The Michelin Men: driving an empire by Herbert R Lottman

Rubber soul of a French tradition
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The Independent Culture

France is the world's leading exporter of philosophical cleverness and haute cuisine. But the French also have a remarkable record of invention, design and technology. The years preceding the Great War, for example, were not just the period of the Belle Epoque or Dreyfus, but of Eiffel's tower, Lumière's cameras, motor-cars by Renault and Panhard, Blériot's aéroplane and, not least, the Michelin brothers' unpuncturable pneumatic tyres, cheerfully embodied in the roly-poly "Bibendum": Michelin Man.

He first appeared in 1898 and remains one of the world's most rust-proof brand images. He began as a cartoon figure made of beer barrels drawn to advertise the wares of a Munich brewer. Brandishing a frothing Stein, he declared "Nunc est bibendum", a snatch of Horace aimed at dignifying both the product and the brash art of advertising. The brewer did not care for the result and the artist, reluctant to waste a good idea, substituted tyres for barrels and offered it to André Michelin, who liked it and even kept the tasteful Horatian tag.

André had for some time informed the public that his new pneumatic tyres were better than bone-crunching solid rubber by explaining that they "drank" the obstacles they met. They still do, having evolved through skid-proof, flat tread, low-pressure, X-belted radial and run-flat versions.

Herbert Lottman observes that "there is nothing less inspiring, less comely, about an automobile than its tyres". Purists might demur and plump for the oil-sump or exhaust, but the Brothers Michelin would have blinked with incomprehension. Edouard (1859-1940) stayed at the home-base at Clermont-Ferrand, masterminding R & D, running production in his model factory and being a model employer. André (1852-1931), a publicist of genius, remained in Paris singing the praises of Michelin tyres to the world.

When Michelin House sprang up in the Fulham Road in 1911, "Sir Bibendum", with visor and sword, was already a familiar figure over the slogan, from Tennyson, which replaced "heart's" with a word not difficult to spot: "My strength is as the strength of ten,/ Because my rubber's pure."

Of André's advertising ploys, the most enduring was his Guide for motorists that first appeared in 1900, in its familiar red binding. Given away until 1920, it converted France into maps, distances between towns, hotel gradings and interesting sites. Each featured instructions on the care and use of Michelin tyres, unbeatable for road-holding and fuel economy.

Over the years, other countries were added, as was a set of 48 folding maps of France, and green guides to the regions. From the start they spread to other countries as part of André's marketing strategy (a Guide to Belgium appeared in 1904) and in 1912, there were a dozen selling in such numbers that if stacked, he said, they would reach as high as Everest or 20 Eiffel Towers.

Soon the Guide had no need of André's puffs, for it turned into an institution. In 1944, the American army reprinted the 1939 edition and distributed it to invading forces who could see routes and street-plans at a glance. No other publication made the geography of France so accessible. But its impact on the nation's cultural profile was also considerable. It raised hotel standards and made France's culinary tradition the world's number one. For decades, no one minded. But by the 1990s, there was talk of "the Michelin Plague" which imposed a style of French cuisine, even on the UK or Italy, and drove restaurateurs who coveted three stars to colossal expenditure, ruin and sometimes suicide. Which is why the latest editions, responding to the "rough guide" philosophy, have included downmarket options.

Lottman's account of France's most successful, most secretive, multinational is not quite a business history. Nor is it a satisfying social or political history of a national institution, for it operates largely in historical isolation. It is much more successful as a quirky slice of cultural history. Lottman writes with genuine admiration for Edouard and André, the real Michelin Men, and provides enough fascinating detail to keep the pages turning comfortably, giving a ride as smooth as a set of snugly fitting X-radials.

David Coward's 'History of French Literature' is published by Blackwell