He smokes cigars, drinks and flirts with women. He’s also severely obese, rather arrogant and over 100 years old. Yet everyone loves him – even the ladies…
Édouard and André Michelin owned a factory in Clermont-Ferrand in France which manufactured rubber products. One day a cyclist arrived at the factory and asked the brothers whether they could help repair the tyres on his bicycle. The Michelin brothers found that the tyres were glued to the wheel. The repair was extremely time consuming as the tyre first had to be torn from the wheel, cleaned from glue residue, then patched and finally glued back onto the wheel. And then, after all that hassle and with the cyclist only managing to ride his bicycle a couple of hundred meters down the road, the tyre started losing air pressure again. It was this episode which prompted the Michelin brothers to invent and produce an air inflated tyre which was not glued to the wheel.
In 1891 the brothers obtained a patent on pneumatic tyres comprising two separate parts. One being an elastic inner tube filled with air, and the other being an outer tyre protecting the inner tube. The outer tyre relied not on glue or screws to remain affixed to the inner wheel, but only on swelling of the edges of the outer tyre towards the inner wheel. At that time, most bicycles and vehicles used tyres either of solid rubber or of air-inflated tyres glued to the wheel. After only one year, more than 10,000 French cyclists rode on Michelin’s new invention.
A couple of years later, the brothers were walking through the Lyon Exhibition. They passed by a stand with several tyres of different sizes stacked on top of each other. The story goes that Édouard commented that the stack of tyres resembled a man. In 1897 the brothers commissioned the poster artist O’Galop to create a Michelin mascot based on the stacked tyres.
In 1898 the Michelin man was born and given the name Bibendum. The very first poster advert pictured the Michelin man standing behind a buffet, holding up a glass filled with nails, screws and broken pieces of glass. He proclaims, “Nunc est Bibendum”, which is latin and translates to “Let us drink”. The bottom of the poster bears the motto, “Le Pneu Michelin Boit L’Obstacle”, which translates to “Michelin tyres overcome all obstacles”. The two men on either side who represent other tyre manufacturers have both punctured and are deflating behind the strong Michelin man.
To start off with, Bibendum’s appearance was based on bicycle tyres, which explains why his “love handles” were narrower. It also explains why he is white, as bicycle tyres back then were always light grey or light beige. It wasn’t until 1912 that tyres became black, purely because carbon was added to improve the tyres resistance to wear. Bibendum wore Lorgnet glasses and smoked cigar. These characteristics helped him appeal to society’s upper class, as it was primarily them who rode bicycles and drove cars.
For more than 100 years, Bibendum has represented Michelin in printed adverts and TV commercials. Throughout, Michelin has managed to keep itself at the top of the list of successful tyre manufacturers, largely thanks to the clever advertising campaigns and the loveable Bibendum.