I’ve a factor for snow. When different folks head south on trip, I’m going north. I come by it actually. I used to be born and raised in Northern Ontario, and my mother is a Finn. So when editor in chief Ed Loh wanted somebody to fly to the highest of Finland and breach the Arctic Circle to check Nokian’s latest tires, the formulation of a plan started.
Snow, tires, vehicles, reindeer, northern lights, and saunas—time for a very good old school Motor Development street journey. Spoiler alert: Issues bought private alongside the way in which.
Nokian Tyres is an enormous deal in Finland. The corporate traces its historical past again to the founding of the Finnish Rubber Works in 1898, and it invented the winter tire in 1934. Right now Nokian has a 1,730-acre winter take a look at web site close to Ivalo, 180 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Nokian is a family identify in Europe when searching for winter tires, however with a view to develop it should enter the mainstream with new strains of all-season and all-weather tires. Therefore its need to lift its profile within the U.S.
New tires have been developed for North America, and Nokian is constructing a $360 million tire plant in Dayton, Tennessee, with formidable objectives of doubling gross sales in 5 years.
So we headed to Lapland (a area overlaying the northern third of Finland) for a style of what this small participant—$1.7 billion in gross sales in 2016 versus $32.5 billion from large Bridgestone—with huge plans has to supply.
Our Motor Development trio included videographer Cory Lutz—a fellow Canadian at risk of getting smooth after years of residing in Southern California—and photographer Robin Trajano, who was born within the Philippines, now lives in L.A., and will present thin-blooded comedian aid in these frigid arctic climes.
We rendezvous within the capital of Helsinki and hop a 1.5-hour flight to the northernmost airport within the European Union. “Welcome to Ivalo,” the airport signal says, displaying a present temperature of minus four levels Celsius (25 levels Fahrenheit). No huge deal; my hometown in Ontario has dipped to minus 40. Trajano, nonetheless, is giving me sideways shade for placing him on this icebox. Eh, he’s younger and difficult.
“Kiitos” I say underneath my breath, Finnish for “thanks” and a remnant of the Finnish I knew as a toddler listening to my mom discuss to her mom. I’m lastly in a spot lengthy on my bucket listing. I swallow laborious previous the lump in my throat.
In Ivalo, a former gold-mining city that’s now a winter recreation vacation spot, you’ll be able to snowmobile to the best level in Finland and see Russia. Finland is celebrating the 100th anniversary of its independence from the Russian Republic; they haven’t at all times been the perfect of neighbors.
Nokian is the one tire producer with a everlasting winter testing facility. Nicknamed “White Hell,” the Ivalo Testing Heart has slalom and dealing with programs, a 1.Zero-kilometer (Zero.6-mile) pace run on the lake, a rally monitor for drifting, hills to check traction, an SUV course by the reindeer-populated woods, and an ice corridor housing 2,300 toes of pure ice. There are greater than 30 tracks overlaying 62 miles on a wide range of ice and snow circumstances. On this sprawling complicated, Nokian exams 20,000 tires a 12 months from November to Could. Daily, outcomes from icy ovals are despatched again to company headquarters within the pursuit of the perfect beads, compounds, treads, and studs to enhance grip.
Nokian just isn’t alone in its quest for winter tire supremacy. Michelin, Goodyear, and Bridgestone now have small take a look at websites close to Ivalo, Hankook just lately constructed a facility, and there may be an impartial facility the business shares.
In Finland everybody is aware of Nokian, which has its headquarters and a tire plant within the metropolis of Nokia, close to Helsinki. Nokian break up off from conglomerate Nokia (finest recognized for cell telephones) in 1988.
Winter tires are necessary throughout Scandinavia, Russia, and different northern international locations. Because of this, the Nokian model and its Hakkapeliitta tire have turn into synonymous with glorious winter tires. (“Hakkapeliitta” was a Finnish gentle cavalry unit in the course of the 30 Years’ Warfare. The identify refers to their fearsome roar as they charged into battle.)
The model can be recognized in Quebec, one other place the place winter tires are necessary. However Nokian is essentially obscure on this facet of the Atlantic—past customers such because the Michigan State Police and wonky Hakkapeliitta lovers. The push to extend consciousness is now the duty of recent CEO Hille Korhonen.
For our Finnish tour we’re joined by Nokian PR rep Dan Stocking, a Michigan native who grew up smelling rubber at his household tire store. Among the many Finns who meet us at Ivalo Airport is Matti “Mr. Tire” Morri, a Nokian technical knowledgeable who has spent the final 27 winters in Lapland however has by no means seen it in the summertime. Rising up, he cross-country skied a mile-plus to highschool each day on a monitor his father groomed for him. He nonetheless likes to finish his day with a kick-and-glide on an XC path.
We pile our gear into vehicles. Morri whips away at breakneck speeds on what we later uncover are roads of hard-packed snow compacted to the consistency of ice. Our studded Hakkapeliittas so utterly grip the low-mu floor that we’re caught unaware once we get out of the vehicles. We promptly windmill our arms as we battle to maintain our steadiness.
Among the many perks of Lappish life: Our rooms on the Lodge Tunturi in Saariselkä have personal saunas. The Finns invented the sauna, and I used to be keen to check them to the standard wood-fired saunas in Canada during which we steam after which bounce in a lake or roll within the snow. And conveniently, my room on the Tunturi has a snow-covered patio. We are also invited to hitch Nokian sellers and executives in a corporate-building communal sauna and dip, however I want to restrict my team-building workout routines to Motor Development Of The 12 months testing.
One other Finnish delight: As we stroll again from dinner, crunchy packed snow underfoot, we see the northern lights. The scientific clarification for the aurora borealis is charged particles hitting the Earth’s magnetic protect and releasing power in bands of colourful gentle throughout the sky. Northern Finland is within the “Aurora Belt,” the place the lights are most ceaselessly seen as leaping iridescent lime spikes, flaming pink shoots, or vibrant purple curtains in stark distinction to the inky black sky above the Arctic Circle. In contrast, again residence on Ontario’s 49th parallel, my final sighting displayed black and white piano keys being performed throughout the sky like beams from a flashlight in want of recent batteries.
We’re again on frozen rural roads heading north to Inari by areas the place reindeer farmers herd by way of snowmobile. Our vacation spot is Lake Pasasjärvi, also referred to as White Hell Space 2. A fleet of Audis awaits us.
To flee the minus 20 C (minus four Fahrenheit) chilly, we hop in a yellow AWD RS four with studded Hakkapeliitta 9 tires to attempt the slalom and dealing with programs. There are also areas for drifting and collision avoidance. Though drifting on the slippery stuff is tempting, the precise purpose is to drive on the sting of management and not drift. The mixture of the automobile’s traction management and the grip of the tires virtually stops the automobile utterly till it regains management and accelerates once more. Similar glorious grip in a pink RS 5 with studded tires.
A blue RS 6 is doing pace runs on the lake. Nokian has the world report for quickest automobile on ice with the RS 6 hitting 335.7 km/h (208.6 mph) on the Gulf of Bothnia sporting studded Hakkapeliitta 8s. By comparability, we’re mere amateurs. Bouncing alongside the uneven floor at autobahn speeds, I repeat the winter-driving mantra, gradual fingers, gradual fingers. We again off at 100 mph, realizing the automobile and tires may simply have accomplished extra.
To check the brand new SUV tires we attempt Audi Q5s with studded tires but in addition with the nonstudded Hakkapeliitta R2 SUV winter tires. Even with out studs, the traction on sheer ice is exceptional. The automobile want to cease somewhat than drift. There are events I’m satisfied of an imminent kiss with a snowbank, however the tires pull the SUV again on monitor time after time.
On the way in which to lunch on the Kultahippu restaurant, we cease abruptly on the crest of a hill. Within the not to date distance, we spy Murmansk, Russia. We taunt our grumpy neighbors with our American, Canadian, and Finnish flags.
Finnish delicacies is influenced by Germany, Sweden, and Russia. However Lapland is influenced by what is on the market. We’ve got a wonderful lunch of conventional reindeer stew (sliced reindeer strips in gravy over mashed potatoes with lingonberries and pickle spears). Dinner that evening: the identical reindeer stew however with a 3rd pickle spear.
I study Finnish males drink large glasses of milk with their meals. I additionally study that pulla (the Finnish espresso bread I grew up with) just isn’t on each desk. In actual fact, I by no means discovered it throughout my travels. Crepelike Finnish pancakes have been additionally scarce, and the fish stew I do know as kalamojakka is outwardly not a Finnish phrase in any respect! “Oh, sure, in Finland it’s known as kalakeitto,” my mother tells me after I get residence.
With bellies filled with Dancer and Prancer, we sprint by the remainder of White Hell earlier than calling it a day.
We’re up early to begin our street journey south. It’s nonetheless March, however the days have began getting longer—with dawn about 7 a.m. and daylight lasting till virtually 6 p.m. on this land of the midnight solar. We’ve got a pair of rental vehicles: a 2016 Volvo V40 fitted with studded Hakkapeliitta 9 tires and a 2017 Volvo XC90 with the R2 SUV tires. Our final vacation spot: Nokian’s headquarters, which employs about 1,500 folks at its R & D services, tire manufacturing plant, and immense logistics middle.
The V40 will lastly be offered within the U.S. when the next-generation 40 sequence launches, beginning with the XC40 early subsequent 12 months, so we have been curious to spend time in its European predecessor. We’ve got a bare-bones Volvo V40 T2 with material seats and no navigation system. Our help automobile is a Volvo XC90 D5 with a two-tone leather-based inside and soft-pore wooden. In contrast with Motor Development’s long-term XC90 T6 Inscription with the two.Zero-liter fuel engine, the diesel within the D5 offers good, clean acceleration. It additionally means we bought to pay 1.426 euros/liter (about $1.70) for diesel somewhat than €1.545 for normal fuel or €1.609 for premium fuel.
Our new Finnish buddies greet our drive route with skepticism—they try to steer us to e book a flight for a part of it. What they underestimate is how a lot driving, images, and video from thigh-deep snow we will pack right into a day. What we underestimate is journey time: Velocity limits are lowered in winter, coinciding with the December 1 to March 31 necessary winter tire interval.
We go away Saariselkä and head south on E75. Finland is a rustic of 5.5 million folks occupying 151,000 sq. miles. It appears to be like precisely like Northern Ontario—I swear I’ve not left residence—with 190,000 lakes, excessive snowbanks, and packed-snow roads that don’t see pavement till spring. The identical pine, spruce, and birch timber imply we see the identical barn wooden as we cruise by Finland’s rural environs. In addition they have the identical nationwide animal: the mosquito.
Our studded tires carry out so nicely within the deep snow that we will whip the V40 round to double again for images. It’s proving to be a sturdy automobile and blends in with the opposite small vehicles and SUVs that dot the roads—with Volvo, Audi, VW, Mercedes, Mazda, Honda, and Nissan nameplates being the commonest. Finland has essentially the most automobiles per capita on the earth, and lots of put on further headlights to identify reindeer in the course of the lengthy, darkish winter months.
We cease for a late lunch in Rovaniemi, hometown of Santa Claus. However its historical past just isn’t the stuff of youngsters’s books. Snow covers the bottom pockmarked from World Warfare II bombings by the Russians and the scorched-earth retreat of the Germans. The native airport is a former Luftwaffe airfield.
We go to the Arktikum Lapland museum, the gateway to the north. You enter from the south, and the construction disappears underground like an animal burrowing underneath the frozen tundra for heat. Inside are scenes of Finnish Lapland and Arctic life: fishing, searching, a chilly room, and a northern lights theater.
Our journey then meanders west to the border with Sweden and the Gulf of Bothnia.
The climate will get milder as we cross the Arctic Circle—the place we additionally cross the freezing mark. It’s straightforward to overlook we’ve got studded tires when the pavement bares itself, however we’re reminded within the resort parking storage in Oulu with a staccato snap, crackle, and pop underfoot. The Hakkapeliitta 9 has new stud know-how. There are extra studs, together with some within the middle of the tire, and the corners of the studs are lower so the tire doesn’t hit the bottom earlier than the stud does. However the studs are additionally smaller, lighter, and designed to unfold out on influence to assist defend the occasional uncovered patch of pavement.
In Oulu we stroll underneath fats snowflakes to a French bistro for dinner. Robin rejoices; he has had sufficient reindeer for one journey. As soon as once more, my room has a sauna. I’m in heaven.
We’re up with the solar as sleet swirls outdoors our home windows. We proceed south on E8 alongside the coast to Vassa, the place the surroundings is marked with elevation adjustments and rock outcroppings. I choke up; Vassa is the birthplace of Signe Kujanen, my mummu (grandmother). She is the one who launched me to pulla and taught my mother how you can make the incorrectly named kalamojakka. Listening to her, I discovered Finnish as a toddler. My first automobile was the 1972 Chevy Impala she willed me. We gave it a Finnish accent: It was recognized to everybody because the “EEMP-a-lah.”
Vassa is a metropolis of 68,000 with a historical past of Russian occupation. Every little thing is roofed in snow and ice. Pedestrians prod the snow with strolling sticks for traction and push sleds on sidewalks to hold their groceries, and a few courageous souls experience bikes on the ice.
We seize a fast chew at a Finnish McDonalds, discover some terwasnapsi pine tar liquor for the questionable palate of my colleague Frank Markus, and get again to work. We’ve got much more kilometers earlier than we attain Tampere, close to Nokia.
It was an extended journey than it appeared on paper, with many single-lane highways, fluctuating pace limits, and a preponderance of pace cameras. Regardless of our diligence we see a bulb go off. Finland is a type of counties the place the wonderful is pegged to your annual revenue in the event that they deem it an infraction. We seem to have had luck on our facet, nonetheless, so I gained’t must get artistic with my expense report.
We’ve got missed sauna time by the point we attain the Sokos Lodge, ending our fabulous 700-mile trek from the highest of the world. The information sheet at check-in lists public sauna instances and, extra importantly, lets you already know ladies are in room No. 1, males in No. 2. This avoids an ungainly second, as a real sauna is carried out alasti—in your birthday go well with.
Nokian immersion day. Growing a brand new tire can take 4 years in pursuit of a greater tread sample, studs, and the all-important compound for higher grip. Technicians are engaged on tires with studs that protrude or retract with the push of a button—James Bond followers will recall this once-fantasy know-how from The Residing Daylights. Nokian engineers are at all times new uncooked supplies; they even tried reindeer hair, but it surely was a no-go.
How intensive is the R & D effort? Hakkapeliitta 9 used 5 compounds and had 100 treads earlier than deciding on the ultimate design, mentioned Olli Seppala, improvement supervisor for automobile tires. Along with its monitor testing, Nokian conscripts Finland’s notoriously aggressive and opinionated cab drivers to check prototypes. That’s market analysis.
However Nokian just isn’t solely about winter tires. The zLine all-season tire developed for North America launched a 12 months in the past. Nokian can even proceed to leverage its Hakkapeliitta experience by increasing its all-season tire lineup, in addition to its all-weather tires designed to carry out higher within the moist, slushy circumstances that account for many winter accidents.
We tour the meeting plant that makes three.5 million tires a 12 months and is ready to produce a tire in 40 seconds. First builds of recent tires are accomplished in Finland, whereupon the tooling is shipped to the bigger Russian plant close to St. Petersburg for quantity manufacturing. Globally, Nokian makes about 20 million tires a 12 months; the 1,300 staff in Russia make 80 p.c of these tires.
I lastly sate my yearning for Finnish pancakes within the cafeteria for lunch earlier than we head to the close by logistics middle. The dimensions of 12 soccer fields, it holds almost 1 million tires on stacks of pallets whereas awaiting supply. Do not forget that limitless warehouse on the finish of Raiders of the Misplaced Ark? It’s like that.
Nokian doesn’t promote on to automakers. Moderately, it concentrates distribution by dealerships, impartial retailers, the company-owned Vianor retail chain, a number of giant retailers, and a partnership with a significant ski resort firm.
When the Dayton plant begins manufacturing in 2020, it would give attention to all-season and all-weather tires with capability for four million tires a 12 months, eliminating the price and 6 weeks’ time to ship from Europe.
By late afternoon we go away the rental vehicles on the Tampere airport and take a brief flight to Helsinki. We toast our success with Napue gin and tonics, adorned with cranberries and an enormous stalk of rosemary, at a Finnish smorgasbord within the capital. The neighborhood is a mixture of East and West, with ornate buildings sandwiched between Soviet-era brick containers. A Zamboni is at work on an out of doors ice rink; ferries on the waterfront break the ice anew for every arrival and departure.
As we head for residence, we will attest that an organization immersed in a land of snow and reindeer is aware of how you can make tires to get motorists safely throughout an Arctic countryside that’s frozen half the 12 months. That’s the straightforward half.
Nokian can’t outspend the competitors, so it needs to be smarter, says Tommi Heinonen, head of Nokian North America; gross sales listed here are evenly break up between Canada and the U.S., however future development will come from America.
“The toughest to promote is the primary one,” Heinonen says. After that, Nokian normally has a buyer for all times.
The laborious half is getting the phrase out. I wouldn’t underestimate the hardy, resolute nature of the Finns. In any case, this can be a tradition whose thought of a very good time is to sprint from a steam room and plunge into an icy gap in a lake. These of us don’t fiddle.
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