beto says that nothing but experience can do that. With a big hammer the side lugs are hit down onto the glue and the gaps filled with a little bit extra rubber so that the new trend has as much contact with the carcass as possible.
A device with two wheels is then run against the tyre which centralises the tread. Important for on-road use.

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Then comes the heart of the process; the vulcanisation. The tyre is wrapped in a rubber envelope while the inside is stuffed with an inner tube. Air is pumped into the inner tube while it is sucked out of the envelope. This is what holds the tyre in shape as it is hung in a big cylindrical kiln and baked at 110C for three hours. Pressure and heat, this is what fuses the tread to the carcass.

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And that is how a Genius tyre is made. On a good day 30 can get done but there’s one thing that slows them down a bit and that is finding carcasses of the right size. Europeans like much bigger tyres than Brazilians normally use so the coming solution to this is a moulding machine to make new tyres at any size they want. On a 3D CAD program Beto shows me the next generation of the Ignorante. There are things you can do with a new tyre that you can’t with a re-tread. Things are looking very interesting indeed.

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But of course we needed to test them… North of São Paulo is sugarcane country. Big plantations in the rolling hills need little looking after so the tractor trails that winds through them are a perfect place to take a group of off-roaders for the weekend. Beto’s friend Marquinho of Marquinho Auto-Center, a Genius re-seller for over 10 years, led us and about 15 other cars into greenery and at the first boggy river crossing I see why the tyres are so popular here. Driving finesse and off-roading techniques are seconded to high revs and mad amounts of grip; you really don’t need to think about where you’re going! Mud flies, those who managed get stuck are mocked remorselessly, tow hooks are accepted as winch points and the bigger the splash to bigger the cheer. Green leaning it is not, but it’s great fun. Especially with a booming storm coming. But then we come to a serious climb.

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My brain is constantly trying to create a continuous reality with the information my senses send it to process. My eyes appraised the incline with a little brown river running down it from the battering rain and my memory dragged up past experiences of cars in similar places, slipping back down or winching up. Everything told me it wasn’t possible. My brain had no experience of the Genius tyres though.

England has its Land Rovers, Russia its Nivas and I thought Brazil had Santanas, but actually no, it has Trollers. It looks like a cheap Jeep with a glass fibre body and a 3l TD engine… and has just been bought by Ford, which everyone is happy about… The first one started up, a few more revs than I imagined that the transmission was happy with, and up it went. And so did the next one. But then came perhaps the biggest demonstration of just how good the Genius tyres are… Up lined a Troller with a set of BFG mud terrains, commonly accepted as a very capable off-road tyre. A bit of slithering on the mud that had been pulled onto the road and then he was on the trail… and got about 4 metres. A faster run up and he got to the same place. He tried a longer run-up but reversed too far and struggled to get the hanging wheel back up onto the road. My expression might have looked blank at this point, my eyes loosely focused somewhere in the distance, but inside, my brain was feverishly recalculating what is possible to drive up. He was jeered out of the way by the next Genius-shod guy wanting to drive up!

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To show their intent Genius are sponsoring the mighty Croatia Trophy and the first tyres will be in Europe this summer. Believe me, lots of people will be wanting them!.

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