Tire & Wheel Load Ratings: The Debate is Over!

The following narrative is offered in an effort to finally put to rest the controversy with regard to tire and wheel choices for the VW camper. It is a bit sarcastic in some places, so it is not advised for the squeamish. My sarcasm is a result of my exasperation over the continued debate about an issue which we at GoWesty put to rest years ago. There is no insult intended here; just an attempt to clarify the situation and put a little humor into it at the same time. Enjoy! Sincerely, S. Lucas Valdes, PEME, President of GoWesty Camper Products.

About wheels:

Pictured: damaged Michelin tire and wheel set after off-roading

The photo to the right, is an example of the 16" diameter by 7.5" width wheel / Michelin 215/60-16 tire and wheel set we sell here at GoWesty for the VW Vanagon. It was returned to us by one of our customers who, while driving off-road in her fully loaded Syncro Westfalia camper, hit what she described as a "VERY BIG HOLE" at about 45 mph. Notice the wheel has taken on a rather square shape, and all of the air has rushed out of the tire. The wheel did not come loose. It did not crack or crumble in any way. It just smooshed.

My personal experience:

I had a set of these exact wheels and tires on my personal pop-top Vanagon for 9 years, during which time I drove 90,000+ miles over all sorts of terrain and weather conditions—including two trips to the tip of Baja and back. The damage done to this wheel is not unlike the damage that occurred to one of my wheels when a person I met back in 1982 and married a few years later (love you, honey) became distracted momentarily, drove off the road and hit the edge of a 12" concrete drainage ditch. It pretzeled the wheel about 30% MORE than the one in the photo. In fact, it bent the wheel so much that the inside of the wheel caught the front brake caliper, suddenly stopping the wheel from rotating, causing the van to come to a screeching halt. Again, the wheel did not come loose, nor did it crack or fail in any other way. It simply deformed in the same way a typical, factory original steel wheel (or just about any other non-brittle wheel) would under the same conditions. I took the tire off the rim, sent it out to have it straightened, mounted THE SAME TIRE back on, installed it back on my van and drove on it for another year. In fact, the only reason I eventually replaced the tires was so we could start testing a new tire model we were switching to.

Now, there has been much hoopla with regard to the load rating of the various wheels and tires GoWesty offers. Some have criticized us for selling these wheels without knowing exactly what the factory load rating is. So, OK, we don't know what the manufacturer's load rating is. We tried to obtain this information, but were not successful. We have been criticized because we have stated on several occasions, "Believe me, they are strong enough." How do we know they are strong enough? Well, after all, this same wheel design was originally fitted to many different Mercedes models, including their full-sized 126-body car available in very high performance models. Mind you, these are cars that can weigh more, are capable of twice the speed, cornering capability and braking, and have over FOUR times the horsepower of a Vanagon. What other evidence do we have to support the claim of "strong enough"? Ummmm... look at the photo!

Okay, for some people logic and seeing is not believing. It seems that we should have some sort of professional engineer to take a look at the situation and see what he thinks. "Maybe get a professional opinion," you say. Well, perhaps I can be of some assistance. I have a degree in Mechanical Engineering from Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo. I also took and passed (on the first try) ALL 16 HOURS of the state of California's exams and received my Professional Engineering license in Mechanical Engineering. Only about one in three individuals pass these tests on the first try. A professional engineering license is the engineering equivalent to a medical doctor's "MD." It is kind of what the BAR exam is to lawyers. Passing the exams doesn't mean you are a genius, nor does it mean you are just "book smart" enough to get a degree; it means you can actually apply the knowledge to solving problems, on the spot, within a time limit. So, OK, some people say, "Big deal, experience is what matters." Well, my first job out of college was as a mechanical engineer for FMC Corporation in Santa Clara, California. I spent five years as a—you guessed it—failure analysis engineer. My job was to set up tests that would take various components of off-road military vehicles to the limit. Now, I spent many hours first calculating the theoretical limits of these components, of course. But you better believe that was NEVER enough. Calculus or not, my client (your tax dollars at work) wanted to see broken parts. Period. So, no matter what the numbers said, we would strap that shock, or that suspension control arm, or that road wheel, or whatever it was to a big effing machine and work it 'til it broke! There is no substitute for TESTING. While others in the industry have been pontificating on what wheel and tire to use on the VW Bus, Vanagon, and Eurovan, we at GoWesty have been TESTING on our own vehicles since the mid-'80s and hundreds of thousands of miles. As far as we—and any logical thinking person with better things to do—are concerned: The issue of wheel strength is a NON-ISSUE.

About tires:

So, just as when I bought my first 'keeper" camper in 1985 (a 1979 VW Bus camper, which I still own), when I bought my first Vanagon pop-top in 1994 the first things to go were the wheels and tires. The use of 14" wheels and tires on the late VW Bus and Vanagon is just plain stupid—same thing with the use of 15" x 6" wheels and tires on the Eurovan when it was first introduced—I think everyone agrees on that. The first thing I noticed back in 1985 was that there was absolutely no larger-than-14" wheel option for my Bus. So, I made some. I took a set of original 14" VW Bus wheels, cut the welds and knocked out the centers, bought some 15x7" Pontiac "drop-center" rally wheels did the same. I threw away the VW outers, threw away the Pontiac centers, and welded the VW centers in the Pontiac outers (in my backyard, actually), thus creating a 15x7" wheel for my VW camper. When I started shopping for a tire I found that the perfect tire in terms of size was the 215/65-15, which is still the tire size we use today on our Bus and Vanagon 15" tire offerings. That tire size was less than 1/4" difference in radius than the original, spindly 185SR14 tires that came on Buses and Vanagons, and there were 20+ different brands and models from which to choose. BUT WAIT! OH, NO! What about load rating? The 14" tires were "specially formulated" for the VW vans, right? These 14" tires are super cool and reinforced to handle the mass of the vehicle, right? I was told flat out by tire stores that, "No way, you can't put a non-reinforced tire on that vehicle! It will just blow up!" What to do, what to do...

Wait a minute! Again, more hoopla! Where is the common sense? Any run-of-the-mill passenger-car in size 215/65-15 is rated for around 1500lbs. In fact, every tire we have ever offered in that size was rated for at least 1500lbs, and had a tread wear rating of at least 700 (read: 50,000-mile typical life expectancy). That is one thousand, five hundred pounds of continuous loading, all day, all night, until they are worn out. And there are four of them, right? That adds up to, like, what... 6000 pounds of continuous combined load carrying capability? What does a VW Bus, or for that matter, a FULLY LOADED VW pop-top Vanagon weigh? Anyway, you get my point; you don't have to be an engineer to figure this one out. The thing is this: comparing a 185SR14 tire on a 14x5.5" wheel to a 215/65-15 tire on a 15x7" wheel is like comparing apples and oranges. On the latter, the sidewalls are almost 1/2" shorter, and are 1-1/2" further apart. Common sense would indicate what we have proven by TESTING: The wider and lower profile tire is INHERENTLY stronger and more stable than a narrower and taller tire. Even though the larger tire has a lower load rating, it still has a higher load capacity. No reinforcement required. End of story!

So some might say, "But are you unbiased, Lucas?" Well, you got me there. HELL NO, I AM NOT UNBIASED. Of course I want to sell our wheel and tire packages. But at GoWesty, we're not in business for a quick buck. We install and use EVERYTHING we sell right here in our own state-of-the-art, immaculate shop, on our own (not always so immaculate) VW campers. We use this stuff. We breathe this stuff. Besides, where else are you going to find an alloy wheel and tire package that is guaranteed to fit, last, look great, includes all the fasteners needed, custom center caps, mounted, balanced, and installed for the price of a GoWesty set? Nowhere, that's where.

And finally, let's talk about value: When the last Michelin 205/70-14 reinforced tires were available (and they have not been since about 1999), some folks were paying almost $600 per set installed. Compared to the typical Michelin tire we currently offer, they would only last about 60% as long. So if you do the math, switching to our better handling, nicer looking, and longer lasting option actually saves you money over time. There is just no downside.

And here is confirmation of what we at GoWesty have been saying all along, straight from the Michelin man's mouth:

From: Gregg Knox at Michelin Tires
Sent: Thursday, December 15, 2011 1:09 PM
To: S. Lucas Valdes
Subject: Contact by your customer regarding the use of the HydroEdge on Vanagons

Hi Lucas,

Thank you for your return email and the history regarding [your customer]. It seems GoWesty has tried to be very fair with him in resolving his issues. It is unfortunate that he continues to pursue this matter further.

We contacted [your customer] on December 15, 2011 and explained:

- Tire specifications for current Michelin tires, including weight carrying capacity, are available on our website (www.michelinman.com), and

- The maximum weight carrying capacity at maximum air inflation pressure is listed on the sidewall of every tire, and

- As with any tire/vehicle fitment, the appropriate tire has to be matched to the requirements of the vehicle, and

- We trust that GoWesty has done the due diligence in making tire recommendations based on the vehicle requirements, and

- We concluded the conversation that we are not recommending further action by GoWesty or Michelin.

Thank you again for your time and assistance,

Happy Holidays!

Gregg Knox
Michelin North America
Consumer Care