Why is a spare tire called a Stepney in India?

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Why is a spare tire called a Stepney in India?

This odd-sounding term for what in Britain is called a spare wheel or Americans a spare tire is known in some countries of the former British empire and colonies, including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Malta as stepeny.

The story begins in 1904. At this time, motor-cars weren’t supplied with spare wheels or tyres and motorists had to provide their own. Roads then were often very poor, punctures were frequent and few facilities existed for repairs away from base. Then as now, it was hard to replace a tyre on a wheel without specialised equipment and a spare had to be a wheel with tyre already fitted. That may sound like our common modern spare, but wheels then were often of wood or heavy metal construction and a spare was both bulky to carry and clumsy to replace.

Two entrepreneurs, Thomas Davies and his brother Walter, who ran an ironmongery business in Llanelli in south Wales, came to the rescue by inventing a clever device. It consisted of an inflated tyre on a circular metal rim without spokes. The motorist clamped it to the rim of the wheel that had the flat. In a share prospectus in December 1906, the brothers claimed “No levers or spanners are required to fix it. It is firmly secured by two simple butterfly thumb screws” and added that cars didn’t require jacking up to get the spare wheel on.

They called their device the Stepney Spare Wheel, after the location of their workshop in Stepney Street, Llanelli. They patented the wheel and started to market it in January 1906, selling seven in the first month. By August that year, almost without advertising, they were selling 1,000 a month and realised they had a success. They formed a company, the Stepney Spare Motor Wheel Limited, and began to market the wheel in Britain, Europe and the British empire and colonies. They attempted the US in 1907, but like many British businesses that have tried to break into that market they quickly failed, in part because they were ripped off by local imitators.

Elsewhere, they enjoyed great success. In a court case in 1911, it was said that in Britain alone £250,000 worth had been sold (equivalent to about £25 million today) and that the wheels were seen on nearly every motor-car on the road. In 1912 the firm was claiming that 99% of all taxis in the world were fitted with Stepney spares. The business died out in Britain after the First World War because manufacturers began to provide proper spare wheels that were relatively easy to fit. However, in many countries, Stepney became synonymous with spare wheel and, as you’ve discovered, in some it remains common, though not in Britain nor, for the reasons I’ve given, the US.