Wesley R. Kliner, Jr.
Coker Tire Company
1317 Chestnut St.
Chattanooga, TN 37402
Dear Mr. Kliner:
This responds to your letter concerning labeling requirements for newly-manufactured and retreaded tires. You ask several variations on the question of whether it would be a violation of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act (Safety Act), FMVSS Nos. 109 and 139, and 49 CFR Parts 574 and 575 to buff or polish off identifying information on the exterior wall of a tire to achieve a smooth, polished look. Based on the information you have provided and the analysis below, the answer to your question is that it would be a violation of the Safety Act to take a tire out of compliance with either FMVSS No. 109 or No. 139 by removing required information from the exterior sidewall.
By way of background, NHTSA is authorized to issue Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSSs) that set performance requirements for new motor vehicles and items of motor vehicle equipment (see 49 U.S.C. Chapter 301, National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act). NHTSA does not provide approval of motor vehicles or motor vehicle equipment. Instead, manufacturers are required to self-certify that their products conform to all applicable safety standards that are in effect on the date of manufacture. NHTSA selects a sampling of new vehicles and equipment each year to determine their compliance with applicable FMVSSs. If our testing or examination reveals an apparent noncompliance, we may require the manufacturer to remedy the noncompliance, and may initiate an enforcement proceeding if necessary to ensure that the manufacturer takes appropriate action.
Your letter states that your company distributes new, period correct tires for vintage automobile collectors, and that you understand that some tire manufacturers, distributors, and retreaders engaged in that business might buff off all labeling and identification on the exterior side of a radial tire in order to achieve a glassy smooth appearance, or a smoothie. You state that you understand that modifying tires that complied with the design requirements of FMVSS Nos. 109 and 139 would be a violation of the Safety Act, but ask whether NHTSA would consider light buffing or polishing to be a cosmetic design change that would be permitted. You further ask whether it would be permissible to buff off some or all of the labeling and identification on a tire and also add a white or colored vulcanized rubber sidewall inlay over the buffed area, and whether it would be permissible for a tire retreader to do either of these things.
We will consider the requirements of both FMVSS No. 139 and FMVSS No. 109, for purposes of completeness, and the tire labeling and grading requirements of 49 CFR parts 574 and 575.
FMVSS No. 139
FMVSS No. 139 applies to new radial tires, and requires certain tire markings on the exterior sidewall of the tire. First, both sidewalls of the tire must be marked with (1) the symbol DOT; (2) the tire size designation; (3), the maximum permissible inflation pressure; and (4) the maximum load rating (and for LT tires, the letter designating the tire load range). These markings must be placed in a specific location on the tire, and cannot be less than 0.078 inches high and must be raised above or sunk below the tire surface not less than 0.015 inches. Tires must also be labeled with a tire identification number (TIN) required by
49 CFR Part 574.
49 U.S.C. 30122(b) of the Safety Act prohibits manufacturers, distributors, dealers, or motor vehicle repair businesses from knowingly making inoperative any part of a device or element of design installed on motor vehicle equipment in compliance with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard. You state that to create a smoothie tire, the manufacturer or distributor would buff off all labeling and markings on the exterior side of a radial tire in order to achieve a glassy smooth appearance, or alternatively, buff off some or all of the labeling and markings on the exterior side of a radial tire and then applying a white or colored rubber sidewall inlay. Based on your description, it appears that both of these scenarios would presumably include removal of the markings and information required by FMVSS No. 139. If those were removed, that would take the tire out of compliance with FMVSS No. 139, and would be a violation of 30122(b).
That said, we note that the new radial tires subject to FMVSS No. 139 are those for use on vehicles manufactured after 1975. To the extent that the vintage automobiles you mention in your letter are pre-1975, FMVSS No. 109 might be applicable instead.
FMVSS No. 109
FMVSS No. 109 applies to new radial tires for use on passenger cars manufactured before 1975, and also to new bias-ply tires, T-type spare tires, ST, FI, and 8-12 rim diameter and below tires for use on passenger cars manufactured after 1948. FMVSS No. 109 requires certain information on both sidewalls, roughly described as follows: (1) one size designation; (2) maximum permissible inflation pressure; (3) maximum load rating; (4) generic name of each cord material used in the tire plies; (5) actual number of plies in the sidewall/tread area; (6) the words tubeless or tube type, as applicable; and (7) the word radial if applicable. One sidewall of the tire must also be marked with the DOT symbol and the TIN as required by 49 CFR Part 574.
Given that FMVSS No. 109 requires those markings described above on both sidewalls of the tires described above, buffing or otherwise removing those markings from those tires would take them out of compliance with FMVSS No. 109, and, as for FMVSS No. 139, would be a violation of 49 U.S.C. 30122(b).
Tire Identification Number Requirements
49 CFR 574, Tire Identification and Recordkeeping, requires new tire manufacturers and new tire brand name owners to label conspicuously one sidewall of each tire a tire identification number (TIN) by permanently molding or laser-etching it into or onto one sidewall. The required information, including the DOT symbol and the TIN, must appear on all new tires before they can be sold to their first retail purchasers. A tire distributor or dealer cannot legally remove any of the required information from new tire sidewalls. The TIN is required to facilitate a recall or other action in the event of a defect. Even when a tire is retreaded, while the original TIN does not need to be maintained, the retreader must replace the original TIN with its own TIN. Because both FMVSS Nos. 109 and 139 include the TIN as part of their labeling requirements, removing the TIN would take the tire out of compliance with either of those standards (as applicable), and would be a violation of 49 U.S.C.
Uniform Tire Quality Grading Standards
49 CFR 575.104 requires motor vehicle and tire manufacturers and tire brand name owners to provide information indicating the relative performance in the areas of treadwear, traction, and temperature resistance of new pneumatic tires for use on passenger cars. The quality grade information required by 574.105 must be permanently molded into or onto the tire sidewall between the tires shoulder and its maximum width. If that labeling is obliterated, as seems likely based on your description, then the tire would no longer be compliant with the UTQGS. 49 U.S.C. 30163 gives U.S. district courts the jurisdiction to restrain any violation of Chapter 301, or any rule, regulation, or order issued thereunder, which include the UTQGS.
Becoming a Tire Retreader
Finally, you asked whether these buffing processes could be performed on a new tire without violating any safety standards if your company became certified as a tire retreader. A person who retreads tires is still considered to be a manufacturer under the Vehicle Safety Act. Thus, a retreader, like any manufacturer, would still be subject to any applicable FMVSS. If you were not actually retreading the tire, and were simply buffing the information off the sidewall of a new tire, then FMVSS No. 109 or No. 139 would still apply, and it would still be a violation of 30122(b) to take the tire out of compliance with those standards.
If you have any further questions, please feel free to contact Rebecca Yoon of my staff at (202) 366-2992.
O. Kevin Vincent
 See FMVSS No. 139, Paragraph S5.5(a)-(d).
 See Paragraph S5.5.
 See Paragraph S5.5.1.
 See Paragraph S2.1.
 See FMVSS No. 109, Paragraph S4.3.
 See Paragraphs S4.3.1 and S4.3.2.
 See 49 CFR 574.2.
 See 49 CFR 574.5.
 See 49 CFR 575.105(d)(1)(A). We note that 575.104(c) states that the UTQGS do not apply to deep tread, winter type snow tires, space-saver or temporary use spare tires, tires with nominal rims diameters of 10 to 12 inches, or limited production tires. However, in order to qualify as a limited production tire, section 575.104(c)(2) establishes four criteria, all of which the tires must meet:
(i) The manufacturer's annual domestic production or importation into the U.S. of tires of the same size and design as the tire does not exceed 15,000;
(ii) The annual domestic purchase or importation by a brand name owner into the U.S. of tires of the same size and design as the tire does not exceed 15,000 tires;
(iii) The tire's size was not listed as a vehicle manufacturer's recommended tire size designation for a new motor vehicle produced in or imported into the U.S. in quantities greater than 10,000 during the calendar year preceding the year of the tire's manufacture; and
(iv) The total annual production or importation into the U.S. by the manufacturer or, if the tire is marketed under a brand name, the total annual domestic purchase or purchase for importation into the U.S. by the tire's brand name owner, of tires meeting the criteria of (i), (ii), and (iii) above, does not exceed 35,000 tires.
Additionally, 575.104(d)(1)(A) states that tires do not need to be graded if they are tires of a new line manufactured within the first six months of production of that tire line. Based on the information you have provided, we do not know whether the tires you plan to modify would meet these criteria.