Triumph Of The Wheel

Two months ago we set out to do something we thought was pretty noble: define the wheels that revolutionized the hot rod and custom car market. It really did seem like a good idea to open peoples’ eyes to their options.

In retrospect it was probably pretty ambitious, if not entirely foolish. Even though we bookended our list at 1932 and about 1970 we still nearly became buried in a figurative avalanche of wheels. It proved exceedingly difficult to limit ourselves. Consider our quandary: We know it’s silly to show obsolete wheels but at the same time it’s boring to limit the discussion to nothing but the commercially available ones.

In the end we parsed the body of wheels into three entries. We covered the OEM and early accessory steel wheels in August. Last month we showed the aftermarket magnesium and alloy wheels. And that leaves this month pretty well defined.

But defined by what? The following wheels don’t really fit well into any single category. What makes most so ambiguous is their composition: They’re made of steel and aluminum, hence the composite term. Though the remainder are steel, they don’t fit well in the first entry, as none were officially offered as OEM parts or through a formal dealer network. And a few have a special personality: Their rather generic basic designs can be readily altered to address a buyer’s specific wants and needs, hence the modular term.

Before we begin, understand a few things about these wheels. For one, most existed as economical alternatives to performance-specific wheels; sourcing the largest part of their construction from the production world (the steel rim) kept the prices low. For another, those steel rims make most of these wheels no lighter than OEM-based steel wheels of the same size (in fact, most are considerably heavier). In other words, they existed exclusively as decorations.

If you go by how well these wheels sold, decoration was exactly what the average enthusiast wanted. People seemingly couldn’t get enough of these wheels and as a result the market flourished. In fact one could argue that these orphan wheels put the aftermarket on the map faster and more successfully than any other single part in our industry. After all, manufacturers offered these wheels to fit just about any car, and every potential home needed four of them.

And most of all, this is where the entries get interesting. In the wheel world these examples are akin to the crazy-looking, deep-sea species that fishermen occasionally snare. Only a few of you will recognize these wheels. We promise you that much.

Wheel Centre Co.

Inspired by his gearhead students’ aspirations to own then-exotic American Racing wheels, high school shop class teacher and Bonneville racer Dick Beith got an idea to reinvent the wheel itself. “I thought about it and the only difference between a mag wheel and a stock wheel is the center, or the spider as they called it,” he says. “So I thought, if I just made a center piece and put it in a steel rim I’d have the look for way less.”

And that’s exactly what he did. “I made the wooden patterns in the shop class after school and had a foundry make the castings,” he continues. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, the zinc-rich Tenzaloy 713 that the foundry used came to define the alloy wheel market in the ’60s: it cast well, polished to a magnesium-like shine, and achieved 80 percent of the strength of 356-T6 aluminum but without the costly heat-treating process. “The silly thing is that name later became the nickname for the wheel,” he recalls. “‘Hey, he’s got Tenzaloys on it!’ they’d say.”

Beith acquired the rims by cutting the centers out of OEM wheels, welding the rivet holes shut and grinding them smooth, and having the same shop that polished the centers also plate the rims. “We drilled the spokes and the rim and bolted them together,” he says. Wheel Centre Co. and the composite wheel were born.

“I made four wheels and put ’em on one of my students’ cars,” he continues. “We went to the Oakland Roadster Show on set up night and found a guy who had plain steel wheels on his car. ‘Hey, you wanna swap wheels for the show?’ I asked him. We jacked up his car on the show floor and ours in the parking lot and swapped wheels. Then I went down and had some brochures printed and handed them out.”

The brochures worked probably better than he anticipated. “Dick Rader chased me down and said, ‘Hey, you got a good idea; let’s get together.’ Instead he went to L.A. and teamed up with Mickey Thompson and away they went.” (More on that later.)

Though Wheel Centre Co. later produced all aluminum wheels, it pioneered another notable composite design. “One-piece wheels are really expensive and time intensive and we were always back ordered,” he says. So he came up with another center design that had a false aluminum “lip”. “It disguised the whole rim part; it looked like a one-piece aluminum rim,” he notes. And by having a steel ring cast in the outer perimeter of the casting it could be quickly welded to a steel rim. “We could squirt those out real fast,” he enthuses.

Rader, Mickey Thompson, and Wheel Corp of America

You could say Dick Rader was destined to build wheels. Wheel is in his name after all (räder is plural for wheel in German). According to Rich Conklin at Radir Wheels (no relation), Rader began producing wheels by at least 1962 and possibly 1961. The Single Rib as Rader called it featured five flat spokes, each adorned with, well, a single rib down the middle.

As Beith mentioned, Rader teamed up with the highly competitive Mickey Thompson. Producing wheels in Long Beach under the name Wheel Corp of America, they produced an incalculable number of wheels in what almost seems like as many styles.

A promoter at heart, Thompson brought an intense level of marketing sophistication to bear on the wheel world. Wheel Corp wheels appeared everywhere, including the two most widely seen places in the ’60s: on the Batmobile and in Sears catalogs.

Like other wheel designs, they also appeared as knock-offs. Speed Engineering produced a version of the single-rib. Former distributor Trans American Products in nearby Long Beach produced a copy that it called the Radar. Even the model number is an anagram of Rader’s.