Fort Dunlop is--or rather was-- the spiritual home
of tyre manufacture
in the UK.
Linking tyre manufacture with spirituality may not be the most obvious connection, but for those in the industry, Fort Dunlop will always be associated with the global headquarters of the former Dunlop Rubber Company (DRC) DRC was founded in 1889 by Harvey du Cross, Jr. and became one of the most powerful commercial forces in the British Empire, dominating the world of tyres for over 50 years.
John Boyd Dunlop originally invented (or rather re- invented) the pneumatic tyre in 1888 , but he never exploited the idea commercially, and was never associated with the company which bore his name, having sold the rights to the idea to du Cross.
Officially, Fort Dunlop is the name given to a large former tyre factory built by DRC in 1916. It is located in the Erdington district of Birmingham, to the north-east of the city. At the time, it was the world's largest factory, employing over 3200 people under one roof.
Unofficially, however, those in the industry use 'Fort Dunlop' to refer to the offices, factories and buildings on the site surrounding that original factory.
The Fort Dunlop building itself is very obvious from the M6 motorway as you drive toward Birmingham from the south near junction 5. It is the first large, derelict factory you see . Standing just a few metres from the north side of the motorway, it is made of red or orange brickwork with five rows of small windows representing the floors of the former factory. There is a short tower at the western end upon which the words 'Fort Dunlop' are picked out--just in case you were in any doubt.
The building has been derelict since the early 1990s. Local planners recently described it as, "a dirty and grotty eyesore which gives a bad impression of Birmingham." In recent times, however it has been used as a theatre venue and as the support structure for the world's biggest poster advertisement. The ad, for Ford's Mondeo car, was put up in January 2001 and taken down six months later. It covered the entire south face of the building and measured 433' (130m ) wide and 79' (24m) tall. Since then, the Fort building has provided support for adverts for cars by Fiat, Citroen, Peugeot and others.
Before that, in 1992, the building was the venue for Ascending Fields, a theatrical piece by Rosemary Lee and visual artist Siobhan Davies. Commissioned and co-produced by Birmingham City Council and Sounds Like Birmingham, the piece demanded a cast of eighty dancers and musicians who performed in the former tyre building hall.
A brief history of Dunlop Rubber Company and the Fort Dunlop site
With the opening of Fort Dunlop, DRC quickly became very profitable and expanded to serve the needs of the British Empire, opening plants in India in 1926, and later Japan, Australia and many other countries. It was one of the first multi-national corporations in the world, and generated huge amounts of tyres--and wealth.
The tyres made at the Fort dominated world motor racing in the 20s and 30s. As early as 1925, Dunlop was making tyres for racing vehicles, capable of 200 mph and more. Modern tyre engineers still regard such speeds as a significant challenge for both design and manufacture. In 1935, the company supplied Sir Malcolm Campbell's Bluebird with the tyres he used to exceed 300 mph.
During that period the company built more factories on the land surrounding the Fort. By the 1980s there were four factories there. One for truck tyres, another for car tyres, a third for aircraft tyres and a fourth for motor sport and tyres for vintage cars.
However, DRC fortunes declined in the post-war years, however and by the early 1980s, bad management had allowed engineering expenses to spiral out of control. The company went bankrupt and was split up and sold in 1985.
In an ironic twist, most of the assets went to Sumitomo Rubber Industries, based in Kobe, Japan. That company grew out of Dunlop's original Japanese factory, and had maintained close links with its former parent. The aircraft tyre factory was sold to BTR plc and was later sold to an independent management group.
SRI managed the plants effectively and continued to invest in machinery and equipment. However, the main Fort Dunlop building was first used as a warehouse and then abandoned.
In 1999, SRI formed a joint venture with Goodyear, which left Goodyear in charge of the Fort Dunlop site. Within months Goodyear closed the two main factories, transferred the design effort to Luxembourg and all but closed the remaining facilities, selling the land off to developers.