The reasons behind guidebook companies' origins -- from Eugene Fodor's spies, to Arthur Frommer's budget, to Tony Wheeler's hippie trek -- are almost always the most fascinating part of the story.
You probably know all about Michelin the tyre company: they’re the people you turn to when you need a new set of dependable tyres for your car or motorcycle.
And you probably know a bit about Michelin the publishing company, too. Everyone’s heard of its famous maps and guides. Indeed, millions of motorists and travellers worldwide have been relying on them to get the very best out of their road trips for more than a century. There are others, too. Who wouldn’t want to dine in a Michelin-starred restaurant? Or be catered for by a Michelin-starred chef?
But what most people don’t realise is that they are in fact one and the same company. All these outstanding elements – from road guides to restaurant ratings – come from the same organisation.
With a UK presence dating back to 1905, today Michelin employs 3,000 people in Britain. Sites include Ballymena, Dundee and Stoke-on-Trent, where the company produces truck and car tyres by the million and runs an industry-leading retreading operation.
The link between the Michelin brands isn’t an obvious one. But, in fact, it seems entirely logical when you look back to the firm’s Victorian heritage.
The late 1880s was a time when the Wright Brothers had yet to take off for their first powered flight and it was a rare sight to spot a car – they were numbered in the low thousands.
For most travellers, major journeys were undertaken by horse and carriage or train. Even so, the Michelin brothers set about trying to develop the first detachable pneumatic tyre – first for bicycles and then for the new-fangled motor car.
The tyres were hailed as a breakthrough and swiftly patented. But there were few motorists on the road and Michelin didn’t experience the expected rush of customers. What’s more, the fortunate few who did own cars tended not to drive very far, so hardly wore out the tyres they had.
The answer, in hindsight, seems simple. But it was a single spark of inspiration that made the company what it is today. Michelin needed to get Britain – and the world – motoring. The firm needed to promote the excitement and romance of travel.
What better way to do this than by producing beautifully presented, brilliantly researched guides and maps, offering unprecedented insight into places of interest and the roads to be driven.
Better still, why not include vital information on where to buy petrol, get the car repaired or buy fresh tyres?
And, importantly, why not tell this expanding “motoring class” where they could stay in comfort and find a good meal when they parked their car, too?
So that’s what it did.
From the turn of the century, Michelin began producing guides – at first for France, followed by the first Red Guide for Britain, in 1911.
In those early days, these guides – which now change hands among collectors for impressive sums of money – were given away free to get people driving and buying tyres. They were nowhere as detailed as those we know and love today, but were a novelty and gave thousands of motorists the confidence to venture further afield.
Michelin’s off-the-wall strategy had worked. Last year, 69 plants in 18 countries produced 176 million tyres for a range of different vehicles. Michelin also produced 10 million maps and guides, sold in 170 countries worldwide.
To ensure its products lead the industry with great innovations Michelin spends around £400 million annually on R&D. It employs 6,000 people in this field, tasked with pushing the barriers of science and performance.
That’s without mentioning the manpower that goes into running and updating the ViaMichelin online service, which prepares 875 million route itineraries a year.
No wonder that last year Michelin saw net sales hit a remarkable £1 billion in the UK. Tyre firm or publisher, you decide.
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