Despite the uncertain times and material shortages, Suomen Gummitehdas Osakeyhtiö started manufacturing car tyres. Expertise and machines were acquired from the United States during negotiation trips made by Senior Engineer Ensio Salmenkallio. At first, a manufacturing batch was only a few dozen kilos, but by 1934, the factory was working three shifts. The first tyre made for the home market was known as the “Kesäpinta” (Summer tread) and it was introduced in 1932.
The pioneer for winter tyres was the Kelirengas, introduced for trucks in 1934. In 1936, three moulds were ordered for producing snow tyres for cars. These machines produced the first winter tyres for passenger cars: the new Hakkapeliittas, also referred to as Snow Hakkapeliittas. The winter tyres had a special, safe tread pattern that helped even winter-shy motorists get on the road.
New machines were constantly acquired, including the tyre stretcher “Big Bertha”, a Canadian “midwife machine” for pad removal and a Finnish curing press made by Lokomo. The price list for 1934 had ten tyre models. On the eve of the Winter War at the end of the 1930s, approximately 110 tyres a day were being produced.
The tyres were tested by local bus companies and taxis. Experience from professional drivers is still worth gold in tyre development. Even the company band toured Finland, gathering information concerning the customers’ wishes at the same time.
Car tyres from Finland
The brave decision to start manufacturing car tyres was made when it seemed that manufacturing in Finland would be more profitable than importing. Tyre manufacturing within Finland was also desirable from a defence point of view. “The time might be suitable for the company to take up the manufacturing of such,” said the Board of Directors of Suomen Gummitehdas in September 1931. In December, the necessary assembly machines and tyre presses were ordered. The first car tyre was manufactured in July 1932. It was thoroughly inspected and tested. After the test phase, steady tyre production started in April 1933.
The world's first winter tyre was the Kelirengas, the predecessor to the Hakkapeliitta. It was developed to be used on trucks in the Northern conditions and poorly ploughed winter roads of the 1930s. The grooved tread pattern of the tyre worked on snowy roads, making snow chains obsolete. The strong but spacious transverse grooves cleaned off snow while driving, which ensured excellent grip. The winter tyre tread pattern that was introduced with the Kelirengas remained similar in the Hakkapeliittas all the way to the 1950s.
The Hakkapeliitta tyre was named after the brave warriors of the 17th century. The Hackapelites (Finnish: Hakkapeliitta) were Finnish cavalry who served in the Swedish Army during the Thirty Years' War. Their legend was born from the attack command: “Hakkaa päälle!” (English: “Cut them down!”).
The Hackapelites rode Finnish horses, armed with two riding pistols and a sword. They proved their mettle in the battles in Central Europe: Breitenfeld 1631, Lech 1632, Lutzën 1632, Nördlingen 1634, Leipzig 1642, Jankau 1645 and Lens 1648. Their brave tactics that sought close contact with the enemy made them ideals for modern cavalry.
Torsten Stålhandske (1593–1644), born in Finland and buried in Turku Cathedral, became the leader of the Hackapelites, and later, general of all cavalry. When Stålhandske started his career, a few dozen horsemen from Pirkkala, the parish of what is currently Nokia, fought in his company. Three hundred years later, Hakkapeliittas from Nokia are equipping the fast cavalry of the modern times - cars.
Image: Hackapelites rushing forward in a tyre commercial in 1964.
Snow Hakkapeliitta poster 1936.
The 1930s were the golden age of buses and coaches in Finland. Long-distance coach operators quickly adopted winter tyres and the drivers would report their operating experience directly to Gummitehdas.
Image: Bus station in 1938. Picture archive of the Vapriikki museum centre.
Professional drivers support testing
The taxi drivers in the Tampere region were the testers for the first passenger car winter tyre models. Taxis and Nokian Tyres continue to cooperate in the fields of new product launches and durability testing, for example.
Image: Never leave home without a Kelirengas. A taxi driver in Vyborg checking the spare tyre on his car in the 1930s.
When winter tyre production started, Ensio Salmenkallio (1900–1985) was the manager of the car tyre department at Suomen Gummitehdas. He played a key role in developing Finnish tyre manufacturing. Salmenkallio, who had a master’s degree in chemistry, based the tyre production on the latest technology and he relentlessly monitored the quality of the rubber compound and assembly work. His international contacts ensured that Nokia received the best machinery and supervisors. Salmenkallio’s handiwork was visible in the Kelirengas and Hakkapeliitta as well as their numerous successors. Salmenkallio ended his forty-year career as the Managing Director of Suomen Kumitehdas Oy in 1966. By that time, the pioneering product development that started with the Kelirengas had grown into an international success story.
Image: The tyre department’s Senior Engineer Ensio Salmenkallio and his team celebrating the commissioning of a new tyre press in 1944. Even the raincoats were made by the company.
The first tyre model by Suomen Gummitehdas Oy was known as the Kesäpinta (Summer tread). A test tyre in the size 4.5 x 21 was completed in July 1932, and the new tyre became generally available to drivers in April 1933. The passenger car tyre was designed for summer roads; it had a fairly wide tread and a recognisable grid pattern. Its inner tube was thicker than that of the competition, which provided puncture protection.
Image: Advertisement for summer tyres from 1936.