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age of 50, you'll likely have no frame of reference of when a certain type of wheel came on the scene or when it was outdated and passed up in favor of a modern replacement.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.
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.
'32 Ford "Thunderbolt" vs. Charlie Allen '65 A900 in A/MP
New for 1964, the NHRA's Modified Production spurred unlikely matchups like this '65 A/MP pairing between Charlie Allen's standard-wheelbase '65 Dodge A990 Hemi and the 427 high-riser-powered Ed Martin Ford '32 roadster. Regardless of class, successful drag racers came prepared with several different compounds to suit changing track conditions. To control cost, the extra slicks were mounted to stamped steel wheels, as seen here. Up front, the wheel and tire combo is more or less permanent, so the one-time investment in lightweight aftermarket rollers was justified. Allen's Dodge sports American Racing 15x4 magnesium Torq-Thrusts, while the Deuce's nose rides on Radirs. Factory-issued on '64 Race Hemi Mopars and '65 A/FX Ford Mustangs, the skinny 15x4 Torq-Thrusts weigh 10.5 pounds each. By contrast, the Radir's steel hoop-on-cast-aluminum center construction comes in at about 16 pounds bare. According to a July '65 Radir wheel ad, the same basic wheel was offered with various surface textures and polishing treatments for a total of 15 varieties, a shrewd way to maximize tooling expenditures. We're fascinated by the Ed Martin Deuce. The Thunderbolt Jr. logo hints at the full-tilt 427 Thunderbolt high-riser FE mill under its clamshell hood. Dig how the louvered hood has been slashed to make way for the flexible T-Bolt cold-air ducts.
Jack Chrisman's Red SOHC Cyclone Door-Slammer
Jolly Jack Chrisman's Super Cyclone was the sport's first blown fuel Funny Car. Hatched in 1964 with white paint, Sachs & Sons Lincoln-Mercury sponsorship, and packing a 6-71 huffed 427 wedge, it was transformed for the '65 match-racing season with red paint, a mid-mounted 427 SOHC, and Model A–style front suspension (as seen here). The '65 revamp was focused on the forward half of the car, so the T-Bolt style traction arm rear suspension and huge 15x10 American Racing Torq-Thrust mags of '64 remained in place. Along with the '65 switch to Cammer motivation, the A-arm front suspension and five-bolt polished magnesium 15x4 Torq-Thrusts were swapped for a dropped straight axle, single transverse leaf spring, and spindle-mount Halibrands. The switch excised more than 100 pounds and increased static and dynamic ride height for enhanced weight transfer. Note how the header tubes and front-sump oil pan sump are 2 feet farther back in the chassis versus stock. This modification, which required Chrisman to drive from the rear seat area, produced the same result on front-rear weight distribution as altering the wheelbase but with less bodywork and no loss in product identification.
Street Cleaner A/SR
The Street Cleaner A/Street Roadster combines 15x4 magnesium American Racing Torq-Thrusts and chromed, reverse wheels. The term "reversed wheels" refers to the practice of flipping the center spider 180 degrees in the steel hoop to alter the backspacing in search of a deeper look and added inboard tire sidewall clearance. The better offerings were chromed, while they were cut apart for complete plating coverage, thus eliminating frosted regions (thin plating) where the hoop and spider meet. In the '60s, the pioneers were Appliance Plating, Sebring, and Shore-Calnevar. The Cleaner's drive wheels were fitted with wider-than-stock hoops at about 7 or 8 inches in width. The exotic Torq-Thrusts and workaday steelies aren't the only cool mismatch here.
Unknown 392 Digger vs. Jerry Ruth
NHRA starter Buster Couch is set to send Jerry Ruth and an unidentified Top Fueler on their way in this circa '66–'67 shot. The Halibrand Sprints on the back of the no-name digger in the near lane show just one of the many possible hole patterns for those wheels. In contrast to the usual five slots, these have but four, a trait of rims built in the '58–'62 period. So, too, is the presence of a single bolt pattern, likely a 5-on-5 circle to suit the Olds/Pontiac rear axles used by the majority of Top Fuelers at this time. As reference, magnesium was first discovered in 1808 by Sir Humphry Davy but didn't see widespread use until WWII, when its superior strength-to-weight ratio made it an ideal choice for military aircraft applications. A block of iron weighing 451⁄2 pounds only weighs 10 pounds if rendered in magnesium. Halibrand didn't use pure magnesium, but rather an alloy consisting of 88–92 percent magnesium combined with other metals to improve fatigue strength, deflection characteristics, and surface stability. The same formula was and still is used in aircraft wheels. Halibrand pin-drive knock-off rims were the choice for the limited-production 427 Shelby Cobra– and LeMans-winning GT-40 race programs. Studebaker also dabbled with Halibrand wheels in '64–'65, adding them to the Avanti and Lark Daytona option books.
'55 Chevy C'Gas Butch Thuney
Function and form roll hand in hand, especially when they're presented in their raw, as-cast state. Butch Thuney's double-Sprint- equipped (15x31⁄2/15x8) shoe box ran a 327, using a four-speed stick and a 10 percent engine set-back. Butch likely spent plenty of time keeping his rims shiny with hours of elbow grease and gobs of polishing compound. Magnesium has been referred to as a "living metal," and unless protected with a chemical coating like Dow 7, which lends a gold tint, exposure to humid air rapidly causes the shine to become dull gray. If ignored long enough, the gray darkens and white snow-like speckles make pits and deep craters on the surface. Worse, if washed with soap containing lye, stains are immediate. A classic mistake occurs during tire mounting if an installer uses soapy water to lubricate tire beads. Excess soap is trapped inside the wheel and along the bead surface where it turns into a corrosion factory. Safe assembly involves straight water and a very small amount of wax for lube.
Dick Loehr Max Curtis Flip-Top Mustang with 392
Dick Loehr's '68 Mustang flip-top fuel Funny Car helped boost the image of Cragar S/S wheels as being more than shiny street stuff. The S/S debuted in late '64 as a composite design with a steel hoop and die-cast aluminum spider. Since aluminum and steel cannot be welded, the die-cast aluminum spiders were made with steel tabs trapped within the aluminum spokes. The tabs were then bead-welded to the hoop and provided much greater union area than any standard pressed steel wheel, which was usually pinch- or spot-welded. They were quite viable. A period test conducted by Bell Auto Parts slammed an S/S with a 42,500-psi load without failure. The test was twice as harsh as that used by the Tire and Rim Association for certifying wheels used on new Detroit passenger cars. Despite the weight handicap, the Cragar's fantastic looks and durable chrome finish were an instant success. Loehr may have been one-time captain of the Ford Drag Racing Team, with sponsorship from Max Curtis Ford, but by 1968, his Stampede Mustang was running a Chrysler 392 in place of previous 427 SOHC powerplants. The switch was triggered by Ford's termination of all SOHC parts support—the Boss 429 was less than a year away. Dick's 7.86-second flopper rolled on the same 15x41⁄2 Cragar S/S front wheels sold by Honest Charlie, Goodies Speed Shop, Gratiot Auto Supply, and countless others, but the 16x10 rear rims were custom-made by Cragar's specialty shop.
Mondello's Fiat Topolino Fuel Altered
The first AA/FA to run in the 8s and the 7s, the Joe Mondello and Sush Matsubara Fiat Topolino bombs off the Pomona Winternationals starting line. The fuel-burning 472 Chevy stroker puts its 900-plus horsepower to the tarmac via 12-inch-wide, polished Halibrand Sprints. Up front, the 12-spoke Halibrands ride the spindles of a dropped straight axle attached to the frame by a single transverse leaf spring and radius rods. Prone to wheelstands, Fuel Altered pilots quickly learned not to trust laced spoke wheels. By contrast, Halibrand's rigid spokes are 3⁄4-inch thick to withstand hard landings. Starting in 1965, Mondello and Matsubara ran Topolinos, competing in Injected Gas, Injected Alcohol, Blown Gas, and Blown Alcohol, before moving into Blown Fuel in 1968 with this car. Mondello often praised Sush's driving ability by saying even though he often read both sides of the lettering on the car body as it crossed the finish line, Sush never crashed the Fiat. He passed in 2006 at age 70; Joe followed in 2011 at 75. Because it was used in incendiary bombs during WWI and WWII, magnesium earned a bad rap for being flammable. The truth is you really have to work at starting the fire. With sustained exposure to 1,000-degree Fahrenheit heat, magnesium will ignite. Spraying it with water is like adding gasoline; the flames grow more intense. The only way to extinguish the fire is by smothering it with sand to end access to air.
Landy's '68 Charger A/MP with Tri-Ear Knock-Off Centers
Following a corporate pull-out from Funny Car racing in 1967, Dodge door-slammer drag star Dick Landy re-set his sights on carbureted stockers. He entered the '68 drag season with a fleet of red/orange-on-silver Dodges that included pairs of Hemi Darts and Chargers and a 440-powered Coronet R/T. Here's the team's "outlaw" R/T running Modified Production at the ‘68 Winternationals. The one detail virtually every Landy drag car had since his stretch-nose '66 injected-fuel Dart was Cragar S/S wheels. Despite its 12.5:1 cross-rammed Race Hemi, slick-shifted A833 four-speed transmission, 4.88:1-geared Dana 60, and sticky 10-1/2x15 Goodyears, the 15x6 Cragars on Landy's 10.49/132 A/MP Charger are not in any danger of being overpowered. Up front, the 41⁄2-inch S/S wheels carry Goodyear 8.55-15 tires at 55 psi for reduced rolling resistance. Landy added faux knock-off center caps to all of his S/S-equipped cars for extra eye appeal. Normal wheel-casting techniques involve pouring molten metal (aluminum or magnesium) into a sand-based mold. Complete filling is assured by manually tilting and shaking the mold to eliminate air pockets, known as "cold shuts." Die casting is a completely different process because the molten metal is injected under extreme pressure—at as much as 8,000 psi—packing every nook of the mold and condensing the metal for maximum density and strength. The process is very costly, but the end product requires less finish machine work and has more consistent grain structure for maximized strength.
Seaton's Super Shaker Nova Flopper
Pete Seaton was the son of a well-placed GM executive, and though GM officially quit racing in March 1963, Seaton always managed to get the latest big-block goodies for his independent match racers. After racing a pair of Chevelle door-slammers and two Corvairs (one a 190-mph flip-top), Seaton built the Super Shaker Nova for the '69 season. Its Logghe Stamping tube chassis, one-piece Fiberglass Trends body, 499-cube blown fuel Rat, and B&M modified Turbo 400 automatic roll on an interesting combination of American Racing wheels. The unique independent front suspension sits on 15x4 magnesium spindle mounts, essentially ARE's '68 response to Halibrand's preexisting 12-spoke wheel. Patterned after the Torq-Thrust but with thinner spokes and the elimination of the lug flange, they were offered in aluminum and magnesium and quickly replaced the 12-spoke as the TF/FC racer's front wheel of choice through the early '70s. Out back, Seaton employed an unusual variant, based on the new-for-'69 200-S/Daisy wheel. Most Daisies were of one-piece aluminum construction, but ARE management wanted its latest offering to also have a Top Fuel presence. To suit the new wave of 16-inch-diameter Goodyear and M&H slicks hitting the scene, ARE conjured the magnesium 16x10 rims seen on the back of the Super Shaker. Sold as style S2, five sets of two fasteners, located between the spokes, held the rim halves together. This modular construction strategy allowed for changes in wheel width and backspacing without the need to replace the entire rim.
Kumpf Motors High Country Cougar Funny
The '67 Kumpf Motors High Country Cougar flip-top Funny Car team had better things to do than polish wheels. Maybe that's why they chose as-cast Halibrand Sprints to twist the M&H wrinkle walls. To some eyes, the sight of non-polished mags is blasphemy. To others, the grainy texture fully reveals the intricate beauty and is the only way to fly. The striking red and white Cougar, driven by Ron Leslie, also ran non-polished Halibrands up front. Like the team's Kenz & Leslie '66 Comet flopper, spindle-mount, five-hole, kidney-bean rims were again employed for 1967. Interestingly, L-M issued the debut Comets with 6-inch-wide Halibrand Sprints, keeping with the notion that narrow rims helped maximize the footprint of the 10-inch slicks. But by 1967, it was obvious that wider rims were just as effective and afforded much better top-end handling. Wide rims align the tire sidewalls more vertically beneath the tread, reducing high-speed sway and squirm—a lifesaver as Funny Car speeds rapidly approached 180 mph. Thus, we see that the High Country Cougar rolls on 15x8s.
'68 Hurst/Olds Convertible
In 1965, as a response to the Keystone Kustomag and Cragar S/S, Hurst business partner Bill Campbell unveiled the Dazzler. Unlike the die-cast aluminum centers used in competing composite wheels, this wheel used a patented, forged aluminum center spider made by Harvey Aluminum. Riveted to Kelsey-Hayes steel outer rims, the Dazzler was touted as the strongest aftermarket wheel available.
Photographed at the '68 NHRA Winternationals, L.V. does her Miss Golden Shifter act while perched atop one of two Hurst/Olds ragtops built that year (only one with Dazzler rims). Despite aggressive marketing efforts that included full-page ads, Dazzlers were heavy and expensive at as much as four times the price of competing wheels. Each rim carried a specific sequential identification number and lifetime warranty, and thanks to a variety of paint, surface texture, trim ring, center cap, and lug-nut designs, more than 100 combinations were possible. Much to someone's dismay, Dazzler wheels enjoyed not a dot of popularity, and even Hurst-modified Detroit muscle cars were not retail-equipped with Dazzlers. The program was quietly terminated in mid-'69.
Car Craft 340 Dart Swinger
Car Craft teamed with Dodge and numerous advertisers in 1969 to prepare this nifty Dart Swinger 340 giveaway. For maximum exposure, mismatched wheels were used. The rears are Cragar S/S composite 14x6 die-cast aluminum and steel—small-bolt-pattern Mopar Cragars were never offered with a 15-inch hoop diameter. The Cragar name is a mash-up of Depression-era investor Crane Gartz' first and last names. Up front, what initially appear to be American Torq-Thrusts are actually Cragar Swinger wheels. New for 1969, the Swinger, also marketed as the S/X, was Cragar's first one-piece, all-aluminum five-spoke. Visually, the Swinger emulated the Torq-Thrust's one-piece cast appearance but with subtle differences. First, the center cap lacks mounting ears. Cragar devised internal mounts using five screws to secure the caps from the inside of the rim, making removal impossible with the wheel on the car. A round plate with a single machine screw to keep them in place retained Cragar S/S centers. The Swinger wheel is not to be confused with the Cragar G/T, which was an unpolished five-spoke that emulated the no-nonsense look of magnesium racing wheels—at one fifth the price. Introduced in 1967, the G/T used an unpolished steel hoop with a die-cast aluminum five-spoke center spider that differed from the S/S in that it extended all the way to the edge of the rim hoop.
Cross-Eyed Duster Pro Stock in Pits Getting Trans Fixed
By the time this fresh '71 Hemi Duster Pro Stocker was photographed, Keystone's Kustomag wheel had been in production for five years and had been renamed Keystone Klassic. Aside from a change in the K cast into the center cap (from script to block font), the wheel design was otherwise unaltered. Like the Cragar S/S, Keystone used die-cast aluminum center spiders with integral steel tabs that allowed them to be welded securely to chromed steel hoops, but the result wasn't much lighter than a traditional stamped steel wheel of the same dimensions. One of the most prominent Keystone customers was Sox & Martin, and every S&M Plymouth from 1965 to 1971 rolled on them. The team campaigned a Hemi Duster in 1970, often piloted by Herb McCandless while Ronnie wheeled the team's 'Cuda, but this cross-eyed rig ain't it. Note the upscale Duster Twister grille, deep-sump pan, Weiand tunnel ram with clear plastic spark-plug holder for between rounds maintenance, and lightweight Hurst Airheart front disc brakes. The extreme toe-in tells us the steering tie rod has been disconnected, perhaps to allow oil-pan removal for bearing inspection. Ironically, Cragar now owns and manufactures the Klassic, which is commonly available in several popular sizes.
Dick Landy's '75ish Dart Sport
The two-piece Cragar Super Trick arrived in 1971 and marked a controversial turning point in aftermarket wheel design. Lacking spokes, slots, ribs, or vents, the Super Trick was virtually devoid of character in the traditional sense yet made a very distinct statement. The novel spun aluminum construction left a multitude of fine lines in the textured surface of the wheel, not unlike that of a 331⁄3 record, and the 15 bolts used to hold the wheel halves together lent a no-nonsense vibe. Best of all, it was lighter than any preceding race wheel, even the best magnesium offerings. Immediately, Top Fuel and Pro Stock racers ditched their traditional rims for Super Tricks. By 1972, they were common on the dragstrip, but the lightweight design was easily damaged on the street. To satisfy the lucrative street market, the Super Trick concept was watered down into the SST (Street Super Trick), which swapped exotic spun aluminum construction for a heavy steel hoop and die-cast aluminum center. Since the Super Trick's distinctive record album texture couldn't be rendered in the cast aluminum pancake, thick chrome was substituted. Worst of all, Cragar added a constellation of fake bolts around the inner circumference of the hoop, but none of that detracts from the lean and mean Super Tricks seen here on Dick Landy's '74 Dart Sport B/Gas contender. A Cragar-sponsored racer since 1967, the 15x3 front wheels are spindle-mounted, though bolt-ons were also offered.
Arlen Vanke Duster Pro Stock
Fenton rolled through the '60s as a proprietor of down-market copycat wheel offerings like the Ram Rod, a cheap steel-hooped take on the five-spoke American Racing Torq-Thrust. But for 1970, Fenton struck pay dirt with the lightweight Gyro. A one-piece machined aluminum item, the Gyro was offered in several sizes and quickly became the darling of early Pro Stock racers looking for a lighter alternative to heavy composite wheels. Here, "Akron Arlen" Vanke has invaded an Arco station for some impromptu night work beneath his '70 Duster Pro Stocker. This brutal four-speed monster rides on 15x31⁄2 and 15x81⁄2 Gyros. But the industry's first slotted aluminum wheel was the Ansen Sprint, which arrived in 1963, not the Gyro. Despite sharing its name with Ted Halibrand's more costly magnesium Sprint wheels (first by several years), somehow Ansen and Halibrand never met in court. From the "payback is a bitch" department, numerous wheel makers, including American Racing, Cragar, Mickey Thompson, U.S. Indy, Superior, and Fenton, quickly latched onto Ansen's unprotected five-slot dish design with copycat versions of the Sprint slotted wheel. The Fenton magic was offering the Gyro in an ultra-skinny 15x31⁄2 size, perfect for drag racers looking for the lightest front rims possible.