Big wheel on Interstate 94 keeps heads turning

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Allen Park — It was a home, Ferris wheel, marriage proposal site, target for arrows, and ogled by Paul McCartney.

But mainly, it's the biggest dang tire you've ever seen.

It's the giant Uniroyal tire on Interstate 94 in Allen Park, and it's turning 50 next month.

No formal celebration is planned, but the city is proud of the 80-foot behemoth, which is one of the largest and most famous roadside landmarks in Michigan.

"A lot of people have a soft spot for it," said longtime Allen Park resident Sharon Broglin.

The tire is such an icon that an 11-foot nail plucked from it became famous in its own right, getting its own handler, vehicle and email address.

The hulking sphere means different things to different folks.

For visitors, it's an auto-themed welcome to the Motor City. For residents, it means they're halfway between Detroit and Metro Airport.

The tire isn't a tourist attraction. It's basically an eight-story billboard telling people to buy Uniroyals.

Still, it's a billboard that's listed on Google maps.

It weighs 12 tons, but not a single ounce is rubber. It's steel and polyester resin with a fiberglass surface.

It's immune to potholes unless said potholes are the size of the Detroit River.

Allen Park Mayor Bill Matakas first noticed it when returning home from the University of Michigan Law School one weekend in 1966.

"You cannot not notice it," he said.

It was created as a tire-like Ferris wheel for the 1964 World's Fair in New York, providing rides to more than 2 million fairgoers.

Afterward, it was disassembled and transported by 21 railroad flat cars to Allen Park, where it was reconstructed, sans gondolas, near a Uniroyal Tire Co. corporate building in 1966, according to the book "Images of America: Allen Park."

Uniroyal plants in Detroit once employed 10,000 workers who produced 60,000 tires a day.

The plants and corporate building are gone. The tire endures.

"It lets travelers know that automobiles are our thing," said Renee Monforton, spokeswoman for the Detroit Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The tire has been featured on Christmas ornaments, cartoon illustrations, and music videos from Wings' "Silly Love Songs" in 1976 to Kid Rock's "Roll On" in 2008.

A 2001 postcard by the Allen Park Historical Museum promotes the city as the "Home of the Giant Tire."

One reason the museum put out the card was to counter a Detroit postcard claiming the landmark was in that city, said Broglin, who has been museum director for 28 years.

Visitors have lots of questions about the tire, she said. Among them: How big is it, why is it there, how did it get there, who owns it and what is under it?

Because Uniroyal was bought by Michelin in 1990, the tire, supported by a concrete base, is owned by a French company, which now makes us even for the Statue of Liberty.

Many charities and other groups have sought to use the tire as an advertisement, apparently not realizing it's already an advertisement.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals wanted it to be part of a campaign to promote vegetarianism in 2009, saying such a diet would help people lose their "spare tire."

The group offered to maintain the tire in exchange for its use, but Michelin wasn't interested.

"If they allowed one charity to do it, there would be no end to it," said Matakas.

Maintenance workers have had to pull arrows from the tire, patch up spots where people tried to break into it, and remove beer bottles from overnight parties around its base.

Someone was able to squeeze into the structure in the 1990s, using it as shelter until the hole was discovered by workers, who discarded the interloper's mattress.

More famous visitors were McCartney during the Wings' world tour in 1976, and several members of the Seattle Seahawks when they played in the Super Bowl at Ford Field in 2006.

Nail embarks on solo career

Uniroyal stuck a gigantic nail into the tire in 1998 to promote its self-repairing tires.

When the nail was removed five years later, real estate agent Ralph Roberts scooped it up for $3,000, using it to promote his Utica business.

The irrepressible salesman took the 250-pound steel object everywhere: parades, fundraisers, dinners at restaurants.

When a charity told him the nail wasn't suitable for a highfalutin event, Roberts dressed it in a tuxedo.

"It's amazing," he said. "If anyone has ever been here, they know about the tire."

Roberts, who finally retired the nail last year, said it was a great excuse to buy a Hummer SUV, which lugged a trailer holding the object.

"The nail bought a Hummer," he announced to his wife in 2003.

It wasn't known whether the Mrs. asked where the nail was going to find the $40,000 for the black H2.

Tire put Allen Park on map

Allen Park is tickled by its link to the tire.

Resident Bill Carnarvon is doubly proud because of his occupation. The Fiat Chrysler engineer loves the fact that the auto-related landmark sits in his hometown.

"It put Allen Park on the map," he said. "It's just the pride of the city."

Carnarvon, 57, who has lived here his entire life, was one of the kids who traipsed through the woods and hopped the fence surrounding the tire.

One of 11 children, he sometimes joined his siblings on the jaunt.

But they never vandalized the icon, he said. They were too proud of it.

(313) 223-4186

Twitter: @francisXdonnell