For some, wheels can either make or break a car. Those who can look at the proverbial “perfect” car and still lament about its lack of an aesthetically complimentary set of rollers are an interesting breed. As the title of my friend Mark Kawano’s blog insists, “Wheels are Everything.”
So where did this reverence of wheel aesthetics begin? One might argue that it began with the cast magnesium wheels of the 1950s race cars, or the beautiful hand-laced wire wheels of 1930s coach-built cars. For simplicity’s sake, we’ll start with the everyman’s racer or coach-built; the hot rods and customs of the 1950s, respectively.
(Editor’s Note: This story was written and compiled by Bob Helfrich, member of Los Boulevardos, and quite the custom history buff. Special thanks go out to Bob-O for putting this together and making it happen!)
In The Beginning
In the mid to late 1950s, hot rods and customs had taken over the hearts and minds of many youngsters throughout the country. At that time, your choice of caps and wheels were basically limited to whatever could be found on a production vehicle. Mass production of aftermarket wheels on a relatively affordable scale was still a few years away. Keep in mind, plain steel wheels dressed up with trim rings or caps and factory built wires were just about your only choices, with very few exceptions. Readily available aftermarket wheel covers and custom wheels were still on the horizon.
That being the case, the builders of the era had their favorites to choose from. Customizers preferred caps like Lancers, Fiestas, and Sombreros, which were the more accessible and cool looking full wheel covers of the time (and from what we’ve heard, many Dodges, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs ended up “mysteriously” cap-less in the middle of the night!).
While Buick, Chrysler, and other wire wheels were somewhat available for the elite who could actually afford a set. Some of these wheels and caps found their way onto hot rods, typically a color matched or contrasting set of steel wheels with nice tires and “dog dish” caps were the go-to option, depending on era, location, etc.
By the time the 60s rolled around, tastes, trends and styles had evolved. For the first time, a white wall tire was widely available with a narrower stripe. Chromed factory steel wheels had taken the shows and streets by storm. Fat-fendered radical customs with their chopped tops, sectioned bodies and other extensive modifications were falling out of favor, with radically painted late model cars now dominating the world of customs. It was around this time that several manufacturers saw that an affordably priced custom wheel was something that the hot rod and custom world desperately needed.
The Sixties – Introduction to the Aftermarket Wheel Craze
In the name of brevity, in this section we will focus on what has become the ultimate set of aftermarket wheels and simply highlight some of its “lesser” known rivals and copies. That wheel of course, is the Cragar S/S. Hitting the streets, tracks and show circuits in 1964, the Cragar “Super Sport” was a 5-spoke, composite wheel (a cast aluminum hub/spoke unit that was riveted to a steel hoop) and was unlike anything that had ever before been offered at a reasonable price, though still pricey at almost $1,400 in today’s currency. The wheel was such a hit that it was soon offered in many sizes, bolt patterns, offsets and finishes.
Hot rods, customs, musclecars, race cars, lowriders, vans and many other types of custom rides have all called this venerated 5-spoke their wheel of choice for almost 50 years. Its’ simple, yet pleasing shape lends it toward use on many types and styles of vehicle, which lead in no small part to the wheel’s success over the years. With the right set of tires, proper offset and diameter, the S/S can look right at home underneath just about anything. It is truly a timeless design.
To be fair, there are many other wheels that came out in the early to mid-60s, some of which were fairly popular. Again, depending on era, location, etc. as some trends were strictly regional, but will still get an honorable mention a little bit later. Only a couple of other wheels even come close to the popularity and level of style achieved by the Cragar. First is the Astro Supreme, first introduced in 1963. When it first debuted, the Supreme featured a cylindrical shaped spoke and was, let’s face it, not very attractive. This configuration lasted only a year or two before the spokes were re-designed to take on a more conical shape, perhaps due to the wide spread success of the Cragar.
Astro had already been producing wheels, but they unknowingly created the Cragar’s arch nemesis with the newly perfected Supreme. Since hitting the blacktop, the Supreme has been produced on and off by a number of manufacturers over the years, varying slightly in style and drastically in quality. The wheel’s application has had a somewhat narrower scope than the S/S, being primarily the wheel of choice for 60s customs and early lowriders.
Some of the other wheels available in the mid 60s were the Keystone Kustomag, several Rader designs, several types of chromed steel slots offered by various manufacturers, chrome reversed-offset steel wheels, Fenton offered a couple of different variations of 5-spokes and a myriad of other companies were all getting into the custom wheel game, with some truly interesting or even downright bizarre results at times. The 5-spoke dominated the accessory wheel market and every manufacturer created their own in hopes of winning the Wheel War that Cragar had inadvertently started.
What we now know as the “Torque Thrust” was also born around this time, who some might say had a bigger impact than the Supreme, but I beg to differ. The Torque Thrust styled wheel was the Supremes’ counterpart, whose scope was focused primarily on performance cars, rather than the “low n’ slow” style of the Supreme. However, there are exceptions to this rule of course, as always.
Now that the birth and infancy of the custom wheel has been covered, this is probably a good time to mention some of the other factors involved with a “proper” wheel/tire combo. The first is obviously going to be tires. Size is important because size can pull your ride into different eras or even different styles of build. For example, when speaking about customs, a taller bias-ply wide white wall can put you squarely in the 1950s, a slightly smaller diameter bias-ply with a narrow white wall is early to mid- 60s and an even smaller diameter bias-ply white wall can be interpreted as very late 60s and early to mid-70s.
When speaking of performance minded cars, 1940s and 50s Hot Rods would generally run a taller, wider tire in the back as a cheap and effective way of modifying your final gear ratio and attaining better traction. Moving into the 1960s it was still a functional decision, but was now partially an aesthetic one. By the time the early 70s hit, gassers, musclecars, vans, street machines and the like were roaming the boulevards and the exaggerated proportions of the tires were simply interpreting the functional aesthetics of the hot rods of old.
Center caps are also an important decision to make. We’ve seen truly amazing $250,000 show cars that were “ruined” by the cheesy $12 set of plastic center caps that the builder/owner decided to use. From the day the first custom wheels were produced, just as many types of custom center caps became available: spiders, bullet caps, flat caps, dished caps, domed caps, two-blade spinners, three-blade spinners, etc. Today, there are still a lot of options to choose from. Even the lugs nuts can be important. There’s just as many styles of nuts as there are caps. Remember, the devil is always in the details.
Diameter, width and offset are obviously very important as well. Now, this varies greatly depending on the vehicle, wheel, style of build, etc. I mentioned the reverse offset wheels earlier. This is a trend that caught traction in the early 1960s and is currently experiencing a strong revival on all types of cars. The look they produce is dramatic, to say the least. Wider wheels can have the same visual effect, but wider wheels run into the same problems as reversed offset wheels, in that the space in your wheels wells is generally limited.
Every car is different, so when choosing a set of wheels, be sure to do a ton of measuring. Diameter, more so than width or offset, can be era specific. In the 40s, many American cars ran 16-inch wheels. Starting primarily in the early 50s, most American cars went to a 15-inch diameter and later in the decade down sized again to 14-inch wheels. This 14- and 15-inch standard remained until the late 80s and early 90s when larger diameter wheels sporting lower profile tires became the standard. Depending on what look or era you’re going for, wheel diameter can be vital to the overall look of the build.
Finally, the last element is a term that has been thrown around quite a bit in the last year or so, in all corners of the automotive aftermarket, and that is “stance.” Although “stance” may be an over used term lately, it is no less important when selecting a wheel/tire combo then it was decades ago. Up in the front, or up in the rear? Or level at all four corners? How low? How high? With the right wheels, tires and stance, I firmly believe that any car can look that much better.
Choosing the “right” wheel/tire combo for your ride can be tricky, depending on the vehicle. But there is always more than one look for every car. It all comes down to what you can find, what you can afford and what you can make work. A little ingenuity can go a long way, allowing something as relatively simple as a wheel/tire swap to yield some fairly dramatic results. To illustrate this point, my friend Harry Kapsalis was kind enough to supply me with these photos of his righteous 1962 Pontiac Catalina, sporting 7 very different wheel/tire combos to illustrate many of the different looks available.
Notice how the look and attitude of the car changes from combo to combo. Which is your favorite and why? Which one did you hate? Make sure to tell us in the comments section!
This article focused on the birth of the custom wheel and its first few years on the streets, from the 50s to the mid 60s. Next time, we’ll take a closer look at the styles prominent in the later 60s through to the late 70s. Until then, keep rollin’ low ‘n slow.