Back in the 1940s and 1950s everything came on skinny tires, and even into the 1960s it was the norm to find narrow rubber under your 4x4. But then wide tires became fashionable, and wheel bearings have been suffering ever since. The debate over narrow versus wide tires is so old that most of us forgot we were even arguing about it. Plus, wider tires really won. They are more stable and put a larger contact patch on the ground, which helps with braking and with flotation over soft terrain.
These days retro is hot. People are dragging old 4x4s out of the barns to get running and take wheeling, and many are leaving them nearly stock for that period-correct look and feel. We came across some funky-looking tires from Coker Tire that were perfect for an old Jeep project we had brought home. The reproduction Firestone tires are bias-ply and only 29 inches tall, but they look cool. We wondered if living with bias-ply skinny rubber would be so bad, so we mounted them on 16-inch steel wheels and hit the road to find out.
When we brought this flatfender Willys Jeep home we had big dreams of returning it to running condition and tooling around the farm in it. The tires it had on were long gone, and it came with 16x6 steel wheels, so we freshened them up with bright Golden Gate orange powdercoat and new 6.50-16 Firestone bias-ply knobby tires from Coker Tire. Coker also sells the inner tubes needed, and we had them all mounted up at our local Discount Tire. It was weird bolting on such little tires when we usually don’t mess with rubber under 33 inches.
The flatfender project stalled out and wasn’t much more than lawn art for months, so we swapped the tires to a project that actually moves, our new (to us) 1972 Wagoneer. We will tell the story of this Jeep at another time, but for now it is our daily driver and gave us a chance to spin the Cokers and get some miles on them. Our first impression was that orange wheels on a CJ look cool, but on a green Wagoneer they look like some sort of retro forest service orchard manager’s truck.
Skinny tires work differently off-road than wide tires. We took the Wagoneer up a steep climb a few days after a rain, and it never stopped pulling. In fact, we were able to stop on the hill and start again with stable progression. The tires did leave some serious ruts in the soft dirt as they dug down to hardpack and then propelled us up the hill. Not the most environmentally sound rubber, but good for getting the job done.
These Coker tires are so narrow that it looks like the Jeep is running motocross tires, and the square knobbies only add to that look. Coker explains that Firestone used to supply this style to many military trucks, and we can see them showing up on restoration projects, retro wheelers, or rat rod 4x4s.
On the road the Coker Firestone’s hundreds of little knobbies sing. In an open-topped 4x4 you may not notice it as much, but the enclosed cabin of the Wagoneer reflected the noise of the knobby rubber and we felt like we were in a dual prop plane with the high-pitched drone. The tires felt stable on the street with no weird bias-ply handling, but we quickly determined that the skinnies belong back on the flatfender—and hopefully it will get us motivated to finish it.