Inside Revolution: Slick Operation

Tuesday 12 September 2023

A regular staple in the motorsport paddocks around the country, Avon is a tyre brand synonymous with racing. From hill climbing to grand prix circuits, and covering club racing to FIA Championships, September’s Revolution investigates how Avon tyres has kept the sport rolling.

Revolution is available online, as a PDF download and on the Revolution app (for both iOS and Android devices). 

The Avon tyre company originated back in 1885, moving into its current location in Melksham, Wiltshire, in 1890. Pneumatic tyres were first produced in 1901, and the Avon tyre brand appeared in an advertisement for Autocar in 1906. Through the 1970s, Avon was a key developer in the new radial tyre technology of the time, and this desire to be at the forefront of new developments helped steer the company towards producing a product for motorsport competition.

Throughout the first 100 years, Avon tyres were well known in motorcycle racing, and partnered with Aston Martin in the 1950s, After the Avon-shod DBR1/300 of Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby took victory at Le Mans in 1959, the manufacturer went on to claim the overall World Sportscar Championship crown.

In 1981 Avon Tyres, in partnership with Bernie Ecclestone’s International Race Tyre Services (ITRS) began to offer competition specification tyres, and in the same year, the company opened a dedicated race tyre production facility as part of the Melksham factory site.

Trevor Swettenham was a young employee at the time and recalls the fast-paced changes that swept the company.

“After completing a season with IRTS in 1982 as a temporary race tyre fitter and charging all over Europe, I had just been informed that I would be staying on over winter only to have those hopes dashed when IRTS was wound up, “recalls Swetttenham. “I remember all of us having to drive from West Drayton, where we were based, down to the Holiday Inn on the M4 near Heathrow Airport. Bernie Ecclestone had hired the board room and he had arrived by helicopter and met us there. It was at this point that Bernie thanked us all very much for all our efforts but told us that Avon didn’t want to stop racing and Bill Shand, the then head of Avon Tyres in Melksham, was to offer a position for anyone who wished to continue with them. Bernie also was happy to help anyone who didn’t. I never really knew whether I made the correct decision and have always wondered what may have happened if I made a different one, but after moving all the stock to the Avon truck tyre depo at Watford for a year, we then all transferred to Melksham in 1984, with me eventually staying with them for a further 23 years!

Within just one year of supplying the motorsport competition market, Avon Tyres Motorsport was awarded a three-year contract to supply the Formula 3 championship. This move was successful because Avon was able to offer a bespoke level of production and service to meet the needs of the championship.

“We had the ability to make just the right number of tyres for the needs of (any) championship, and price the package accordingly”, adds Swettenham, “whereas other tyre manufacturers of the time would need to produce larger quantities at higher costs.”

This flexibility and tailor-made approach led to Avon Motorsport negotiating agreements with various championships to become the sole tyre supplier, and likely
introduced the concept of a control tyre as stipulated by championship regulations during the process. Dunlop had a strong presence on Formula Ford at the time, but Robert
Bassett, Technical Commissioner and International Scrutineer, doesn’t remember the Dunlops being listed as a control tyre.

Either way, Avon Motorsport was making an impact on the British motorsport scene, and this was universally seen as a good thing. Back in Formula 3, Tommy Byrne was the first
champion to win on Avon tyres, and as part of the winning package, he received a commissioned painting of his winning car. This began a tradition of Avon presenting the champions with paintings, die-cast models, medals and other memorabilia. This, along with the can-do attitude that Avon had, and its strong presence in the paddocks around the country with its branded trucks and large awnings, firmly cemented Avon Tyres Motorsport within the fabric of British motorsport.

“Everyone at Avon had this ‘inherited madness’,” says Swettenham laughing. “We all would just get on and do what needed to be done…

“… As things began to expand and we needed more service staff, we would always have an induction drive around springtime for temporary tyre fitters. It was all very gung-ho, a quick interview and off we went. It wasn’t difficult to see within a couple of weeks though, who would stick it out and who wouldn’t. Those who informed us that their spouse was ok with the job, would often leave after a month due to not being home to see the children for weeks on end! Others would use Avon as a stepping stone to the high life of Formula 1, with various guys through the years joining Goodyear, Bridgestone and more recently Pirelli. Those companies knew that they wouldn’t have any problems with people coming from Avon and making it a career. Others would stay, and just speaking for myself, and I am sure others would have higher totals. In my 25 years with Avon, I literally spent eight years of them from hotel rooms!”

In 1985, thanks to its innovation and striving for higher performance, Avon was the first UK tyre company to be awarded a BS5750 certification, which was replaced with ISO 9001. With the successes in UK motorsport, Avon was now able to look further afield, and in 1986 was awarded the first tyre supply contract for the newly launched International Formula 3000 championship.

Further expansion into European championships followed, and in 1995 Avon Tyres Motorsport was appointed supplier to Formula Ford, both in the UK and Europe.

Read more from this month’s edition of Revolution