Made In The U.S.A.

Where The Rubber Meets The Road

In Adventures on February 10, 2009 at 6:05 am

1.28.09: It snowed yesterday. And today. And the day before yesterday, come to think about it. I slid all over the road in my Hyundai (don’t laugh; it’s blue) and decided I needed some new tires. (Not just because I was sliding; the car was due. The sliding was just a reminder.) So I planned ahead: I researched to find out what tires are Made In The USA.

Turns out that a couple of companies are the proud beneficiaries of MITUSA assumptions, even though the fine print reveals that buying MITUSA tires from them isn’t exactly cut and dry.

The first thing I read was that only two tire brands are still American made. Those are Cooper and Kelly-Springfield. Another site said the only two were Cooper and Goodyear. Then one site said all three! Finally, the confusion was explained: Kelly-Springfield was purchased by Goodyear in 1935, and in the 1990s it was absorbed into the parent company. So, essentially, Kelly-Springfield tires are Goodyear tires branded differently. (Presumably not relabeled to cash in on the fact that Kelly-Springfield is the oldest tire company in the U.S.)

But even though sites like “How to Buy American Tires” tout the brands as proudly MITUSA, the truth is more nuanced. Much like New Balance sneakers, it turns out that only some of the company’s offerings are manufactured within our borders. In the case of Goodyear and Kelly-Springfield, I looked and looked but could find no concrete evidence of a country of origin anywhere on their web sites. (And, as I’m coming to believe more and more, if it doesn’t say Made In The USA, it wasn’t Made In The USA.) I did, however, find some proof that at least some Goodyear tires aren’t Made In The USA.

Cooper tires didn’t exactly tout the American-made aspect either. The closest I could come was finding a downloadable PDF product brochure that was labeled “Printed in the USA.” It made me wonder: how do they know where I’ll print it?

Frustrated, I finally called my local tire joint to see if they sell Cooper tires. Sure enough, they do. And, just for kicks, I inquired about their origins. “Oh yeah, they’re Made In The USA,” the man told me. “Them and Goodyear.” I inquired about a specific model of Cooper tire (it had good reviews and seemed to be pretty “technically advanced” which, maybe this assumption is silly, I assumed perhaps meant that they were more likely to be MITUSA because of the requirements of making a high-tech tire. He told me they were MITUSA, as well as another model of Cooper tires. And he had them in stock. Great. I’ll be there at lunch.

I did continue my online research until I found some cold hard facts. Cooper actually maintains a handful of U.S. manufacturing facilities. They also, though, make tires in Canada and Mexico. And, as it turns out, overseas as well:

In February 2006, Cooper Tire & Rubber recalled 288,000 passenger-car tires from the Chinese maker because they contained “unauthorized material” in the sidewalls.

What’s a boy to do?

This boy decided to call the Cooper Tire 800 number for customer service. I asked, “How do you tell which Cooper tires are Made In The USA?” Without missing a beat the woman said, “The D.O.T. code will start with 3D, UT, U9 or UP.” Further online research taught me that on all tires, the first two digits of the Department of Transportation code signify the manufacturing plant the tires originated. Using my advanced powers I decided that four D.O.T. codes signifying American-made Cooper tires meant that Cooper Tires has four U.S. manufacturing facilities.

Still: you can’t tell the D.O.T. code without looking at the tires themselves. I’m sorry, but I’m not about to be the crazy guy at the tire center asking, “Can I see those tires before you put ‘em on there?” So I decided to chance it. In the lobby, I scoped out the Cooper CS4 sample tire on the wall. Sure enough, it was stamped with a U9 D.O.T. code. I decided that signified that this shop got its Cooper tires from the U9 plant. When my car was finished I scoped out the rubber: sure enough, MITUSA. But not U9; 3D. That was a close one. And I’m an idiot for assuming anything about displays equating to sellable tires.

So how’s a guy supposed to buy American tires? Do lots of research, know what to look for, dodge the lazy disinformation about “all” tires of any brand being American-made, and cross your fingers in hopes of your American-made tires actually coming from America.

Or buy retreads.

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