A while ago we were contacted by a Corvette owner, asking us about tires. He said the Vette's old tires were getting a bit stiff with age and they never were much in the handling department, so he decided to go to some effort to find an "ideal" set of tires for his purposes. He asked for our assistance, so we made a few phone calls that resulted in a discussion with Michelin's tire expert, a fellow named Steve White.
Steve said he'd be happy to plug some parameters into Michelin's computer and it would do the thinking for us. Those parameters would have to come from the owner, he said, and the following questions should be answered by anyone before deciding on specific tires for older Corvettes:
Q: What are the mechanical attributes of the car? (they need to know everything)
A: In this case, his '71 is an LT1 with hydraulic lifters (roughly 300 horsepower) and a wide-ratio four speed.
The rear axle ratio is 3.55 to and it has a gymkhana suspension and air conditioning.
No special anti-sway bars or shocks are used and the brakes are non-power.
Q: How many miles are driven each year?
A: 1000 +
Q: Is the car raced, autocrossed or otherwise driven "hard"?
Q: Describe the way you drive the car (hard cornering, hard braking, smoke the tires, etc).
A: He never deliberately squeal the tires or "drops" the clutch. Also, he never slows down by downshifting, except in emergencies (brake pads are much cheaper than clutches). He tends to brake late and loves to "radius" tight turns and pull some lateral force. Of course, the occasional hard acceleration is mandatory. Here in the East Coast there is little opportunity for extended high-speed cruising, so max speed isn't important.
Q: How do you like a car to ride?
A: Corvettes have always been relatively harsh, but he doesn't like the "chop" that you get with very low profile tires like 45, 40 and 35-series. Consequently, he wants the best possible handling without having to go to such a low profile.
Q: Do you drive in rain/snow?
A: Sure! In fact, he likes driving the car in cold weather more than in warm weather.
So much for the questions and answers. Your answers aren't likely to be the same as his but it's important to take every one of them into consideration, along with any budget constraints. Obviously, if you want incredible handling you will have to go to a very low profile tire and suffer a poor ride and a goofy-looking wheel opening (unless you go to a larger wheel). If you never drive the car in wet weather you don't care about a tire's abilities along those lines either.
Whatever the answers are, be sure to jot them all down before visiting your tire dealer. He can't read your mind, so be prepared to spend some time discussing your wants and needs. Remember that even though there is likely a tire out there, one which will satisfy most or all of your particular requirements, the end result will still be somewhat of a compromise. Prioritize your list and make sure you know what you want.
As for our subject's tires, the winning combination proved to be Michelin Pilot XGT VR4's, 225/60s. These are fairly high-performance, unidirectional tires that have pretty good wet-weather capabilities. So far our owner says they have proved to be wonderful in driving. The handling is better than it's ever been since the car was new, he says, and braking is better too. The ride is quite acceptable, with no noise and no vibration. Couldn't ask for much more.
If you plan to drive your old classic a lot, take the time to study which tires are "perfect" for your needs. You will be able to find tires that look good on the car while providing excellent handling, ride and safety. Don't be a slave to "keeping it correct" unless that's of utmost importance.
As for those Corvette purists out there who feel our owner needed to replace his tires with reproduction Firestone Wide Ovals, why put yourself through all that grief? They were awful tires back then and are downright dangerous in today's world. You're wasting effort and money trying to make the car "look" perfect and losing out on a lot of driving fun. Oh well, to each his own....