What many people who know Continental today don’t know: our product portfolio began not with rubber tires, but with hoofers, rubber balls, hard rubber combs, and other products made of this material. This ever-increasing differentiation of rubber products meant that, at times, Continental’s product line included up to 60,000 articles. What made that special was the close connection these products had with the everyday lives of our customers. Despite the variety of products, the core business quickly moved to tire manufacturing and products relating to motorization and mobility.
The high-tech product, “tires”, developed a veritable “life of their own” over time. Over the past 130 years, its innovation cycles have shown some revolutionary leaps. Raw materials and mixing technologies have changed, as have the interior and exterior structure and colors. These changes were always also adaptations to the changing forms of mobility. Various “tire philosophies” therefore also developed in the different eras, based on the changing perspectives on mobility.
The list of tire innovations at Continental after the development of the world’s first tread pneumatic tire in 1904 is long as you like – in 1910 Continental developed the first aircraft tire, in 1924 the first tire for trucks. Four years later saw the first pneumatic agricultural tires in Europe, as well as the first winter tire in 1934, and the first corresponding product made of pure synthetic rubber in 1936. In the mid-1940s, Continental dispensed with inner tubes for the first time before the first special winter tire with spikes was created in the early 1950s. In the 1980s, further innovations saw the light of day, like the first “environmental tire” in 1981 or 1987, the first RunFlat tire system in 1987/89, and the first puncture tire in 1988/89. After the turn of the millennium, Continental launched an “intelligent tire” with an integrated sensor for the first time and in 2015 its product line included the fastest tire approved for road traffic.
In 1898 Continental started the production of automotive pneumatic tires, with 41 different models for all vehicles with a load-bearing capacity of up to 500 kg already available at that time. And although the new pneumatic tires offered a considerably higher level of ride comfort, they were extremely difficult to establish on the market. The leading motor car manufacturers of the day, Carl Benz and Wilhelm Maybach, were initially not very enthusiastic about the new tire technology. As a result, Continental was ultimately forced to buy its own test vehicle in 1895 just to carry out the necessary tests. In the end, the Continental tire owed its real breakthrough not to the private customer business, but to the developing sport of automobile racing. In 1901, for example, the new “Mercedes” car ran on Continental tires to win the Nice-Salon-Nice race.
When extensive investigations in 1910 showed that 58.3 percent of the defects in tire covers and hoses were due to manufacturing errors, Continental started producing not only tires but also consulting literature. These included technical guidelines, repair and assembly instructions, and various accessories. On the one hand, they wanted to dispel all doubts about the quality of the product while, on the other hand, meeting their own standards as a mobility service provider.
The end of the First World War brought with it the key innovation in tire technology: the high-pressure principle that had prevailed for decades had given way to the low-pressure tire and the rigid outer layer was replaced with elastic cotton cord. In practice, this translated into another significant gain in ride comfort.
While international mobility in the 1920s was already trending strongly towards the automobile, individual mobility in Germany was still characterized by bicycles and motorcycles. But two developments were soon to change this, putting the Continental automobile tire at the center of attention. First, the Continental tire became female. During these years, the company discovered the modern woman as a driver and car owner in her own right, and therefore also as a tire customer. Women were more than just a new target group – right from the start, they gave testimonials. Successful female motorists such as Ada Otto often graced the front pages of the Echo Continental customer magazine. Secondly, the Continental tire developed into a racing-proven high-performance tire and was considered a synonym for victorious high-speed performance. In countless national and international automobile races, the winners crossed the finish line on Continental tires. At the same time, the racing and utility tire divisions increasingly diverged, but the experience gained in racing tires was incorporated into the normal tire assembly.
The Nazi and war era had a deep impact on tire development. The four-year plan of the Nazi regime, with its policy of using substitute materials and the state standardization regulations that followed, led to a radical decrease in the variety of types and the wide range of tire dimensions available. In 1934, Continental produced 114 different varieties in the passenger car tire sector, but in 1937 there were only 38. The use of synthetic instead of natural rubber and other “German materials” also changed the basis of tire technology. The Continental tire was increasingly geared to the needs, specifications, and goals of the Nazi regime. During the Second World War, the company eventually became the backbone of German war mobility. Instead of enabling the leisure mobility of the consumer society as it had in the past, the tire now ensured that soldiers were transported to the war zone.
In the years that followed, and with great effort, Continental succeeded in re-establishing the close bond and identification between tires and customers. But this high-altitude phase was over faster than expected. It missed out on the most important tire revolution of the 1960s and 1970s: Michelin’s steel belt radial ply tire technology. On the basis of very solid income from the tire sector, the company made the decision in 1965 to further develop the textile-cord belt tire instead of the steel belted tire. Due to this decision, Continental almost lost touch with its competitors from a technological point of view. It would take ten years before the gap could be closed.
In the mid-1980s, Continental caused a sensation again when the company launched a new tire technology: the “Continental Tire System” (CTS). For the first time the tire was understood as part of a system that was connected to other parts of the automobile. This system was technically designed to meet that concept. In 1987, the CTS was finally technically mature and ready for volume production. Due to high production costs, the concept was ultimately not able to achieve broad market acceptance, and so it was absorbed into a special tire tailored to the specific breakdown running capability. However, it did achieve an immense image gain for Continental. The CTS project became an object of identification that put the recent difficult times firmly in the past.
The following years focused entirely on the intensive search for an “intelligent tire.” As early as 1999, new systems, modules, and functions were presented in a brochure. They complemented and expanded the characteristics of the tire and placed it at the center of automotive mobility.
An initial version of this “intelligent Continental tire” went into volume production in the summer of 2002. It was soon followed by a second version, in which integrated sensors not only monitored the tread depth and damage to the tire, but also provided information about its operating conditions such as air pressure, temperature, and the condition of the road. The concept of integrating the tire into the chassis control unit continues to have enormous future potential and continues to occupy tire engineers to the present day. In 2017, two new tire systems were finally presented at the International Motor Show in Frankfurt, which were intended to mark a new stage on the long road to intelligent tires. With “ContiSense” and “ContiAdapt,” two concepts of system technologies were presented that both ensured continuous monitoring of the tire condition and at the same time made it possible to adapt the tire performance characteristics to current road conditions.
One innovation that also revolutionized tire technology in the mid-1990s was what is known as the silica technology. Through the use of silica, the mixing process in tire assembly could be controlled so precisely that both the segmentation and the variety of tire types increased many times over. Another milestone in the field of compound technology was the “BlackChili” tire compound, which has been in use since 2007. This mixture made it possible to significantly optimize tire properties, such as grip, rolling resistance, and mileage, without getting into a traditional conflict of objectives in tire development.
While the development time in tire technology took many years in the past, today it is relatively short, averaging only two years. The list of Continental tire developments within the last 50 years is also impressive: braking distances, for example, have been halved, the mileage has been doubled to 15,000 kilometers, the rolling resistance has decreased by 30 percent, and more. Overall, mobility has been made much safer and more comfortable.
Once the diverse range of Continental products belonged to the everyday lives of large parts of society, and now the Continental tire stands out as a famous and universally visible product in the modern mobility world. Not only is the Continental tire the company’s most visible product, it is also a direct link between the new Continental of 2021 and the old Continental of the 1890s.