Having lived all of my life in the north -- nearly half of it in Alaska: The North -- I am familiar with the snow tire. I can identify them by sight and sound and even, lately, by smell. I know their habits – they travel in pairs, for example, or groups of four. Never alone and only occasionally are there five. In fact if you know someone who carries a seasonal spare you should marry them. They are indeed a rare and beautiful creature.
For many, even some in the tire business, the first great mystery of snow tires is the indecipherable codes along the sidewall that identify their sizes and capabilities. These codes are applied to tires of all seasons, but winter tires get a lot of added X’s M’s and S’s. After decades of observation accompanied by terrible notes I have finally decrypted this riddle.
Say, for example, you see 235/55 R18 100R VI/DM on the side of a tire. Let's break it down for easy digestion. First, 235/55 R18 means it will fit on an 18 inch rim about 55 out of the 235 times you try it. Then, 100R. Simply put, you should drive with it on the right side of your vehicle for no more than 100 days then switch it over to the left side, except in the Virgin Isles or Denmark (VI/DM). Confusing to the uninitiated, but in its own way elegant.
The best snow tires have very aggressive and sticky sounding names. Goodyear went with Ultra Grip, which implies this is as good as a grip gets. Dunlop has the slightly medicinal sounding Graspic DS-3. If it doesn't hold the road you can at least use it for intestinal gas pain. Firestone offers Winterforce because one compound word begets another. Pirelli uses Sottozero, a tire so good one must lower one's voice to speak of it.
I have gone two seasons on both of our cars with Bridgestone's Blizzak. I went with Blizzak because it sounds like the leader of an alien horde from a far off frozen planet and somebody like that would know his snow tires. He does. These are great tires, performing as well on ice as any studded tire I've used, but they smell funny. They have an odor because they are made out of a softer, stickier rubber, and if you load them into the car it will soon smell like someone is in need of some Graspic DS-3.
Why, you ask, would you put the snow tires in your car instead of on your car? Well, it certainly saves on the wear and tear. The downside of having soft, sticky tires is that they can get ground down in a hurry driving on dry roads. It really would be best to throw them in the back between ice storms, but I don't go that far. I put them in the car to drive them just far enough to a place with people who will mount them for me.
There was a time in my earlier, homelier days when I mounted my own snows. But that is a fool's errand unless you really really know what you're doing, which I almost never do. I once turned a perfectly good tire into a boat bumper by trying to mount it myself with a pair of crowbars. Don't try it, kids. Take it to a tire place. They'll charge you thirty to fifty bucks to save you from destroying a hundred dollar tire. Think what you can do with all the money you save!
For a while I kept my snows mounted on rims of their own so that I could change them out with a jack and a lug wrench. But those were the days when I could find rims in the junkyards for the kinds of trucks I drove. Now the rims cost more than the tires and mounting fees combined so I've elected to job this one out.
Tire garages are a world of their own, and not for everyone. I knew a guy by the name of Guy in Alaska who ran a well-established tire business he'd taken over from his dad. Without warning, one day he closed up shop. When I asked him why, he said without a hint of good humor, "I hate tires."
I bet he got tired of the smell. And the water sloshing out onto his pants every time somebody brought him the set of tires from behind the garage. And the voot-voot-voot of the air wrench all day long. I get tired of it in about ten minutes.
During my recent trip to the tire place there were five or six of us huddled around a coffee table made out of a piece of tread plate. We were all pawing through the dirty magazines. When I say dirty magazines, I don't mean magazines with pictures of bare-naked people. I mean magazines that have dirt on them. There was a Golf magazine, a coloring book already colored in, a Family Circle, and a whole stack of Entrepreneur magazines with the tire shop's address on the subscription sticker.
I wondered about that. Owning a tire shop is certainly entrepreneurial, but I imagined the owner had bigger things in mind with this monthly business wish book. Why not? How much harder could it be designing smart phone apps, selling software, or speculating in commercial real estate once you've cracked the codes on the sides of tires? I have to admit it has given me a lot of personal confidence.
Driving home with the smelly tires on the rims and the summer ones in the back, I settled into the dynamo hum of four soft, sticky Blizzaks audibly being ground to racing slicks on the bone dry roads. I didn't think they should make so much noise and I gave the shop owner a hard time about it. Especially after I discovered that all four tires were 100Rs with no 100Ls.
"They're all right-handed." I said. He just stared at me without saying a word. I don't think he's used to dealing with people who can read the codes.