On this day in 1900 Harvey Firestone founded Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio. The company’s original mission was to supply pneumatic tires for wagons and buggies, but the emerging automobile market soon altered the course. In 1906 Harvey Firestone negotiated a deal with his friend Henry Ford to become the Ford Motor Company’s original equipment supplier of tires, sealing Firestone’s early success.
Aside from the deal with Ford, another significant victory for Firestone came in 1911 when Ray Harroun won the first Indianapolis 500 on Firestone tires. The Marmon Wasp driven by Harroun was also the only vehicle that did not have a riding mechanic. The race car was instead outfit with a rear view mirror, a novel idea for the time.
In 1926, Firestone opened a rubber plantation in Liberia, West Africa. It spanned more than 1 million acres, making it one of the largest rubber growing operations in the world. The company’s ventures in Liberia have been subject to much criticism, including a 2005 Alien Tort Claims Act case brought in California by the International Labor Rights Fund. Additionally, an investigative report by ProPublica titled “Firestone and the Warlord” was published in 2014. A PBS Frontline documentary by the same name outlined Firestone’s involvement in the Liberian civil war. It included reports of the company paying taxes to the rebel forces who overtook the standing government.
By 1979 Firestone found itself more than a billion dollars in debt. A new president, John Nevin, the ex-head of Zenith Electronics, stepped in to try and save the company. He first closed nine of the company’s 17 manufacturing plants. Then in 1988 he negotiated a sale to Bridgestone Tires.