Friday, March 7, 2008

The "Radial Effect"

I was working in Chicopee Falls the other day, specifically the Main St. area. Now somewhat subdued, the area was in it's prime back in the days of the U.S. Rubber/Fisk Tire conglomerate, or more recognizably, one of it's divisions, the Uniroyal company. The old factory's crumbling buildings are now part of the Chicopee Industrial Park.

This building housed the offices, with some of the manufacturing area behind...

Uniroyal is where my father toiled; from setting foot in America, until it's untimely close in 1982. His job was putting those white-walls on bias-ply tires, the design that was all the rage for decades. Fisk had a long history. It was the tire manufacturer for the burgeoning automobile business at the turn of the 20th century. The Chicopee factory itself was there since the beginning of the 20th century, pumping out 500o tires per day by 1916. (On a side-note, Norman Rockwell, among others, painted advertisements for the company early in his career.) Some of my earliest memories were taking a ride with my dad to the company Christmas shop for presents and candy.

From that factory my dad culled enough income for us to live a very comfortable, if frugal life. I grew up in a good house in a good suburban neighborhood, with a very large, tight-knit, extended family. We always had everything we needed, (though rarely everything my sister and I asked for). For several years we even had a big, state of the art, swimming pool. It was the envy of my neighborhood friends and cousins. Oddly, at the same time, every night we'd sit in front of the same old Black and White TV. Color TV was a luxury my cousin across the street could claim, to counter our swimming pool monopoly. I still remember being amazed at the lush colors on their Zenith, as we watched Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley over his house on several occasions.

My dad loved to travel, and took us everywhere, from Toronto to Washington DC to Miami, on yearly week long vacations and weekend trips, and even a couple trips across the pond to Portugal. I'm sure my dad is where I got my own sense of wanderlust from. Most everything we had and did was financed mostly by my father's hard work, and careful management of the money he made at the Fisk company.

Uniroyal's closing was particularly untimely for us, because we had just had a brand new house built a year earlier. That calamity set off a string of employment changes for my dad. After Uniroyal's closing he was forced to do a long stint at Storms Forge, a hellish foundry, from where he'd come home literally covered in soot. Then he was a truck driver for a local wholesale Portuguese food distributor, hauling goods all over New England, New York and New Jersey. Then, in the biggest gamble of his life, he purchased a little sandwich shop in Ludlow with his brother. They completely remodeled it, turning it into a very successful restaurant and bar that's still there and thriving today. He finally sold his share to his brother, after 9 years of toil.

My mom also worked the whole time, though for much less money, first sewing at the mills in Indian Orchard, then at Milton Bradley (now Hasbro) until she retired a few years ago. She did double duty, taking care of the house, my sister and I, all the while working the full time jobs.

The End Of The Mighty Bias-Ply

By the late 70's, several factors converged to force the close of the massive Uniroyal tire factory;

High OPEC prices and recession in the late 70's caused people to drive less, lowering demand. Increased foreign auto imports, with their foreign made tires, further hurt demand. The real killer, was the fact that all those new foreign tires were the new-fangled radial type. It was simply a better product, and most foreign cars were coming stock with them. When they wore out, their owners replaced them with new radials. Demand for radial tires increased from 5% in 1970, to 55% by 1980. The bias-ply's days were numbered.

To make those new radials, they needed new factories. Tax incentives caused most tire companies looking to build those new factories to relocate down south. All the bias-ply tire plants were in the North. Particularly hard hit was Akron, once the tire capital.

Management finally had to enter into talks with unions about concessions, to lower costs. Concessions meant closings. It became a feeding frenzy between Fisk's many divisions, Goodyear, Firestone, General, and Uniroyal; all competing to lower costs and escape the inevitable head-chopping that was coming. In the end, 16 of 21 of the huge plants were closed. Uniroyal was among the casualties.

Here's a detailed account of the concession bargaining (in PDF format) of the tire factories. There's also some interesting stuff about deregulation effects on airlines and trucking from that era.

The closing of Uniroyal must have also been a terrible blow to Chicopee Falls. There are still a smattering of older businesses there, that must have been booming during the factory's prime.


Mary E.Carey said...

Wow, fantastic post, Tony. A great mixture of personal and local/national history. And that photo of the Friendly Liquor Store is a real keeper.

Tony said...

Thanks Mary, That liquor store has a great giant painting on the side of it, and there's some other neat scenes nearby. I'll have to go back there an get more pics at some point...