Dunlop rubber and footwear

Depending on who you ask, the Dunlop brand is best known for their car tires, tennis balls, or for their green wellies which are available around Europe. All these products were produced by the same company in the past, but due to financial troubles and a splitting of the business units they are now all produced independently while maintaining the Dunlop brand. The ad below is from a time when they still produced their tires, tennis balls, and golf balls as a single company.

In this article I will go over some of the history of Dunlop. The company actually has a very rich history, trailblazing the tire industry, becoming one of the first and largest multinationals in the world, going through the World Wars producing military equipment, and ending up in financial trouble when the British car industry crumbles. And while some of these things will be shortly covered here, the focus will be on their rainwear – mainly their rainboots. I am aware a part of the Dunlop company produced rubberized rainwear in Australia also, but due to a lack of information available about this part of their business I am not able to give much inside about that.

History 1888-1914

The historical roots of the Dunlop brand go all the way back to 1888, and have sort of a heart-warming story attached to them. It was John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish veterinary surgeon, who was watching his young son riding around on a little tricycle. The boy complained about getting a headache from driving over the rocky surface with his solid rubber wheel which motivated Mr. Dunlop to start experimenting with different types of tires. By gluing strips of rubber together and inflating them with a football pump, he created a first iteration of the rubber tire we know today and use on cars and bicycles. Pictured below one of the very first pneumatic tires produced by Dunlop (c1887) in The National Museum of Scotland. Image through Wikimedia Commons.

Dunlop was rewarded the UK patent for his pneumatic (compressed air) tire in 1888, and started selling them to local cyclists who used them in bicycle races and outperformed the competition. The President of the Irish Cyclist Association immediately saw opportunities and gave John Boyd Dunlop a 20% stake in their new venture in exchange for the patent. Their company was named “Pneumatic Tire”, later the Dunlop name was added and soon “Dunlop” became the recognizable part of the company name. Their timing of starting to produce pneumatic tires could not have been better with demand for bicycles increasing resulting in huge demand for their products right from the start, soon followed by an increased demand for motorcycles and later cars. Below a picture of JB Dunlop riding a bicycle, photo dated c1915. Source.

Two years after receiving the patent for the pneumatic tire the patent was revoked: it appeared that the Scot Robert William Thomson (1822-1873) had patented the idea in 1845 already. But at that time the invention was deemed too expensive to mass-produce so nothing was done with it after that point. Dunlop is therefore not the inventor of the pneumatic tire, but he was the one who was able to create the first commercially viable pneumatic tire. New patents were quickly filed based on improvements made on the original pneumatic tire invented in 1888, so the company was able to legally defend themselves against competitors. Manufacturing was also spread out to different regions as patents were normally assigned per country in that time and you had to produce within that country to keep the legal claim on the patent. This made the company one of the very first multinationals. Below a newspaper advertisement for Dunlop solid rubber carriage tires in Toronto, Canada, which appeared in The Globe in 1903. Notice the Dunlop logo of 2 hands which was chosen as logo as you could change a Dunlop bicycle tire easily with your 2 hands.

Only a couple of years after the establishment of the Pneumatic Tire Corporation, in 1895, J.B Dunlop already sold his shares and resigns from the company. His invention never made him a wealthy man even though his name would be known around the world decades later.

Around the 1900s the company starts diversifying its business: besides purchasing rubber plantations in South-east Asia they also extend their product line by producing tires for airplanes and cars, and basically, like most rubber producing companies around that time, they add every rubber item for which there is a potential market to their range of products, from rubber hoses to golf balls. Below an advertisement from 1914 showing the Dunlop branded rubber garden hoses, source Wikimedia Commons.

History 1914-1945

The outbreak of the Great War brings huge demand for solid tires for lorries and the company opens a huge 400 acres manufacturing complex on the east side of Birmingham, named Fort Dunlop, in 1916 to meet this demand. While demand from the military fell back with the end of the war in 1918, new demand comes from the consumer market with increasing demand for tires for automobiles. Not everything worked out for the company though, as in 1921 both the chairman and board are replaced when the company almost went bankrupt due to overextension and speculation on the prices of rubber.

In 1925 the company further diversifies and adds rainwear to their range of products. Instead of building it up from the ground they purchase the Mackintosh group of companies which includes the Mackintosh brand of rubberized raincoats. Another member of that group was the Liverpool Rubber Company which produced around 2 million pairs of rubber plimsolls, overshoes, and wellington boots per year. Pictured below an image from the Liverpool Museum showing the production of Dunlop rubber wellies in 1940.

The years in between the two World Wars were very profitable for Dunlop where they were able to increase production of rubber footwear from 2 million pair in 1925 to 10 million pair in 1939. With the start of the Second World War demand for rubber products increases again and the factories work overtime to produce wellington boots, medical equipment, protective gear, and tires. Below a yellow Dunlop protective suit, dated around 1943, followed by a pair of Dunlop gas boots from worldwarwonders.co.uk.

History post-war

While the import of rubber from South-east Asia was interrupted during the Second World War, and foreign competition of rubber products increased in the years following 1945, Dunlop is able to win customers over to buy their British rubber boots resulting in a market share of 45% in 1954. And this all while rubber footwear is only a relatively small part of the Dunlop company: 7% of sales in the UK. Below an ad from 1947 for latex dipped boots, source History World. A clear selling point brought forward in ads was that the boots were made by dipping, giving a seamless boot. This is different from the current production method as newer Dunlop boots clearly show two halves glued together to create a boot.

Below an quarter-page ad for Dunlop rubber boots from the 1950s. A print version of this ad is available at retrofair.co.uk.

And another undated colored ad pointing out how flexible, seamless, waterproof, and lightweight the Dunlop rubber boots are.

The sixties turn out to be problematic for the Dunlop company as they keep focusing their tire production on steel-belted radial tires while competitors start making cheaper textile radial tires. The company loses market share around the world and to make things worse the British car manufacturing industry starts to experience trouble in the seventies. British cars were often fitted with British Dunlop tires, which were produced close by, but due to lower demand and frequent strikes demand disappeared and production moved elsewhere. An effort was made to revive the tire business with a joint-venture with Pirelli, but that never worked out. Below a page from the Barbour catalogue from 1964, sourced from the Thornproof blog, showing a range of rubber wellies including from the Dunlop and Hunter brands.

Pictured below a shopping window showing the range of Dunlop product in Australia from the late 50s or early 60s. Notice the rubberized raincoat in black in the right window. There is unfortunately very little information available about these raincoats, but they appeared to be regularly used by school-going youths.

Below an Irish ad for fashionable Dunlop boots in vinyl. The style of these boots is very typical for the seventies and shows how Dunlop not only produced workwear or “boring” rubber footwear. Source: brandnewretro.

And another seventies advertisement showing the range of footwear available from the Dunlop brand, from rubber boots to slippers for indoors and outdoors. Source magazinesadsandbooks.

During the eighties the debts have piled up so high that bankruptcy is the only way out. In 1985 the company is split up and sold to different buyers of which several hold the rights to the Dunlop brand. This means that after 1985 you could be buying Dunlop golf balls, Dunlop specialized vintage motorcycle tires, or Dunlop footwear from completely different companies all still using the Dunlop brand name. Below an outdoor sign for Dunlop boots, credit to Chris White on Flickr.

The Dunlop Protective Footwear brand, producing waterproof footwear and safety boots, is purchased by the Dutch Hevea company in 1996. The production of these boots have since been moved from the UK to The Netherlands and to Portugal. Currently these two production facilities produce a total of about 6 million pairs of boots per year, with almost 80% produced in Portugal. Below an image of the production facilities from Hevea in Raalte, The Netherlands, showing freshly produced boots ready to be packed.

Recent range of gear

Going through the catalogues of all the boots Dunlop produces, it quickly becomes clear their focus is on workwear and not fashion. Almost all boots have wide fitting shafts, visible safety features like reinforced toes, and colors indicating the function or field of work the boots are intended for. That is not to say the current range of boots should be completely written off from the onset: there are still interesting wellies available that would fit a leisure setting. Below are some boots from their current range which I would like to discuss. Do note that I left out the specialized workwear boots in white or blue for the food processing industry, or the bright yellow ones intended for working with hazardous materials.

It is important to note that unlike most other brands coming in the spotlight on this site, Dunlop does not produce boots in rubber anymore. While the company did start out making rubber boots in 1925, they added PVC boots during the seventies as this material was cheaper to make and lasted longer than a natural product like rubber. During those years they further improved upon the material used and in 1980 they introduced their Purofort material. Unique about this material is that it consists of millions of tiny air chambers making the boots more flexible, lighter, and more durable than both rubber and PVC. Or at least that is what they claim. With the introduction of the Purofort material the production in rubber was halted.

Dunlop Sport

These PVC rainboots are probably the most popular Dunlop boots in the Dutch market, and possibly also the only boots from the Dunlop brand you will see anyone wear on a rainy day. At a price of only 25 euros per pair they quickly become the preferable choice for anyone looking for simple rainboots that serve the purpose of keeping your feet dry, unlike the more expensive brands that sell more fashionable boots where waterproofness is almost secondary. The boots are available in several colors making them easy to combine and mostly targeted to younger kids looking for a pair of wellies to wear to school on a rainy day.

Dunlop Purofort walking boots

While the official description of these boots is agricultural, they are commonly marketed as multi-purpose leisure boots for a general audience. Think comfortable lightweight waterproof boots that you can wear while walking your dog or going for groceries in the rain. This is also reflected in the price point, with the Islay boots going for 104 euro’s, the side adjustable Vallay boots for 130 euros, and the front adjustable Sanday boots for 156 euros. The prices are too high for agricultural workwear boots and better fit the richer urban folks who are looking for something different than Hunter boots. In my view Dunlop misses their mark here a bit: they are basically offering functional leisure boots available in just one color to compete with brands like Hunter, Rockfish, Le Chemeau, or Barbour. All brands that have a complete range of rubber boots, with matt or shiny finish, in different models, and in different colors for similar prices. Why pick a less known brand, more known for work boots, with less choice, if you could also simply go for any of the other brands? If they offered this range of products at lower prices, well below the 100 euros mark, they would probably get more traction. Below the Dunlop Islay, Vallay, and Sanday boots respectively.

Dunlop workwear and safety boots

Maybe surprisingly, but the workwear boots available from the Dunlop brand are actually quite interesting and affordable at the same time. There is also a complete range of different models in their lineup meaning you can go as “industrial” as you feel comfortable with. A simple model would be the Pricemastor as shown below, made from PVC, and extremely affordable at 10-20 euros. In green they are typical working boots, but in black they become a bit more stealthy and stylish.

Next would be the Purofort Professional which is a much more complete all-round boot. This is not a simple entry-point rubber workboot anymore but a serious workboot available in green and black. The price is a lot higher with 75-100 euros, but they have steel reinforcements in the sole and around the toe, while still keeping the regular rainboot look.

A bit more professional, or workwear-like, is the Protomaster. Made out of PVC this boot will set you back 20-30 euros only and the details on the outside make them a bit less fashionable than previous boots. Compared to the next two boots these are pretty tame though.

The Acifort Heavy-duty boots are not your typical stylish rainboots anymore and these are full-on industrial boots. A small red rim around the sole could be a nice detail to combine with some red rainwear, but unless there is some heavy rain going on I would not pick these boots for regular wear. But again, they are priced at around 30-35 euros only.

And finally there are the most rugged and industrial looking boots they have: the Acifort Ribbed boots. Ribbed for everyone’s pleasure I suppose, because these boots would be a great addition to some extra heavy raingear combined with rubber gloves. I would be hesitant to wear them with a regular outfit, but in some way they are quite attractive to consider for some more secluded walks with mud as I suppose they will hold up extremely well. Or possibly just as a pair of boots to complete a rainy day outfit which makes you stay indoors. Anyways, these boots go for well below 50 euros and the cool looking red soles and ribbed fronts make them an interesting option to think about.

Dunlop waders

Besides the regular boots the Dunlop brand also features a range of thigh and chest waders. Unfortunately these waders do not tickle me the right way as it seems like they used some of their regular boots as base and added a piece of material in a slightly different color to turn them into waders. It would be much more interesting if they would produce the waders in a similar fashion as the regular boots: all of the same material, in the same color, with the same thickness turning it into a solid item. Picture source summitpost.

Fashion

As mentioned before, the Dunlop brand focuses mostly on waterproof work boots and not particularly on stylish fashion boots. It is therefore more difficult to use them as a finisher for a stylish outfit compared to brands producing sleeker rubber boots in brighter colors. The main focus should therefore be on the practical side of the boots, and less on depending on them to turn your outfit into something special. So instead of thinking to add a pair of Dunlop boots to your clubbing outfit on a rainy day, you better start with adding them to a hiking outfit or some comfortable clothing for walking your dog.

Especially the green version of the boots will quickly remind people of the cheap basic wellies they had as a kid costing maybe 10 euros in those days and not giving much comfort. My choice would therefore be going more towards the black versions of their boots. Black is also a very neutral and unassuming color meaning you can combine it with almost any color of raingear and it will not draw too much attention to your boots. At least unless you stay away from the most industrial looking boots mentioned before, even though they would be great with some extreme weather gear if you are confident enough to give it a try.

The Purofort Professional boots hit a sweet spot for me personally though, as I would see myself wearing these for my daily outings to exhaust myself and my dog. The boots are basic but stylish, and in green they would fit in well with the natural surroundings. Besides, as a more pricy model in their lineup, they are probably also a lot more comfortable for longer walks, especially compared to the extremely affordable Acifort and PVC range of boots Dunlop has. Added advantage would be the Purofort material which promises increased longevity compared to regular rubber boots as I wear my boots very regularly and am going keep running into cracks in the rubber.

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