By Brian Roulston
Thirty-four years ago, in 1986, some two thousand workers grabbed their lunch buckets and punched out for the last time at the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company of Canada. This huge plant founded in 1919 started out with a little more than 500,000 sq2 feet of floor space. It was located a mere stone throw from the steel plants that line Burlington Street. The first Canadian made tire rolled off the line here on August 15th, 1922. At the time Firestone was manufacturing the ‘Oldfield’ brand; named after automotive racing legend of the era Barney Oldfield.
The original cost of the plant was around $2 million ($26.5 million in today’s currency). The plant was built on reclaimed marshland and had been expanded at least twelve times over its 65-year history therefore increasing its floor space to 820,000 sq2feet.
Firestone of Canada was one of many factories in Hamilton, Canada and the United States that was converted for the war effort during WW-II. The Hamilton plant not only crafted an unknown number of aircraft tires, it was also one of 14 plants throughout North America that mass-produced over six-hundred thousand self-sealing aircraft fuel and oil tanks.
Harvey Samuel Firestone, the son of a prosperous farmer, was born on December 20th, 1868 in Columbiana, Ohio. As a young lad out of college he took a job as a bookkeeper for a coal company in Columbus, Ohio. Then he started working for his uncle at the Columbus Buggy Company. He held several positions within the company. Harvey had an idea that proved popular, that was to cover the wooden or steel wheels on horse carriages with a band of rubber over top the rims. He believed it would make a more comfortable ride.
Harvey moved to the Chicago area and started the Firestone-Victor Rubber Company with just one employee and continued with his carriage idea. Harvey even had a truck where he could go to his customers. The company name was soon changed to the Firestone Rubber Company. It was here he met his new lifelong friend and business partner Henry T. Ford who came in to buy some of his rubber tires. Four years later the Chicago business was sold for $45,000. This money financed Harvey’s next project the Firestone Tire & Rubber company of Akron, Ohio in 1900. The Firestone Tire & Rubber company would become the new kid on the block in an already crowded neighborhood with Goodyear Tire & Rubber, General Tire and B.F Goodrich. At the time these companies were focused on tires for the bicycle industry, initially Harvey made and sold bicycle accessories, such as rubber handlebar grips and pedals. He even sold tricycles, baby walkers and baby buggies. However, this stuff did not interest Harvey, his mind was on buggies and then later a new thing called automobiles. At first Harvey relied on those Akron companies to manufacture the rubber for him. He simply fastened the rubber strips to the steel carriage wheels. Then Harvey thought he could make his own tires, he did just that three years later. They were not particularly good tires at first because they had no threads and that caused a few accidents. Once Firestone developed the pneumatic tire things got much better.
In 1905 his old friend Henry Ford placed his first order for tires, thus making Firestone the Original Equipment Manufacturer on his Model T Fords. Over the next Seventy-five years Firestone and Goodyear controlled 75% of the world’s automotive tire market.
Harvey Firestone also pioneered the concept of the car repair and service sector by creating a one stop “Service Station” under the Firestone brand. ‘Service Station Attendants’ filled your gas tank, checked the oil, cleaned the windshield, and changed or fixed your tires. They even made repairs to several makes of cars and trucks.
Near the end of WW-I the introduction of “Liberty Trucks” proved their usefulness by taking, men, food, ammunition among other things to the battlefield. Harvey Firestone had the foresight to see how it would be a game changer in delivering products to businesses across America. Harvey initiated the “Ship by Truck” movement, the forerunner of the trucking industry.
Harvey S. Firestone passed away unexpectedly in his sleep due to heart failure in February 1938 at 69 yrs. old at his Miami, Florida estate. After Harvey’s death his four sons Leonard, Russell, Roger, and Harvey Jr. took over the company with the latter two gentlemen serving as Chief Executive Officers.
From the 1950’s through to the late 1970s Firestone was involved in scandals, recalls of 400,000 tires and alleged human rights abuses in Liberia. The company was losing a quarter million dollars a year and was over a $1 billion dollars in debt. The former head of Zenith Electronics John Nevin was brought in to turn the company’s finances around. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Firestone started liquidating assets to stay afloat. Nine out of seventeen North American Firestone plants were shuttered; six of them were closed in one day. Hamilton’s plant was among those nine plants.
John Neven moved the company to Chicago. Neven had limited success with turning the ailing company around, however, it was too little, too late. He negotiated the sale of the Firestone Tire & Rubber Company to the Bridgestone Tire Company Limited in 1988. Bridgestone is a Japanese company founded by Shojiro Ishibashi in 1931. Firestone Tire & Rubber Company received $2.6 billion, considerably less than it was offered for the company 15 years prior.
Bridgestone moved the now merged companies to Nashville, Tennessee. In 2012 on the 20th anniversary of their merger the tire division received a new name, Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, LLC. That year a $100 million technical center was opened in Akron, Ohio.
Phillip Environmental bought the plant off Firestone in 1991 then sold it to Hamilton’s Public Works-Waste Management Division in 2001.
The Hamilton Firestone plant on the corner of Burlington Street East and Hobson Road no longer exist. It was left in a state of disrepair and vulnerable to trespassers and urban explorers, it was torn down in 2012.