Millenniums before the invention of an automobile, our great ancestors discovered a wheel. This simple invention changed the course of history forever and almost singlehandedly created the world as we know it. A wheel has come a long way since then, and that’s why I’m here to talk about rims.
Apart from the obvious task of keeping the car mobile, rims also have another important function and that’s cooling the braking system. By enabling airflow through holes and openings, wheels keep your brakes in working order, preventing them from overheating.
A Short History of Wheels
In the beginning, the wheels of early cars didn’t differ much from those used on horse-drawn carriages. These early wheels were often constructed in cast iron which later gave way to wood spokes on an iron rim. Wooden wheels were common in the 1920s, but as the cars evolved, they became obsolete too.
Steel was the next big thing in evolution of the wheel, and it’s a material still used today. The pursuit of lightness and durability gave us aluminum and aluminum alloy wheels, the most common wheel types of today. That’s why I’ll concentrate on these wheels you’re most likely to encounter during your personal journey called ‘owning a car’.
Before we embark on this journey, it’s important to know that the industry is working hard to develop new alloys and manufacturing techniques that shed weight and improve strength of this simple, yet vital component that keeps you both moving and safe on the road. Some hypercars of today now use carbon fiber wheels, but your and most other cars on the roads still ride on steel and aluminum alloy rims.
Steel Rims Today
Back in the days, steel rims were used on all sorts of cars, from average family sedans to luxurious convertibles, and even high-end sports cars. However, the evolution of the automobile meant that steel rims were no longer a necessity, and the switch to alloys pushed steel wheels from the upper market segments.
Today, steel wheels are basic options on subcompact and compact cars, a simple and trusty budget-friendly choices of an automobile. Steel rims are often covered with plastic hubcaps which hide their basic design that serves no aesthetic purpose itself.
Due to its strength, simplicity and durability, steel wheels are commonly used on heavy duty off-road vehicles too. Steel is also a common choice for the winter season, and there’s a great possibility that your car always has one steel wheel: emergency space saver wheels are usually made in steel.
Aluminum Rims and Why You (Probably) Drive Them
If you drive a higher optioned compact or virtually any other car in the world, there’s a great chance that you have aluminum or aluminum alloy wheels. Aluminum alloys come in various forms, but are most commonly a mix of aluminum and magnesium, two metals that offer both lightness and structural rigidity of a wheel.
Aluminum alloy rims could be cast or forged. A cast aluminum wheel is made by pouring molten aluminum into a mold and this process is how the majority of alloy wheels is made. Cast alloy wheels are not as dense and durable as forged wheels, but that shouldn’t worry you. Quality OEM or aftermarket cast alloys will be able to endure tens of thousands of miles. Just watch for the kerbs and big holes which could scratch or distort a wheel.
On the other hand forged wheels are produced by applying both heat and high pressure to compress aluminum into a lighter, yet stronger wheel. Due to a different manufacturing process, forged rims are able to withstand greater braking and acceleration forces while saving weight at the same time. That is the reason why performance cars of today usually sit on forged alloy wheels.
Aluminum Rims and the Freedom of Design
From a structural standpoint, alloy wheels could be divided into one-piece and multi-piece wheels.
The simplest rim design consists of a wheel face and the barrel cast or forged into a single piece of alloy. Most cars have one-piece alloy wheels and they all come in the widest variety of shapes and sizes, both OEM and aftermarket.
Next, there are multi-piece alloy wheels. These wheels have a removable front that’s held together via a set of screws. Finally, three-piece rims add an outer ring going over the rim barrel, enabling you to adjust the width of the wheel to a certain degree. While being aesthetically pleasing, these rims are heavier.
Aluminum and magnesium alloy rims allow for greater artistic freedom and they come in endless shapes, from massive full rims to thin multispoke designs. However, most rims are variations of star-shaped five-spoke designs. Lots of rims have more than five spokes: six-spoke or eight-spoke designs are also common among OEM and aftermarket alloy wheels. Four-spoke alloy rims were more common in the past, while history showed us that three-spoke wheels sometimes worked amazing, just like on the legendary Dodge Viper.
Then, there are some outright odd designs like the iconic Ronal Teddy Bears, Sport Edition Daisy or Intra Koalas. Asymmetric rims from boutique aftermarket manufacturers are not that uncommon too. On the other hand, some brands like Alfa Romeo and Saab were known for unusual circular spokes or looks which mixed thick and thin spokes throughout.
Most muscle car owners opt for American Racing rims, known for their rounded five-spoke look. No matter which car you drive or what look are you aiming for, there’s a rim waiting just for you somewhere in this world.
Polished or Matte Aluminum?
When it comes to finish, alloy wheels are either polished or matte, or a combination of two. Polished alloy wheels are harder to maintain shiny and require regular cleaning while matte finish allows you more relaxing washing intervals.
Still, keeping your rims clean is the cheapest, fastest and simplest way to make your car always look attractive.
Sometimes, the metallic aluminum finish isn’t enough. Most common colored finishes are white and black and they are often found on sporty trims as a factory option. The quest for uniqueness goes into custom color combinations as well. Solid paint can match, complement or contrast your car’s color, but there are also intricate paint jobs and designs.
Hydro dipping is among the most recent rim finishing trends and the possibilities are virtually endless if you opt for this technique. A quick Google search will amaze you: you’ll see camouflaged wheels, wheels that look like psychedelic tees from the Woodstock era or stickerbombed skateboards, but there are also simpler and more subtle options. What you should know is that you need to protect your alloy wheels at all costs. There’s virtually no way to partly repair any damage done to a hydro dipped wheel and repeating the whole process would be your only option.
Yes, there are rims made out of chrome. However, as they are much more expensive than alloy wheels, this type of wheels is more often chrome plated. High gloss chrome finish was particularly popular during the 2000s. Chrome finish is still favored as a relatively inexpensive way to freshen up a car’s look and make it more attractive.
Chrome rims are a common choice on luxury cars as more bling elevates them from lesser cars on the road and makes them seem even more opulent. Also, classic cars owners opt for chrome plated rims as it goes naturally with abundant use of decorative chrome. If you own any of these cars, I consider you lucky!
Unlike rims used on road going cars, race cars utilize a special kind of alloy wheels. These rims share the same basic design as regular alloys, but actually differ a lot. Apart from being made in special kinds of alloy, these track-ready wheels have a single center hub rather than four or five hubs. This unique feature enables pit crews to change the tires in seconds during quick pit stops.
Popular Brands and Why You Shouldn’t Buy Replicas
Rims come in various shapes, sizes and quality too. High performance cars require strong rims and manufacturers often turn to outside contractors to supply them with OEM wheels. The vast world of rims has hundreds of companies creating these vital parts, but some brands stand out from the crowd as leaders in this broad market.
BBS is perhaps the best-known company which supplies OEM rims to major companies like Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz or BMW, while also making famous aftermarket and racing wheels. Speaking of races, O.Z. is another well-respected brand among the enthusiasts, as well as Konig, Enkei Volk Racing and SSR, just to name a few.
Of course, legendary, attractive and rare wheels from best-optioned models and versions come at high prices. Sometimes, it’s due to its collector status, like the famous three-piece BBS RS you’ll most likely find on classic BMWs. Sometimes it’s sheer cost of manufacturing a beautiful, strong and lightweight wheel. High performance wheels made by respected brands are subjected to extensive tests that serve to prove their durability even during most demanding driving conditions.
More often than not, replica wheels just look like their original counterparts. But, digging under the surface, you’ll find out that counterfeit wheels don’t possess the same structural qualities of authentic wheels. Replicas are made out of cheap and low quality materials, and the sole manufacturing and testing process is subpar compared to OEM and high quality aftermarket ones.
While they come at lower cost, replicas are in fact dangerous and opting for them could cost you way more than a set of authentic wheels in the long run. Forums and social media are full of proofs why you should never buy replicas: fake wheels tend to crack or completely shatter during hard cornering and braking, causing extensive damage to the car and putting people into potentially dangerous situations.
Taking Good Care of Your Rims Is Taking Good Care of Your Car Too
Whether your alloy wheels are matte or polished, painted or chromed kerbs are your worst enemies during daily driving. Street parking your car carefully will prevent painful scratching of your rim’s face. Aluminum is softer than steel and scratching it against concrete will ruin the outer rim of a wheel.
But, even if that happens, you shouldn’t worry much. A scratched wheel can be repaired via welding, and a good welder can make the scars disappear.
What you should, however, worry about is bending your wheel’s edge. Wheel distortion happens in more extreme situations, e.g. running over a hole too fast or in case of a crash. In these situations, rule of thumb is to replace the wheel with a new or a second hand one rather than to repair it, and you should stick to it. A repaired bent wheel will never give you a peace of mind like a new or preserved one.
Moreover, if you’re planning to buy a new set of wheels for your car, you should know that wheels affect your fuel consumption to a certain extent. Wider wheels offer better grip as they allow wider tire track, but wide track also means that your car will have a slightly worse MPG rating.
Whether you’re aiming to make your car more attractive, or your choice of wheels goes beyond just the aesthetic purposes, there’s a set of wheels waiting there for you. A wide choice of high quality aftermarket wheels could offer you both the beauty and the functionality your beloved car deserves. On the other hand, even your car’s factory wheels can look fresh if you take good care of them.If you are planning to buy aftermarket alloy wheels, make sure to never buy a set of replicas. Wheels are not just there for decorative purposes. A high quality wheel will keep you safe and carefree for many miles to come.