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Vintage Hoopla - Summer 2014

What’s What in the World of Vintage Wheels

By Steve Magnante, Photography by Car Craft Archives

Before 1963, the world of custom aftermarket rims was a very small one. Most existing wheels were competition designs meant for circle-track use. Today, we have five decades of aftermarket wheel output to choose from—some good, some not. As we seek to relive the good old days, lots of guys are building replicas and tributes in lieu of the real thing. Knowing that after paint color, wheels are the first to strike the eye, so the right choice is paramount.

Unless you're over the age of 50, you'll likely have no frame of reference of when a certain type of wheel came on the scene or when it was outdated and passed up in favor of a modern replacement. So here's a primer on the more popular wheel types of the golden age of hot rodding and street machining. There's no better resource than vintage images to provide the right guidance in these modern days, where there are literally a thousand wheel choices. Let's look to the past to see the future.

Custom Automotive AA/A Bantam

The Custom Automotive 6-71 blown Chevy small-block motivated AA/A Bantam of late '65 rolls on a timeless American Racing Equipment (ARE) big-'n'-little rim combo. The five-spoke 15x10 magnesium Torq-Thrust rear wheels had been in production for three years when this photo was taken. At the front of the car, the one-piece, cast-magnesium, 12-spoke, spindle-mount front rims were a major breakthrough. Before they first appeared in 1959, builders of strip-only machinery seeking low nose weight had few choices: delicate motorcycle rims, heavy stamped steel passenger-car rims, and aluminum or magnesium circle-track race wheels that were thicker than necessary for dragging. ARE founder Romeo Palamides responded by designing the light yet strong 12-spoke: safe for cars weighing as much as 3,000 pounds, capable of surviving wheelstands without bending, and never in need of mechanical maintenance. Accordingly, they were narrow and offered in 15x31⁄2, 17x21⁄2, and 18x21⁄2 sizes, the latter two arriving in the mid '60s for fuel-altered applications. Further, the 12-spokes have an integral hub, which eliminates the added weight of wheel studs and mounting flange. But in today's hot rodding melting pot, where old and new trends are blending like Ellis Island on crack, the look of the classic 12 has been revived in Rocket's Launcher wheel line. Though they only have 10 spokes, the integration of a five-bolt center flange allows them to be used on street cars.

Ramchargers Digger

Best remembered for their candy-striped Super Stockers and altered-wheelbase A/FX door-slammers, the Ramchargers campaigned a series of highly competitive Top Fuel dragsters from 1964 through 1969. Here's the '68 team car at the NHRA Winternationals with driver Charlie Kurzawa between a pair of magnesium Halibrand Sprint wheels, as he's being pushed down the strip in a prerace parade lap. Like many Sprint wheels, these have 10 wheel-stud holes (of which only five are used at one time), a cost-cutting measure performed by Halibrand for the benefit of smaller retail outlets. Since there are several popular bolt circles employed in drag racing, Ted Halibrand designed the Sprint with a neutral center flange. Unlike dedicated five-spoke rim types, such as the Torq-Thrust, Keystone Kustomag/Klassic, or Cragar S/S, the Sprint's oval slots and abbreviated spokes don't intrude into the center flange to dictate the wheel-stud pattern, and because of this, two bolt patterns can be applied to the same wheel.

Jack Merkel '33 Willys

Exposed steel wheels have always played an important role in hot rodding. In this image from 1965, the austere rear wheels under New York race engine builder Jack Merkel's 9.8/145-mph '33 Willys coupe contrast sharply with its single-bolt-pattern magnesium Halibrand Sprints. The disparity creates visual tension and reminds there are just as many varieties of factory-issue stamped steel wheels as there are shiny aftermarket alloy goodies. It's a world your author has studied for decades, and rest assured, there is more to Merkel's rear wheels than meets the eye. Close scrutiny identifies the centers as Pontiac taxi/police fleet service units, readily identified by the lack of hub-cap mounting nubs. Standard Pontiac wheel centers have these integrally pressed nubs. The large 5-on-5 bolt axle pattern—versus the front wheel's 5-on-41⁄2—also gives them away as being Oldsmobile parts, a logical choice since Merkel's Willys was fitted with a Olds axle, which accepts Pontiac wheels. To complete the wheels, 15x8 hoops with backspacing adjusted to ideally locate the Goodyear wrinkle-wall slicks in the cramped Willys wheelhouses. After a coat of gunmetal gray, the work was done. Merkel, then 28, made the jump from B/GS to A/GS with this yellow '33 Willys in 1965. This is the very car that beat the "unbeatable" Ohio George Montgomery's Willys at the '65 Indy Nationals. As a result, Montgomery scored a 427 Cammer and beat Merkel for the AA/G trophy at the '66 NHRA Indy Nationals.

Stilleto AA/G Dragster

The Colson, Wood, Peters Stiletto AA/G slingshot combined magnesium 15x8 Halibrand Sprint wheels with M&H 9.20-15 Racemaster Dragster tires for the final word in traction in those pre-wrinkle-wall days. Sprints were manufactured with a variety of window dimensions, and generally speaking, the smaller the window the earlier the wheel. In 1964, these slots were of the medium-window variety and lack the integral perimeter lips cast into some medium-slot wheels and all succeeding large-slot wheels. Seasoned spotters will note the presence of a narrowed Pontiac/Oldsmobile rear axle. The brake drum-to-axleshaft pilot register, visible through the circular hub register hole in the center of the rim, reveals the four-tab configuration common to this popular and rugged Hotchkiss-type GM axle. Aftermarket billet axleshafts were not yet available. These early GM big car axles have a 5-on-5-inch bolt circle. The dual-bolt pattern concept (elsewhere in this article) wasn't common on pre-'65 Sprint wheels. Ted Halibrand began producing magnesium wheels in 1946 and found immediate success with open-wheel racers. Every Indy 500 winner from 1946 through 1963 was equipped with Halibrand rims and all original offerings were strictly magnesium. Aluminum variants arrived after he sold the business and retired in 1979.

By Steve Magnante
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