ARCHIVE: A Powerhouse of Sport; Chris Upton Talks Balls, and Other Sporting Equipment, Emanating from a Premier League Name in the Industry

The Birmingham Post (England), May 6, 2006 | Go to article overview
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ARCHIVE: A Powerhouse of Sport; Chris Upton Talks Balls, and Other Sporting Equipment, Emanating from a Premier League Name in the Industry


Byline: Chris Upton

What is the furthest anyone has ever driven a golf ball? The answer, you might imagine, would involve someone like Seve or Tiger or perhaps John Daly. In fact, none of these was responsible. The record holder was Alan Shepard, who in 1971 took aim on the surface of the Moon and hit his ball an estimated 1,600 yards. It's only an estimate because he never went to collect it.

The ball concerned was a Dunlop 65, created by the appropriately named Birmingham-born physicist, Sammy Ball. It's clearly a record that will stand for the forseeable future, and chimes well with Dun-lop's early claims about the distances achieved by its golf balls. They were making similar claims as far back as 1909.

The name Dunlop is one which echoes through Birmingham's industrial history, and not only Birmingham, but Coventry too. As such the West Midlands is featured prominently in a recent book by Brian Simpson. Winners in Action, published by JJG Publishing at pounds 25, is a detailed account of the Dunlop Slazenger sports companies, whose impact upon the games of golf, cricket, darts and racquet sports such as tennis and squash is global and considerable.

The companies joined forces back in 1959, are thoroughly multinational, and continue to dominate the fields of sports equipment and sportswear. But their origins lie back in Victorian Britain, when sport was not the global force it has become today. Indeed, for Dunlop in particular, the humble golf ball was no more than a sideline for a company whose name primarily meant tyres.

The origins of Dunlop lie with the patent for a pneumatic cycle tyre, whose arrival in 1888 transformed the lives of cyclists (and more especially their backsides) the world over. The invention was the brainchild of John Boyd Dunlop, a Scottish veterinary surgeon, and the firm established by Dunlop began life in Dublin, but rapidly expanded to factories in Germany, France, Australia and Canada. All this had taken place before Dunlop moved its headquarters in 1900 from Dublin to Coventry.

By 1902 Dunlop had two factories in Birmingham as well, one at Aston Cross for motor car tyres and another nearby at Manor Mills in Salford Street, which made cycle tyres. The move to the iconic new plant at Fort Dunlop did not take place until 1923.

The link between tyres and golf balls is, of course, the material they were made from, but (as Brian Simpson points out) playing golf in Edwardian England was largely confined to those who owned cars anyway. The company's marketing department was quick to recognise this. "Play Dunlop, fit Dunlop and be satisfied!" they trumpeted in the early 1920s. Both hobbies involved driving, after all.

The first Dunlop golf balls rolled off the production line at Manor Mills in 1909 at a rate of about twelve dozen a day, compared with a quarter of a million per day by 2003.

The little orange spot on its shell gave the new ball its name and it swiftly took its place on the fairways and greens of Europe. Together with a second product - the "Junior" - the Dunlop balls won five of the main British tournaments in their first year.

What propelled Dunlop so quickly into the front rank of sports companies was the mechanised production line (which kept down costs) and a strong commitment to research and development.

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ARCHIVE: A Powerhouse of Sport; Chris Upton Talks Balls, and Other Sporting Equipment, Emanating from a Premier League Name in the Industry
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