Obituary: Tom French

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Tom French, designer and inventor: born Leamington Spa, Warwickshire 7 December 1923; staff, Technical Division, Dunlop 1946-83; OBE 1983; married 1946 Marie Langlais (four sons, one daughter); died Sutton Coldfield 26 May 1994.

LOW-PROFILE car tyres are now an everyday reality, and it seems a particular quirk of the motor industry that tyres, and their designers likewise, lie low. The ability to remain unknown when all our lives are influenced daily for the better by the success of his work, was an achievement of which Tom French, who was for 20 years in charge of tyre development at Dunlop in Birmingham, was perversely proud. He was an innovator, a rule-breaking maverick without whose ability to buck the system motorists would have had to wait a lot longer for the durability and safety of steel-reinforced, radial tyres. He also invented the Denovo run-flat tyre and pioneered development of wet- weather tyres.

Tom French was born in 1923 in Leamington Spa, the eldest of three. After an education at Leamington College, where he was deputy head boy, he won a scholarship and was destined for Oxford, but the family was not a wealthy one and he began a career at Dunlop in Birmingham. In 1941 he volunteered for the Royal Air Force as a navigator, and was sent to Canada for training. It was there that he met Marie, the lively Quebecoise daughter of Le Juge Antonio Langlais, over whose garden his aircrew made low flights of salutation. On active service in Mosquitos, French flew 43 tours of duty over Europe, which included bombing raids, unarmed photographic reconnaissance flights, and escort duties. His lifelong commitment to methodical planning, and his near obsessive fondness for the weather forecast, were doubtless a measure of the depth of his wartime navigation experience. He was mentioned in despatches and demobbed in 1946 as Acting Squadron Leader.

French took the first available sailing to Canada (sharing his overcrowded shipboard accommodation with a party of Russian monks), claimed his socialite bride and sailed her back to England from Nova Scotia in a cargo boat on a rough December sea.

In his working life French's disdain for bureaucracy served him and the motoring public well, but above all it was his foresight and perseverance that deserve most recognition. Having seen the motorways of Europe, French anticipated the speed of the motor car of the future, and felt that tyres were the key to safety. Hitherto, tyres had been tested on a drum in a test house at Fort Dunlop, but recognising that the curvature of the drum was likely to affect performance, French instigated speed tests on continental roads to give him guidance for the development of high-speed tyres. Similarly, in the late 1950s, his personal conviction that it was possible to produce small-diameter tyres was an enabling factor in the development of the Mini. Alec Issigonis, designer of the Mini, wanted a small, neat 'package', and for this wheels and tyres impossibly small for prevailing production methods were needed. It was French who pushed Dunlop into investing in the necessary tooling.

A horrific accident in the wet on the new M1 early in 1960, troubled French's mind. Locking himself away for a couple of days, he discovered on the test rig that when water was introduced between the moving drum and the free-rolling tyre, the tyre stopped turning and steering was lost. He gave this phenomenon the name aquaplaning. This discovery was then applied to the design of wet-grip tyres, and the development of glass-plate photography techniques to test the amount of water they could shift. The slipperiest road surface he could find for testing his theories was on Liverpool docks; somehow he got the docks shut off on Sunday mornings, and persuaded the Fire Brigade to spray the surface liberally with water so that he could test his tyres. Later, French convinced Dunlop of the need for a special test track and, in 1960, persuaded Liverpool Highways Department to part with the granite blocks taken from between the tram lines in Lime Street - specially desirable as a test surface because of the high polish on them from the shoes of generations of tram horses.

In the early 1960s, French took the responsibility for all tyre development at Dunlop, including those for aircraft, tractors, racing cars and bicycles, but he was best known for his work on motor-car tyres. His strong sense of conviction, tinged with a mischievous streak, led French to hoard a memo specifically prohibiting him from working on the development of steel radial tyres. At the time, and against his advice, Dunlop was relying on textile-belted radial tyres made under licence from Pirelli. Luckily for the motorist, Tom French and Bill Udall continued covert research into steel- belted radial tyres for two years, and were ready when the time came for managerial acceptance.

Further developments included tubeless radials, the non-standard low-profile tyres built for the Jaguar in 70 series (1967) and later 60 series (1969) for Lotus, and performance-busting racing tyres for Formula 1. The success of the latter was demonstrated by Jackie Stewart at the Nurburgring in 1968, when he won by a full four minutes in torrential rain on specially developed wet-grip tyres. In 1969, Stewart went on to win the championship, and Dunlop withdrew from Formula 1 on a high.

The invention of the Denovo run-flat tyre, for which French won the MacRobert Award, led to the development of the now standard Denloc rim. French can also be given much of the credit for Dunlop winning the Dewar Award for safety, and the Leipzig Gold Medal on two occasions, once for Denovo and once for Denloc. The award that was his alone, and of which he was very proud, was the OBE, granted for services to the tyre industry.

His other, more private qualities included a mastery of language and literature, and generosity as a friend and father. He was as at home in French and Russian as he was in English, and it amused him that his blackboard notes in Russian were as incomprehensible to his superiors as a secret code. The main achievement of his retirement was an important technical work and a number of papers on tyres, but he also found time to tend his garden. Although professionally he had many friends and earned great respect at all levels from boardroom to factory floor, and knew all the big names of the motor industry and sport of motor racing of the last 50 years, he always remained a very aloof and private man who was devoted to his wife, five children and seven grandchildren.

(Photograph omitted)