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General Tire was founded in 1915 in Akron, Ohio, by William F. O'Neil. The company later diversified into a conglomerate, with holdings in tires, rubber compounds, rocketry and aeronautics, entertainment and news, and real estate.
Today, the tire and rubber division is owned by Germany's Continental, and the conglomerate is focused on real estate and rocketry. The other divisions have been sold or spun off.
William O'Neil had a Firestone franchise in Kansas City. He started a small manufacturing facility for tire repair products, and called it Western Tire and Rubber.
As Firestone grew, it sold additional franchises, reducing the territories of its earlier franchisees. Dissatisfied, O'Neil decided to compete with Firestone instead, using the expertise he had gained with Western. He went into partnership with his father, a department store owner in Akron, and formed General Tire in 1915, using $200,000 in capital borrowed from the store. The O'Neil's hired away some Firestone managers.
- General Jumbo, a premium replacement for Ford Model T trucks
- low-pressure General Balloon Jumbo
- Dual 90 tires
Despite the difficult business climate of World War I, in 1917 O'Neil established a dealership network, and began an advertising campaign. By 1930, it had 14 retail stores and about 1.8% of the tire market. During the depression, as competitors failed, General bought out Yale Tire and Rubber and India Tire and Rubber. By 1933, it had increased market share to 2.7%. This was a relatively large number, considering that the company limited its product line.
Radio, television, and film
Because the depression was particularly hard on manufacturing, General began to branch out, buying several Ohio radio stations on which it advertised. In 1943 General Tire diversifed the core business strategy, purchasing the Yankee Network and the radio stations it owned from Boston's Shepard Stores, Inc. Thomas F. O'Neil, son of the founder William F. O'Neil, served as Yankee's chairman with Shepard's John Shepard III serving as president.
General Tire continued its move into broadcasting by acquiring the Don Lee Broadcasting System, a well-respected regional radio network on the West Coast, in 1950. Among other stations, it added KHJ-AM-FM in Los Angeles and KFRC-AM-FM in San Francisco to its stable from the Yankee acquisition. In 1952, it bought WOR/WOR-FM/WOR-TV in New York City and merged its broadcasting interests into a new division, General Teleradio.
General Tire's final move into entertainment was the acquisition of RKO Radio Pictures from Howard Hughes in 1955 for $25 million. General Tire was interested mainly in using the RKO film library to program its television stations, so it sold the RKO lot at Sunset and Gower in Hollywood to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's Desilu Productions in 1956 for $6 million. The remaining assets of RKO were merged with General Teleradio, and the new company eventually became known as RKO General. The radio stations became some of the leading broadcasters in the world, but the division was dragged down by unethical conduct at its television stations. This culminated in the longest licensing dispute in television history, eventually forcing RKO General out of the broadcasting business.
In the late 1930s, the United State Army became interested in rockets. A group of California Institute of Technology engineers won a contract to produce rocket engines to speed airplane liftoff, and formed a company named Aerojet. The group succeeded with liquid fuel rockets, but needed additional materials science and manufacturing expertise to create more sophisticated solid-fuel rockets. Aerojet went into partnership with General Tire, using General's capitalization, expertise with rubber binders, and chemical manufacturing facilities. The partnership was renamed Aerojet-General.
In its advertising in the 1970s and '80s, the brand's slogan was: "Sooner or later, you'll own Generals."
General Tire reorganized its holdings into the holding company GenCorp in 1984, with General Tire and RKO General as subsidiaries.