Theme : Wheels – Keeping Them Covered

Driven to Write asks which manufacturers keep their nuts hidden

Rolls Royce Wraith C
1938 Wraith Photo : Ruairidh MacVeigh

The hubcap was originally a device for keeping road muck away from the centre of your wheel. The wheel cover was an expansion of the hubcap to cover the entire outer face of the wheel, thus both lessening the chance of bearings being contaminated and keeping your chauffeur from getting his uniform too dirty when changing wheels. However, I’ll generally use the term hubcap to cover any size of wheel covering.

Peugeot hubcap, bolted in place.

By the immediate pre-War period, the higher-end hubcap had evolved to be the elegant fitting shown on this 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, often painted to complement the rest of the car. Post War, different countries had different preferences. In the US, wheel covers seemed designed to make sure you didn’t forget that the jet age had arrived. In Germany, Mercedes persisted with the body colour painted hubcap whist, with other manufacturers, a generously dome-shaped but otherwise plain cap was favoured. In France the shedding of hubcaps was often prevented by a centrally mounted bolt, fixing it to the wheel.

Hillman Hunter full chrome option

Italy was quite minimalist with a simple chrome disk surrounded by a silver painted perforated wheel. The status conscious UK, naturally, had a more complex system. Lower down it might be a simple push on chrome fitting just covering the wheel nuts. On a better equipped car, this might extend to include a more ornate chrome full surround. Thus was hierarchy defined by wheel trim. Even sporty cars, unless fitted with wires, usually featured hubcaps. For the small percentage who actually went racing or rallying, hubcaps would be removed, to avoid them being shed under duress and allowing wheels to be changed in a hurry. Some everyday drivers might make the same aftermarket modification in order to look like racers by association.

By the 70s, though, manufacturers were realising that they could dump the hubcap for the no frills look. Steel wheels became more chunky, a trend started in the previous decade with the likes of the US Magnum 500 wheel, known as Rostyle in the UK when fitted to Rovers and others. When painted plain silver, this rather suited the austere aura of the time and saved a few pennies as well. Further up the scale, more cars were adopting alloy wheels. For those who wanted alloys, but found the cost prohibitive, aftermarket companies could offer you a tacky alloy wheel lookalike hubcap.

The Faux Alloy Hubcap

Possibly roused by complaints of dirty, tarnished wheelnuts, by the 80s the hubcap had returned, in some cases as a simple central cover but, more often, as the all enveloping wheel cover. Taking a cue from the aftermarket industry, these were designed, almost invariably, to look like an alloy wheel of some sort, often with bogus moulded nuts . They were frequently made of the flimsiest plastic, with the result that it was remarkably easy to shed or shatter a wheel cover meaning a trip to the spares counter for an overpriced replacement. I’ve always found these bogus alloys very irritating. They’re usually designed with no reference to the steel wheel beneath, so have ‘vents’ allowing you to see the complete mismatch with the underlying real vents.

Alloy centre caps, now discarded by most.

In time though, the alloy wheel has become less and less of a special item and the steel wheel and faux-alloy hubcap has been relegated to just entry-level models. There is still the hangover that exposed wheel nuts are, in some way, purposeful. In the 80s and 90s, BMW and Audi made some attempt to put central caps on their alloys, hiding the nuts and keeping them clean for wheel changing but, these days, they seem to have dropped that idea.

Fiat brings back the hubcap.

Some still do though, Fiat and Cadillac for example, and respect for them for that. But really, as someone who lacks a chauffeur to get dirty in his stead, I’d like to see a return to the shameless full hubcap that pretends to be nothing else. Fiat (again) have done this recently with the limited edition ‘1957’ 500. Yes, well … actually I quite like it in a way, but really the whole package is ultimately too knowingly retro for my taste.

But, to end up, let’s go back to Rolls Royce. BMW have shown themselves to be more than sensible custodians of the brand and the current Phantom typifies this. You can, of course, find many pictures of Phantoms pimped up on entirely unsuitable wheels proving that, if BMW understands the brand, many customers do not, but the original wheels are a masterpiece.

They chose not to bring the body colour into the wheel, a practice that continued up to the Silver Seraph, but instead using a reasonably restrained yet substantial looking alloy, with a central hubcap. But of course the piece de resistance was that the central RR logo spun freely in the cap, so that when the car moved it remained dignified and upright, encapsulating everything that Rolls would have you think about the brand. If only other manufacturers would put so much care into their hubcaps.

Phantom B

3 thoughts on “Theme : Wheels – Keeping Them Covered”

  1. indeed, it is a shame, most of the car manufacturers do not focus their creativity on wheel design.
    Or, if they want to be creative, the results are sometimes strange, if you want to be polite and want to avoid to call them just ugly.

    Here are 2 examples:
    The wheels on the Opel Adam Rocks are looking expensive and vulgar – they seemed to be constructed from a dillettantish drawing of an unsuccessful tattooist.

    Audi has created an alternative to centre caps (that i like too) to protect the nuts. The result is a black octopus that is easily able to disturb every fine wheel design.

    I already mentioned the C4 Cactus, the Fiat 500 and the VW Up! as remarkable exceptions from this trend.

  2. I’ve seen that “pentopus” in the flesh yesterday. It really looks odd. But right next to it, I came across an example from the same house which I always found quite nice and distinctive in spite of its first-sight simplicity. It’s from an era where it was still OK to have a car with steel wheels, and therefore it was worthwhile to design good wheel covers:

  3. The Adam’s wheels are very horrid. In addition they’re are that irritating kind that have a ‘direction’, so have a different dynamic when viewed from one side of the car than the other.

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