They say wheels can transform a car. You don't have to take anyone's word for it, either. That the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) dedicates almost 650,000 square feet of exhibit space at its annual convention to nothing but wheels and tires tells us that they're popular.

That got us thinking: We started that trend. Well, you and I didn't do it but our forebears sure did. They started by swapping wheels among cars but soon they cut apart OEM wheels and reversed, widened, and plated the rims prior to welding them back to the centers. Our brethren were the ones who adapted racing wheels to street cars. One of our guys, Lou Senter, an aftermarket parts manufacturer who made alloy wheels affordable for the masses, cofounded the association that devotes all that exhibition space to wheels and tires. What better way to celebrate that than by showcasing the industry's noteworthy rollers?

That's a big order to fill. We have steel wheels, aluminum ones, steel-aluminum hybrids, and others made from magnesium. We figured we'd be safe to cover just the most famous designs, but where do you draw the line there? With nearly a century's worth of popular wheels to cover we could fill a book, if not volumes of books. We had to draw the line somewhere.

At first it seemed easy: Rod & Custom is a somewhat traditional title so do nothing but traditional wheels. But how does one define traditional? Well the early 1970s offers a convenient and somewhat objective break. The recession then pretty much killed the market and by the time it rebounded billet was king and I think we all can agree that billet isn't traditional, at least not yet. That same recession also killed Rod & Custom, drawing the line even deeper in the sand.

That still gives us a lot of ground to cover—too much for one entry, in fact. So we're breaking our focus into three categories: one for steel OEM wheels, another for alloys, and a third for aftermarket wheels, including composites (hybrids with steel rims riveted to aluminum centers).

We admit this is an imperfect account. There's simply no way to cover more than the most popular ones. So we ask you in advance to forgive us if we've ignored your favorite. However, of the wheels we're showing here, all but a noted few are available through the aftermarket, including at the sources listed. In some respects it really is the very best time to build hot rods and customs.

The Balloon-Tire Craze
You've likely encountered some curious wheels at swap meets. If they're like these they date to the late 1920s and 1930s. But unlike wheels common to that era their wider rims mount tires with 16-, 15-, and even 14-inch bead diameters, the last of which didn't come to pass until the late 1950s. Rest assured they're not modified.

The most effective way to increase a tire's traction is to widen it, but in the early days of tire technology that wasn't possible without also increasing the sidewall height. The taller tires that resulted wouldn't fit existing vehicles so the manufacturers went the other way and reduced the rim diameter. The balloon tire was born.

To create a market for these ample tires the tire makers hired wheel manufacturers to build rollers that would adapt them to existing cars. Goodyear had disc wheels stamped for its Airwheel line. Truck-wheel manufacturer Clark Equipment Company made wheels with cast-iron centers for Firestone's Air Balloon series.

We can't say for sure but the riveted-spoke wire wheels that Kelsey Hayes and Motor Wheel Corp. produced may also owe their existence to balloon tire updating (Kelseys as small as 15 inches turn up every so often). Kelsey Hayes definitely produced a lock-ring wire wheel for Firestone according to Jim Lattin, who gathered a complete set to reproduce the Danny Sakai modified.

Without a doubt bicycle maker Cleveland Welding produced the most famous undersized wheels for General Tire. With bead diameters as small as 14 inches, General's Jumbo line was by far the most extreme. And according to the number of those Cleveland Welding wheels still around, the Jumbo was the most popular.

Though aftermarket, these wheels generally aren't considered hot rod or custom-car wheels. Enthusiasts eager to set their machines apart from the crowd might change that, though. These are actually somewhat attractive—at least a far sight better than some of the obscure wheels we've seen bolted to hot rods in the pursuit of individuality.

Stamped-Steel Wheels
Manufacturers like Chevrolet and Packard experimented with disc-type wheels in the 1920s, but their flat profiles were relatively vulnerable to lateral loads. But deep-draw stamping techniques pioneered in the 1930s gave wheels more complex shapes for strength. What's more, the opportunity to choose shapes let carmakers distinguish their wheels from others.

So effective is the stamped-steel wheel that it survives on just about every vehicle made today. Unless they're identifiable as modern, stamped wheels are also generally impervious to trends.

Ford's Disc Wheels
When Ford returned to the 5.5-inch wheel-bolt pattern for the 1939 Lincoln and 1940 Ford and Mercury models it introduced the wheel that became the de-facto hot rod wheel for the post-war era. They were strong not to mention easier to clean and far lighter than the wheels that they replaced.

Ford offered them in a number of diameters, widths, and hubcap mounts. The flipside is that they're almost too numerous to count. We have an advantage, though: Stu McMillan.

McMillan presented the information listed in the Kelsey Hayes catalogs that he collected over the years. That's great because it reveals exactly which vehicle got what wheel. It's also a curse because Ford changed its part numbers every time it changed the design. And Ford made a ton of incremental changes that don't really bear mentioning.

We'll break things down by the major dimensions. The 1940 Ford V8-60 got a 16x3.5 wheel. The 1939 and 1940 Lincoln, 1940 Mercury, 1940-48 Ford cars, and 1940-42 pickups got the 16x4. The 1942-52 Ford trucks got the 16x4.5. The Mercury and Lincoln from 1942 to 1948 and trucks from 1953 to the mid '60s got the 15x5.

That list ignores hubcap mounting but a caption explains that. Also bear in mind that Ford offered just about every wheel it sold as an option on all of its vehicles. The most coveted are the 16x5 wheels that Ford offered as an option on pickups from at least 1954 to well into the 1960s.

Oversized Accessory Wheels
You can't spend much time in tradition land without hearing the terms Divco or milk truck applied to 18-inch stamped-steel wheels. Before we continue, though, we'd like to ask a huge favor: Stop doing that.

Contrary to the folklore, disc wheels that measure 18 inches, accept a Ford snap-in cap and fit passenger car/light-truck bolt patterns never ever came on Detroit Industrial Vehicle Company (Divco) trucks—nor did they grace any specific vehicle like a milk truck (dairy distributors favored the Divco trucks, which might explain the association). In fact, we don't know exactly why these wheels were made, although it's safe to presume that they were intended to increase a vehicle's ground clearance.

This much we do know thanks to Stu McMillan's collection. Kelsey Hayes produced those wheels as PN 23278 and PN 31873 for 1940-and later Ford and Mercury applications. Ford sold them as PN 1C-1015A, PN 8C5-1015B, and PN 01AS-1015A, although the literature doesn't designate any differences among the part numbers. Kelsey also produced a six-lug version for Chevrolet vehicles with the conventional 18x3.625 drop-center rim and with the less common 17-inch wheel with a lock-ring rim.

We also know why these oversized Kelsey disc wheels got popular. A larger diameter tire has the same net effect as reducing a gear ratio and high-speed Indy car tires fit right on them, making them popular among land speed racers. And their 5x5.5 pattern let them fit the most popular axles.

So now that you know, stop referring to these things as Divco or milk truck wheels. It makes you sound as if you just fell off a pumpkin truck (another application they weren't specifically intended for).

Revival Wires
Car designers are famously nostalgic. After an absence of about 20 years—the unofficial period for people to forget what made something go out of style in the first place—wire wheels reappeared in showrooms and parts stores.

Initially the two players were classic-age darlings: Kelsey Hayes produced the Cadillac Eldorado, Buick Skylark, and Ford Thunderbird wheels. Motor Wheel Co. built Chrysler, Hudson, and Packard wheels. Both offered aftermarket versions.

The wire-wheel revival of the 1950s and 1960s initiated a landslide of sorts. A number of wheel manufacturers tooled up to produce wire wheels by the 1970s. They haven't gone away since.

SOURCE
Wheel Vintiques
14955 Don Julian Rd
City of Industry
CA  91746
800-959-2100
www.wheelvintiques.com
MT Car Products
1344 Manhattan Drive, Dept. R&C
Paradise
CA  95969
Wheelsmith
888-686-3472
http://www.wheelsmith.com/
Early Wheel Company
1147 Scott Street
Morro Bay
CA  93442
805-772-7997
http://www.earlywheel.com/
Rally America
16320 Morgan Canyon
Prather
CA  93651
559-322-2128
http://www.rallyamerica.com/
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