Those round black things are the most important single safety feature of your car. You can have the best brakes, suspension and steering in the world, but none of it will make any difference unless your tyres grip the road. Imagine driving a Ferrari in snow if you don't believe me.
For the motorist on a tight budget, a set of tyres can represent a pretty major chunk of expenditure. Four new tyres are unlikely to leave you much change from £100, even for the smallest and most basic car. Get into bigger and more exotic bangers, such as old BMWs, and you can find yourself being quoted more for new tyres than you paid for the vehicle in the first place.
Choosing tyres can be a tricky business, so I decided to put together a short guide on how to save money on rubber without risking an accident. But first, a few safety tips. The minimum legal tread on a tyre is 1.6 millimeters over the central three quarters of the tyre, and visible tread on the remainder. Frankly, this is not enough. A tyre with this little tread will have about as much wet weather grip as an ice cube. Change your tyres when the tread gets down to 2mm, and live longer. Tyres should not have any cuts or bulges in the sidewalls, and they should not appear perished. Nor should there be any bits of tread missing. Ignore this and you could have a high-speed blowout, which is too scary to think about. Don't fit larger tyres than the car was designed for (they might rub against the suspension, or come off the wheels) and check your tyre pressures once a week.
Plenty of tread, but cracked and bulging sidewalls mean that this tyre (a relic from Communist East Germany) is scrap
So, what kind of tyres should you be fitting?
Scrapyard tyres: Always the cheapest place to buy tyres, but be careful. Scrapyard tyres are only worth buying if they are top quality tyres by a reputable maker, have lots of tread, no evidence of impact damage, cuts or scuffs, and come with a guarantee of some sort. Unless the tyres are already on the right sort of wheel for your car, you will need to have them fitted and balanced (typically £5 per tyre, unless the scrapyard can fit them for you). Choice tends to be limited, as most scrap cars do not have decent tyres on them, and you may struggle to find a matched pair of tyres if that is what you need.
Remoulds: These are used tyres, which have been fitted with a new tread using a special process. Remoulds got a bad reputation many years ago as the new tread tended to part company with the tyre at speed, but there is now a British Standard for manufacture, and a remould is no more likely to fail than a new tyre. They tend not to last as long as new tyres, being made of a softer rubber, but worth considering if you only do a few thousand miles a year. Rally drivers use them, which should be reassuring. Disposing of old tyres is a major environmental problem, so in buying recycled tyres (which is what remoulds are) you are doing your bit to save the planet.
'Budget' tyres: Most tyre suppliers now seem to have about half a dozen 'budget' brands. Some of the larger chains have their own brand tyres made for them by the big tyre companies. Most of the major manufacturers have their own budget brands, such as Courier (made by Pirelli). Otherwise, budget tyres tend to be of East European or Far Eastern origin, made by a company you are unlikely to have heard of and probably cannot pronounce. These tyres are perfectly adequate for the average motorist, but tend not to grip or wear quite as well as tyres from the major manufacturers. For this reason, if you have a high performance car and tend to drive briskly, it might be worth paying the extra for big brand tyres. If you have a particularly exotic old car, you may find that the tyre size is so uncommon that the budget manufacturers do not bother to make it.
Reader Stu Mcilwain wrote in with the following:
NanKang tyres are old Bridgestones, with some of the low profile variants having the exact same tread pattern and rubber as the Potenzas on my father's Lexus. They feel fine on the road, wet or dry and cost me £172 for four 225/50/16s for my Ford Probe. Can't complain.
Major manufacturers: These are the companies such as Dunlop, Pirelli and Michelin which everyone has heard of, thanks to TV and newspaper advertising. They are constantly developing new tyre technologies, so if you want the latest in safety, buy here. Big brand tyres tend to last longer than cheaper ones, so worth paying the extra if you plan to do a lot of miles. Prices can vary quite widely from one supplier to another, so shop around for the best price - the tyres will be exactly the same whether you buy them from a Rolls Royce dealer or Kwikfit.
Metric tyres: Rather oddly, despite metric measurements having taken over in most areas, wheel diameters are still quoted in inches. Thus a 155R13 tyre is 155 millimetres wide, and fits a 13 inch wheel. A couple of car manufacturers (Austin Rover and BMW) tried to introduce metric tyres in the 1980s, and if you own a car with these tyres you will know what a pain they are. As so few cars have them, they are usually double the price of the non-metric equivalent (which will not fit on the metric rims). So if you have a Metro, Maestro, Montego or BMW with metric tyres which are near the limit of wear, go to your local scrapyard and see if you can pick up a set of non metric wheels cheaply. They will bolt on in place of the metric ones, and you will almost certainly save more on the cost of one set of tyres than you spent on the wheels.