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They're getting bigger, bolder and, yes, pricier
By: Jeff Yip
January 03, 2005

If it glitters, it must be gold. Times four. Just ask anyone who confronted the chrome canyons of aftermarket wheels at the recent Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) trade show in Las Vegas, the annual love fest of automotive speed, performance and style purveyors.

Row after row of brilliant wheels clamored for buyers' attention.

Custom wheels have come a long way since the 1950s when Biff chucked the hubcaps and painted his stock steel wheels white or black and stuck them back on, reversed. But the psychology hasn't changed one bit. Men-and yes, women, too-still want their vehicle to stand out. There's no more drama for the buck than a set of custom wheels. Besides, the tab for a set of ego-gratifying wheels is a bargain compared to a year of psychoanalysis.

The show-off factor this season escalated with gimmicks such as diamond encrusted wheels and even a high-tech lure: wheels that run their own light show or spell out a message via embedded LEDs. The high-tech comes at a high price, though-$12,000 for four, and that's wholesale.

Those goods might fly off the package delivery trucks if you trade mainly with sports and entertainment stars (or their agents.) But what if you want to do a little prospecting in aftermarket wheels for mere mortals?

The watchwords for 2005 are: Go lightly. There's grave concern among wheel makers and tire specialists that the explosion in wheel diameters are going to bite vehicle owners who have invested large amounts of cash (or credit) with minuscule amounts of research.

``As 20-, 22-, even 24-inch become more mainstream, the focus will be on the weight of the wheels,`` said Nicole Sheehy of Center Line Wheel Corp., based in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. ``In these larger sizes, putting heavy cast wheels on a vehicle is equivalent to installing four anchors. The vehicle is obviously not going to perform well. In some cases, the overall weight of the wheels could exceed the braking capacity of the vehicle.

``Wheels are rotating mass-that is, unsprung weight. Every one-pound reduction in rotating mass is equivalent to an approximately eight-pound reduction in static weight. With lighter wheels, there is a benefit from increased fuel savings, quicker braking, improved tire wear and better acceleration.''

High-quality forged wheels are significantly lighter weight and stronger than cast wheels, wheel makers point out. Ms. Sheehy said advances in technology have made forged wheels more affordable. For example, Center Line sells a 20-inch forged wheel for $159, has a 22-inch for $239 and offers a 24-inch for $399. That, she said, is less than many cast wheels.

``It's a shame when people naively put very heavy wheels on the vehicle,'' Ms. Sheehy told Tire Business. ``In our opinion, they have downgraded, not upgraded.''

On the horizon

To spot what's hot in wheels, look overseas to Europe and Asia. Doing so has helped HRE Performance Wheels grow 15 to 20 percent a year since 1999, said John Wallace, vice president of sales for the Vista, Calif.-based manufacturer of high-end wheels.

HRE saw the wheel market expand in the late 1990s as the then-new Porsche 996 (also known as the 911) fit larger wheels. It was a matter of ``form following function,'' Mr. Wallace explained, as wheels started to accommodate bigger brakes and racing-inspired ultra-high-performance street tires from Pirelli, Dunlop and Michelin.

``It started snowballing,'' he said. ``We look back at wheel forefathers like Lorinzer and AMG. They started the trend over in Europe. We saw 16s and 17s then and now it's about 18s and 19s. When does the ceiling stop?''

Mr. Wallace said HRE, a SEMA member for 25 years, has been ``riding the wave'' of demand for race-ready wheels.

``A lot of guys are buying 997s and 996s. They really have the itch to take them to the track and drive these cars. To help them do that we've introduced our C series. We bolt them together with titanium so they're very strong and very light. We take the wheel center and optimize them for the bolt pattern. We remove material you don't need to reduce as much unsprung weight as possible. You wind up with great clearance, and they start at 17 pounds. ''

He categorizes aftermarket custom wheels into three groups:

* A commodity wheel is inexpensive and found in tire-and-wheel packages that sell for less than $1,000.

* Tuner wheels range from $250 each to $800 per unit, without tires. Such wheels are typically cast, meaning the metal is poured into a mold. ``It's got a lot of porosity so it's a thicker and heavier wheel,'' Mr. Wallace said.

* Forged wheels are made from compressed aluminum and cost from $900 to $2,000. ``All our wheels are three-piece, fully forged and made with 6061-T6 aircraft-strength aluminum alloy,'' he noted.

HRE's new 940R series of performance wheels is aimed at European sport-utility vehicles such as the Mercedes-Benz ML and Porsche Cayenne and larger cars like the BMW 7 series. They also make private label wheels, including those on the exotic mid-engined Saleen S7.

Wheel fashions are a moving target-for retailers gambling on what will sell and for manufacturers in Asia and the former Eastern bloc countries that flood the market with their version of the modern knock-off wheel: imitations.

A hot design has a ``shelf life of a year, tops,`` said Jeff Curran of Group A Inc. in Chandler, Ariz. ``I'm not manufacturing the stuff from the back of my shop. I have to buy it from someplace. So when I have an idea of a trend or a look, I hope my crystal ball is leading down the right path.''

Mr. Curran said deep wheel lips are popular now because it ``gives the illusion of power. Like the car's ready to pounce.'' It's a styling trait that was in style 30 years ago, illustrating that wheel trends can come full circle over time.

``You can't make the wheel a square. The circle still has to accommodate certain characteristics like load, width and diameter,'' he said. ``Yet everyone wants exclusivity. I've had people come in here and want to buy a set of bling-bling wheels, but they'll say, `Don't sell it to anyone else.'

``They want to have exclusivity to that particular style. That's just not realistic.''

Group A, which also has a store in North Lindenhurst, N.Y., sells mainly to tire dealers, car dealers and mom-and-pop shops. The business operators identify niches they want to be in, researches fitment and works with wheel manufacturers like ROH Wheels to produce designs tailored to their markets.

Mr. Curran said they enjoy their relationship with the Australian foundry because the company has been in business 50 years and its quality is a given, since it supplies OEM wheels to major auto makers.

Selling power

The custom wheel business can be brutal. On one hand, brick-and-mortar stores like Group A can be competing against ``some kid using the Internet from his basement or bedroom,'' said Mr. Curran. ``He doesn't have the overhead, the insurance costs. With the Internet you can appear to be bigger than you are.''

But the Web also can be cultivated.

``I spend a lot of time looking for car clubs or message boards,'' he said. ``We'll chat with them, and it can be helpful. The members will get together and do these group buys. We got involved with a guy here locally who knew everything there is about the Buick Grand National, a muscle car built in 1986 and 1987. He got a car done and used our wheels. It got published in GM High-Tech Performance magazine, and we've been riding the wave ever since.''

Mr. Curran also sees European performance cars as attractive. ``We look for the second, third or fourth owner. He'll spend his $30,000 or $40,000 to buy a used performance car. He's spending that cash to buy a car that evokes speed and power. That guy is a better candidate to buy wheels and suspension components. The guy buying a new Porsche is going to go: `For $80,000 this car had better be perfect!'''

Auto makers are tuned into the selling power of a sweet set of wheels. Ford Motor Co. chief designer George Bucher described the 18-inch OEM alloy wheel on Mercury's new midsize sedan, the Montego, as ``a very classic design'' that ``blends a traditional luxury element-a spoke-like wheel-with a modern technical milled finish.''

And Ford's aggressive on the aftermarket side, too. The 2004 Ford Racing Performance Parts catalog offered 30 wheel styles aimed at everything from Mustangs to F-150 Lightnings to Focus sport compacts. The 2005 catalog lists 48 with eight new styles.

Catalogs, whether paper or online, can help rack up sales. Even before he took possession of his blue 2004 Pontiac GTO, Greg Kopple found his 19x8 inch ROH Fury wheels on the Net. The cost: $1,500.

``I was interested in a larger wheel to fill up the gap between the fender and wheel and allow for a larger brake to fit in between,'' said the Fairfield, Calif., quality control engineer. ``There are a few other ROH wheels that caught my eye, but I just love the five-spoke design and how plain it really is. There's no fake rivets.''

* * *

Potential weight savings of forged vs. cast wheels

* 20X8.5 forged wheel = 28 lbs.; * cast wheel = 50 lbs.

* 22X9 forged wheel = 35 lbs.; * cast wheel = 78 lbs.

* 20X8.5 forged wheel = 42 lbs.; * cast wheel = 100 lbs.

Source: Center Line Wheel Corp.

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