Founded in Milan in 1872 by Giovanni Battista Pirelli, the company initially specialized in rubber products that included scuba diving and telecommunication parts. In 1885, Pirelli switched their focus to carriages, a move that would change the course for all future business, the world of motorsports, and the tire industry itself.
In 1901, Pirelli began to produce tires for cars, basing the new direction on two major factors: a newfound interest in racing, and expanding company’s reach to distribute and sell products across the world. They expanded by building factories in Spain, England, and as far reaching as Argentina in 1917.
While the company focused on growing its manufacturing presence, it also worked hand-in-hand with some of the earliest auto clubs and racing events across the world. Their commitment to auto racing introduced their association with some of the fastest cars in the world. In 1907, the first Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France was won by a car fitted with Pirelli tires.
The company continued to grow during and after World War I by looking abroad into the United States and Brazil. It was here in the states where they designed the elongated P logo that we know and love today.
Shortly after the war, Pirelli completed some major innovations. The Superflex Stella Bianca, the first and innovative sport tire, was conceived and launched. Very popular during the ’30s, the tire was fitted with a reinforced tread to avoid damage at high speeds. It was a game changer when it came to the racing circuits of the day when a single blowout could render a car unable to complete a race. The Superflex Stella Bianca helped reduce that risk.
The next major tire to be recognized for safety was the Cinturato. This tire’s main feature was a sturdy radial belt between the carcass and tread and was a great improvement over other tires on the market.
Pirelli continued to focus on racing tires and continued making strides through the ’60s and ’70s. In 1974, they invented the “wide radial” tire, a request by the Lancia rally racing team for a tire strong enough to withstand the power of the new Lancia Stratos. At that time, racing tires were either slick or radial tires, which were too narrow to withstand the Stratos’ power and without enough grip. Both tires were unusable. Radials were destroyed within 10 km, and the slicks were too stiff for adequate performance. When Lancia asked Pirelli for a solution, Pirelli created a wide tire with a reduced sidewall height like a slick, but with a radial structure. Porsche liked the concept and began using the same tires on their 911 Turbo.
As if to enhance its sexy, Italian persona, the company set its sights on the world of fashion, publishing a calendar in 1964. Today, it’s become a highly anticipated and exclusive publication. With a big budget, controversial images, and limited availability, the prestigious calendar is shot by the most talented photographers and famous models and celebrities.
In the ’80s, further commitment to technological innovation introduced the first motorcycle radial tire. The company also expanded geographically with the opening of the Brazilian plant at Sumarè (1984) and Feira de Santana (1986) as well as the acquisition of Metzeler Kaotscuck AG (1986), a German company whose moto tire production was very popular. This helped position the company as a real competitor in the tire market. By 1988, with the acquisition of Armstrong Tire Company, a U.S.-based manufacturer, the first of many efforts to enter the North American market was accomplished.
In 2005, Pirelli opened its first tire production plant in the Shandong province of China. And in the following year, they chose Slatina for its first tire production plant in Romania, extending the facility in 2011.
Pirelli became the official tire of the Formula One races in 2010 and last year signed a contract extending its partnership through 2023. The Pirelli World Challenge is in its twenty-ninth season, a new class of racing cars converted from stock street cars and enjoyed by racing enthusiasts globally.
In May 2017, Pirelli announced its return to the world of cycling with a new road cycling tire range, Pzero Velo.
Today, Pirelli is working on a series of intelligent tires and filed 300 separate patents. Pirelli hopes these innovations will help make autonomous cars closer to reality. Luigi Staccoli, executive vice-president said, “The most innovative car makers can see that tires are the only part of the car in contact with the road, yet they are the least connected part of the car today. So they are willing to increase the connectivity of the tire to provide a better experience to their users and to improve the performance of their cars.”
Pirelli tires are a classic for racing enthusiasts and for those who want tires made by a dependable, world-renown company.