As the colder months arrive and driving conditions deteriorate, the role of your vehicle’s tyres becomes even more important. But whether it’s an attempt to save money in face of current economic pressure of down to a lack of knowledge, the importance of an older vehicle’s tyres are often neglected as a consideration.

There are a number of reasons why tyres might be low on a list of priorities. The classic market remains strong in the face of adversity, with good, cherished ‘everyman’ classics increasing in price. That means enthusiasts could be forced to stretch their budget, meaning nothing left for new rubber. In some cases, buyers could be driven to less well-maintained examples, or even a much cheaper model altogether. The same goes for owners with a classic deemed too valuable to use in winter, who end up looking for a cheaper winter alternative.

In such cases that often means buying an older vehicle at the bottom of its value curve, and for these, tyres are the last thing on the list. Here at the Kelsey offices, we love to buy classic vehicles at various price points – some older, some that could be considered modern. In almost every case, we’ve had to replace old or worn tyres.

An often-used route to saving money on tyres is to fit part-worn items, but investigations by TyreSafe during Tyre Safety Month in October revealed a shocking 99 per cent of part-worn tyre retailers were selling illegal and dangerous tyres. Worryingly, of the 129 tyres inspected, 75 per cent were unsafe. The investigations also highlighted a high level of incompetence among traders.

What to check

But it’s not just a financial problem. Classic cars don’t cover the mileage of newer vehicles and may have spent long periods in storage, so the rubber doesn’t lose it’s tread as quickly and its age has gone unnoticed. Some owners may not be aware of what to look for, and without MoT testing for historic vehicles, the safety net of an annual inspection has been lost too.

We spoke to Ben Field at Vintage Tyres, who pointed out some of the issues that can be missed when evaluating tyres. “In this country we’re obsessed with tread depth,” he commented. “I saw a tyre today that had over the 1.6mm legal depth of tread, but to look at it you’d say it was pretty much bald. I know if I’d gone out in that this morning and stuck my brakes on, I’d have gone shooting down the road. That’s really scary, but it’s legal. So if you get someone with 5 or 6mm of tread, which is really common, they think it will last forever. The fact it’s 10 years old and hard as rock, or indeed 15, 20, 25 years old in some cases, if it looks OK then they believe it is OK. Of course, that’s not the case, because rubber continues to harden throughout its life. It’s a real concern for us.”

So how do you check if a tyre is too old? “Generally, since 2000, there’s been a four-digit date code,” added Ben. “So it might say 17 15 for example, meaning it was built in week 17, 2015. If it’s a three digit code it’s before 2000 and needs to come off anyway. We say anything that’s over 10 years old shouldn’t be on the car, and we won’t touch anything that’s over eight years old because it’s just too much of a risk. The rubber will have got pretty hard, and you should be thinking about changing the tyre regardless.

Other issues can include cracks and incorrect sizing. “We recently saw a vehicle that been MoT’d,” Ben continued. “The fact that it had lots of tread had won the day, but the tester hadn’t gone as far as turn the wheel to see that three of these tyres had cracks in between the tread blocks.”

As for sizing, Ben explained that someone will go to a non-specialist that won’t have their tyre size in stock but will offer something “close enough” so they end up with something that is maybe the right size in terms of rolling radius, but is too wide or too low-profile. “One of the things we tell our new guys is not to assume the size given to them by a customer is the right size. If a person is aware they’re on the wrong size then we will sell them that tyre if that’s what they want, but we can also give them our advice. For example, a 205 70×15 on a Series One E-Type is too wide, catches the bump stops and make the steering heavy. 185×15 is the way, and every single person that goes that way then eulogises about the new tyre size – the car suddenly drives properly. A lot of people are obsessed by wider tyres.”

“Mixing brands is OK, as long as you’ve got matching tyres at the front matching at the rear, but I’d make sure they are all of a similar quality and a similar age,” Ben added. “It’s far better to have four tyres of the same quality on a vehicle.”

Winter tyres

As temperatures drop, more and more folk switch their modern vehicle onto specialist winter tyres, but it worth doing so to a classic? Ben certainly thinks so; “Certainly with modern classics there’s a lot of opportunity for winter tyres. And with popular vehicles like the Beetle and Saab, there’s a Vredestein in classic pattern that works really well and looks the part.

“If you are prepared to drive your classic in the winter then I’d definitely recommend it, but they are not available across the board. Up to 15-inch, you’ll probably get something – come to us and we can advise.  If you want to drive a classic and don’t have access to a winter tyre check the pressures and make sure the tyres are of a decent standard.”

The overall message here, whatever the age and price point of your classic, is to regularly check your tyres. It’s not rocket science, but as the cliché often goes, they are the only contact point between you and the road and their role is crucial, especially in winter. If in any doubt, get them changed. It may damage your wallet, but it could save you damaging your car, yourself of even worse…