A Brief History of Custom Wheels
September 23rd, 2015
Custom wheels are everywhere today, but did you ever give much thought to how they were developed over the years?
To trace the history of the custom wheel, you have to go back to the years after WWII. During the war, piston engine performance had advanced greatly with aircraft, and in the following years stock car racing went from a ragtag bunch of moonshine runners to becoming an organized sport. As early hot rodders and racers looked for ways to squeeze more performance out of their vehicles, their attention turned to wheels and suspensions. Early steel wheels were usually designed with two pieces of pressed steel welded or riveted into a single unit. Lighter-weight wheels would reduce unsprung weight, improving braking, handling and steering response, and they could offer ventilation for overheated brakes as well.
By the early 50's, various lightweight cast-alloy or magnesium wheels were making their way to the race market, marrying function with a good-looking and unique style. Hot rods and customs were also coming into their own in the 50's, but usually hot rodders had to settle for steel wheels with aftermarket hubcaps or trim rings.
By the early 60's, tastes and technology had evolved…50's-style hot rods were on their way out, and sleek, shiny late-model cars were becoming popular. In ’64, Cragar broke the market wide open with the S/S wheel, a chromed design with five cast aluminum spokes riveted to a steel rim. The timeless S/S design was an immediate hit, although still spendy at about $1400 for a set in today’s dollars. Before long, Cragar had competition in the custom wheel business, from brands like Astro, American Racing, E-T, Keystone, and Rader. New designs like slotted wheels, chrome-reverse and others were making their way to the market.
By the 70's, the trend was toward custom wheels, wider tires in the rear and a jacked-up stance with the rear end raised. The mid to late 70's, though, saw the rise of custom pickup trucks and vans, and suddenly a whole new category of custom wheels emerged, often stamped-steel wheels that offered toughness and durability along with good looks and light weight.
Today, alloy wheels are a popular option from the factory, for a dressed-up look on any vehicle. The selection for aftermarket wheels, on the other hand, is absolutely staggering, with a range of sizes and designs that are a great fit for anything from a tough 4x4 to a street rod to a low rider. They’ve evolved far beyond the functional advantages they offered 70 years ago, to a personal statement for almost any vehicle.
Posted in: Tires 101