Thursday, February 3, 2011

Alloy Wheels - Cosmetic or Performance?

These BBS " Basket Weave"  rims became popular on BMWs in the late 1980's and early 1990's and were a pain in the ass to keep clean.

Most cars today come with alloy wheels, it seems.  Are these worthwhile in the sense that they are functional?  If you really want to save hundreds of dollars, you can do without these.

In the early days of the automobile, wheels were made of wood, as that is what people made wagon wheels from.  But it did not take long before people painted these up in a manner to make them look fancy.  Accessorizing wheels has been a part of human nature for eons.  Apparently there is something hypnotic about a spinning, shiny wheel.

Wooden wheels had spokes, a rim, and a hub.  These were lighter weight than the original cave-man style solid wood disc, and even though they were much harder to make, they were more durable in the long run than solid wood wheels which would tend to split.

Weight has always been a factor in wheel design, which is why for bicycles, and later motorcycles, the wire spoke wheel came into fashion - and was later used on automobiles.

As Automobiles moved to steel bodies and steel stampings were lower in cost than wooden assemblies, wheels, too, switched to steel, and the steel disc wheel became the norm for the bulk of the automotive era.  A simple stamped steel hub is mated to a rolled steel rim, and welded together.  Such rims are relatively lightweight, sturdy, and tough - they can stand a lot of abuse from potholes and the like.

Of course, wire spoke wheels continued to be used in some sports cars, and for many folks, the chrome wire rim look of the "classic" automobiles spelled luxury and refinement.  So it is no mystery that by the 1950's, wheel covers supplanted "hubcaps" as a means of providing decoration and style to a car, and the "fake wire wheel cover" came into fashion shortly thereafter.

But about this time, hot rodders, race car designers, and sports car designers were realizing that reducing unsprung weight was key to proper suspension design.  Steel wheels, while durable, were relatively heavy, compared to lighter weight aluminum wheels.  Some racers even went so far as to use magnesium wheels (hence the term, "mag wheels") which were feather light, although flammable in a hot fire.

By the 1960's, fancy wheels that mimicked the look of race car wheels were being offered by car makers.  Most of these were steel wheels with chrome trim rings and center caps that provided a "mag look" at a fraction of the cost.  Many young people would remove stock steel wheels and replace them with "Crager Mags" which were actually steel wheels with cast hubs, that tended to corrode over time, but looked "cool".  Automakers, realizing that many performance enthusiasts would immediately switch to aftermarket rims, offered many performance cars from the factory with stock steel wheels and cheap "dog dish" hub caps, knowing that they would be removed and discarded by the owners.

Aluminum alloy wheels started making their way into the market at about this time, with slotted aluminum wheels appearing first.  These were lightweight, but rather plain looking.  And since they were usually unfinished aluminum, they tended to corrode over time.  Companies like Mother's offered their famous mag wheel polish to bring back the original aluminum shine.

While originally a performance enhancement - at least in theory - alloy wheels became more of a style statement - that one was a performance enthusiast, and moreover could afford the "serious" alloy wheels as opposed to frivolous wheel covers.  Fake wire spoke wheel covers started to be viewed as the hallmark of a lamer - someone who didn't understand cars.

And alloy wheels started to appear in more numerous forms - and carmakers started offering fake alloy wheels or wheel covers in more forms to mimic the race car look.  By the 1990's, alloy wheels were offered as an option on most cars, and by the 2000's, they were standard on most "upscale" makes in the marketplace.  Today, only the cheapest cars come standard with steel wheels, and nearly every car made has alloy wheels.

And of course, young people, always wanting to look different, take off factory alloy wheels and spend thousands of dollars on odd-sized and shiny "bling" rims (usually shod with the cheapest sort of crap tires) in an effort to stand out.

Are alloy wheels a good deal or not?  Well, for most people, the performance enhancement, if it exists at all, is neglible.  As I noted in my Bling Rims posting, going to heavy, Chinese-made aftermarket over-sized rims is actually a performance downgrade.

Alloy wheels are a great deal - for car manufacturers.  Old-fashioned style steel wheels were inexpensive and fairly generic.  If you bent one, chances are, a replacement was available for $10 in a junk yard.  But with alloy wheels, oftentimes finding a replacement is difficult, and the dealer will want hundreds of dollars for a replacement.  Like composite headlights, this type of technology serves to insure that what was once an inexpensive and generic replacement part, made in bulk and sold by the millions for pennies, is now a limited-production, high-mark-up, hard-to-obtain specialty replacement part.  (HID lights are even more fun, costing more than $1000 per lamp to replace.  We've come a long way from the $5 sealed beam, with little or nothing to show for it.)

You bend an aluminum rim when you hit a pothole, it is an expensive proposition.  You hit the same pothole with a steel rim, and chances are, the steel rim won't bend (steel being tougher than even forged aluminum).  And if it does, a generic replacement is easy to find.

As for performance enhancement, for the average family sedan, there is little you will notice in difference between a car shod with steel rims and one with aluminum ones, other than the aluminum rims will look fancier and be a lot harder to keep clean.

So yea, alloy rims are cool and all, but let's not kid ourselves here, these are just a cosmetic upgrade to a car - to make it look nicer - not some serious performance enhancement for a street car.

And therein lies the rub - alloy rims appear today on cars that are hardly performance machines.  Lowly Camrys and Impalas come shod with alloy rims when in reality these are just transportation devices, and hardly "sporting machines" (despite what the dealer brochure says, or whether you upgraded to "sport" trim levels.

Again, like with composite headlights, this sort of technological "upgrade" was sold to us without much discussion as to whether it was really necessary or better than what was already on the market.  Car makers like to make crash parts expensive and unique, and making headlights different for every car - as well as wheels, makes the cost of crash parts higher, and thus insures a steady income stream from the replacement parts market.

It is funny that this transition took place without anyone really noticing it.  Back in the early 1970's, using common parts between car lines was quite common.  GM had a single door handle shared by all cars except Cadillac.  Ford used the same taillight assembly in its pickups, its vans, and when turned sideways, in the Pinto and Maverick.  The thinking then was that using common parts among lines would make costs lower.  The thinking today is, make parts expensive, so the consumer has to pay more to replace them.  And this sort of thinking drive up collision insurance rates.

Don't get me wrong, I love my alloy wheels, even if they are a pain to clean.  And of course, it is a good idea to take them off occasionally and place a thin film of grease between the alloy rim and the steel hub, as they will tend to weld themselves together over time, due to corrosion.

But as I lurch toward retirement, I realize that what I really want in a car is a low cost of ownership - in terms of cost per mile, overall cost, maintenance cost, fuel cost, and insurance cost.  And while shiny rims and fancy gadgets may be fun and all, I am not sure they really do anything to enhance my life in the long run.

Doing things is better than owning things.

UPDATE 2021:  Since I first wrote this, not much has changed, other than steel wheels are getting harder and harder to find, other than on very "base" models of cars.  It is like trying to find a car without air conditioning, or power windows and locks.  Cars without power steering and brakes?  That would be a lawsuit waiting to happen!

The problem with alloy wheels is that they can be very expensive to replace.  I mentioned "hundreds of dollars" but today that could easily be over $1000 apiece, particularly at dealer prices for high-end cars. Compounding this is the "unintended performance tire buyer" who buys a BMW or Mercedes as general transportation and is chagrined to find out that replacement low-profile, high-speed sports tires are $500 apiece or more, and last only 30,000 miles.

Steel wheels have other advantages, besides those I enumerated above.  If you do hit a pothole and bend one, it may still hold air -  in fact, you may not realize it was bent, until later.  But aluminum rims can crack and blowout.

One other thing - today, most aluminum rims are polished and clearcoated (very few are actual "chrome" as the price of chrome is through the roof).  As a result, if you use the "German wheel cleaner" we all used to use on our plain-aluminum porous BMW or Mercedes rims of the 1970's and 1980's, it will literally strip off the clearcoat and ruin the rims.  In fact, there are very few cleaners, other than soap and water, which are clearcoat-friendly these days.

And speaking of which, why are so many alloy rims to day such a bitch to clean?  It seems the designers intentionally make small nooks and crannies that cannot be washed unless you have child-sized hands!

Steel wheels and plastic hubcaps.  Maybe not sexy, but you can spray-paint those hubcaps when they get scratched or faded.  Or buy new ones for cheap online, or just take them off.