Wheels (Revisited) – Wheely Good Retro Fun

Almost six years after the subject featured in one of DTW’s now legendary monthly themes, a chance sighting of a favourite alloy wheel design inspires a revisit.

FIAT 500 Anniversario Vintage Alloy Wheel (source: author’s photo)

Alloy wheels. Like air conditioning and electric rear windows, these were once the preserve of the most expensive model ranges, trim-levels, or, the cost-options list. These days you’ve got to be looking very hard in the lowest price reaches of the car listings in What Car? to find a model without them as standard.

As such, given that I instinctively look at every single car that comes within the range of my spectacle-enhanced eyesight, it’s a notably rare occurrence for an alloy wheel design to catch my eye these days. So, when I do, it shines out and begs for my attention.

Exhibit ‘A’ is a photo I took of the alloy wheel on a used FIAT 500 Anniversario which just happens to be currently sitting on the raised forecourt of our local KIA/ Mazda dealership. The Anniversario itself is a very nice, if pricey, special edition (if you like that kind of thing) which came in Riviera Green or Sicilia Orange with lots of late-50’s/ early-60’s retro nods, including extra chrome strips and what are described as Vintage alloys.

FIAT 500 Anniversario in its full glory (source: Motoring Matters)

I’m aware Richard briefly covered the Anniversario in November 2017, but I trust no one will mind me revisiting it via its 16″ alloy wheels. The design is knowingly kitsch, the impact being of a chrome hub-capped, white-painted steel wheel with chrome rim embellisher. The effect is somewhat diluted when one realises that the hub-cap is plastic of a grade something between a frisbee and Tupperware, but you do have to get very close up for that reality to spoil things.

Call me romantic, old-fashioned, or devoid of good taste, but there’s a vague sense of Americana about this design; it’s definitely more Grease than La Dolce Vita to my eyes. I am pleased, though, that FIAT avoided the temptation to fit whitewall tyres – that would have tipped things out of the kitsch into the twee.

Exhibit ‘B’ is a photo sourced off the inter-web of another recent gem, this time from VW. In this case, it’s a very close recreation of a classic Beetle’s steel wheel and featured on certain versions of the second re-boot of the Beetle (A5 – 2011 to 2019). It’s known as the Heritage wheel.

Exhibit ‘B’ – A5 Beetle Heritage Wheel (source: NewBeetle.com)

This wheel caught my attention during the first lockdown. I started to walk our dog around the town early in the morning before I started work from my front bedroom. The route varied from day to day, but invariably involved me walking past this house which has a red example of the A5 Beetle on the Heritage wheels. I’ll admit that I had cared little for this version of the Beetle until this point, but the care in the design of the alloys made me reappraise the whole car.

Whereas its predecessor was a playful, geometric caricature of the T1 on the outside, which forced an extended expanse of plastic between the base of the windscreen and the dashboard (with vase appendage) on the inside, the A5 Beetle has more of the feel of those 70’s and 80’s ‘hot-rod’ conversions which I recall from playing Top Trumps. It has more of a clenched-fist look about it; less delicate, more butch. Inside, the dashboard is more retro, with the use of body-colour painted panels enveloping the dash – most noticeably for the lid to the glovebox.

I think that, overall, the A5 has suffered in comparison with the first ‘New Beetle’, losing some of that car’s novelty factor.  However, I now find it more satisfying, a view literally underpinned by the Heritage alloys.

The car on the wheels which caught my eye (source: author’s photo)

As you can see from the photos, the Heritage is quite a simple but authentic design: they come with either a black or matte-silver coloured base wheel, crowned by a VW embossed chrome hub, and embellished by a chrome trims for the rim. There’s a lot of love from them on the various VW fora I skirted as part of my research for this piece (no, I don’t expect you could tell), with various queries and answers as to how to adapt them to fit on T6 vans, Golfs, even Passats, etc.

My final offering, Exhibit ‘C’ is a bit of a cheat in that – refreshingly – the wheels aren’t alloy at all, but instead, are unfashionably fashioned of steel. I am, of course, referring to the new Land Rover Defender.

Exhibit ‘C’ – Land Rover Defender Steel Wheel (source: Motor1)

I find myself still in a quandary about the modern Defender. It really does stand-out on the road (one can argue that its sheer scale ensures that) and it certainly seems to be selling well after a slow start caused by the pandemic. However, I find many of the graphics and detailing heavily contrived and the overall vehicle somewhat inauthentic because it is so obviously styled to play with the original Defender theme.

I suspect it won’t age very well and might prove to be a sales flash-in-the-pan, although I thought that about the Evoque when it first appeared and have since been proven utterly wrong (not for the first time). The interior is a nice modern interpretation of that of the old Defender, with a large dose of the original, Conran-influenced, Discovery stirred in for good measure. Overall, I’d say the new Defender would have been better placed as the new Discovery, but what do I know?

If I had to, the smaller 90 would be my body-option of choice, sitting on the very splendid 18” steel wheels. I wouldn’t want any of the toy side-mounted panniers, or other gimmicks – I think the lower-spec’d and least-adorned the better.

The steel wheels are slightly off-white-towards-grey in hue, with nine rounded-edged, bucket shaped, holes around the hub, which itself is adorned simply with a black plastic cap which also covers the five stud nuts. It’s good, clean, old-fashioned fun and, for me, the most welcome part of the overall design package. I guess that, if there is a downside, they rather emphasise the fact that the rest of the Defender is trying a little bit too hard.

I suppose a question is whether we might see a come-back from the steel wheel? With, or without a plastic cover trim? (without, I would hope). With or without a chrome hub-cap? (with, preferably; at least in the case of some applications). I think the time is ripe – the more I think about it, the more I find that alloy wheels are a case of so much design effort for so little end-effect.

And so ends this somewhat fluffy review of some fun retro alloy wheels which I have found myself admiring over recent times.  I am not a fan of retro car design overall, but I guess it’s OK when it comes to witty details which can enliven the otherwise mundane. I hope this article prompts you to take a closer look for yourselves.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

54 thoughts on “Wheels (Revisited) – Wheely Good Retro Fun”

  1. The problem is that with endlessly increasing wheel diameters and tyre widths a steel wheel would be introlerably heavy. This would have detrimental effects on suspension behaviour because ot the unsprung weight and it would cause major trouble in handling those wheels. Tyre fitters already use small fork lift-like devides to lift wheels because nobody can handle these heavy wheels manually. Just try to lift a wheel of 19″ x 8″ in alloy and steel and compare, you will be astonished.
    Today the difference in cost between a steel wheel with plastic cover and an alloy wheel is almost negligible – when we bought steel wheels for our Golf’s winter tyres the genuine VW wheel covers cost more than some of the after market alloy wheels we didn’t like.

    1. Maybe manufacturers will be tempted to reduce the size of wheels in a new trend coupled with a nice back to steelies?

    2. I doubt that because one of the areas where cars have made the most progress in the last twenty or so years is brake performance. For large brakes you need large wheels and to get the power of the brakes to the road you need wide tyres.

    3. Maybe larger brakes are one of the penalties of the demise of asbestos. Substitutes are more healthy but less effective.
      Obviously cars have got heavier too, but in the real world they aren’t any faster – I used to commute out of London in the 1960s at up to 90 mph in my souped-up Herald with relatively small discs and 13×5.1/2 steelies.

    4. The run for large brakes has nothing to do with the materials used in the pads. Asbestos free pads are just as effective as the old stuff. Some of the most effective pads use sintered copper but they wear out the discs in no time and because of copper’s excellent heat transfer tend to boil the brake fluid if it is not brand new.

      Look at the brake distances of modern cars compared to the Seventies or even Eighties (most modern cars manage braking to a standstill from 100 kph in less than forty metres – that would have been unthinkable not so long ago) and how fade resistant modern brakes are.

  2. Good morning, one and all. What a great way to start this Tuesday. I see the Fiat’s wheels every day on my walk. The 500 is even in the same colour as the one in this article. By accident I spotted a red Beetle with the Heritage wheels yesterday. Must be a coincidence.

    So far I’ve only spotted one new Defender here. It was driving by on the other side of the canal partially hidden by bushes, so I can’t tell what wheels were on it, but it was in the same green shade as the one in this article.

    One car comes to mind that looks good on steelies: the Crown Victoria that was featured on DTW a little while ago. I would have preferred the chrome cap to have a smooth finish instead of this faux wheel nuts version, but other than that I’m quite fond of it.

    1. Good morning S.V. and thanks for resurrecting this theme. Here’s a steel wheel that was truly ubiquitous on the Ford Escort and Cortina back in the 1970’s:

      They added a touch of sportiness to even the lower line versions of both cars.

      Freerk, regarding that steelie from the Crown Victoria, they’re a dead giveaway that unmarked examples of the car are driven by law enforcement officers, FBI, CIA, DEA etc. which seems to defeat the objective of remaining incognito.

    2. This is great. I’ve been looking for a close up of this wheel and tyre combination. I believe this is the police interceptor steel wheel and Goodyear pursuit rated run flat tyre as used by most of the US police and federal agencies. Although the Crown Vic is no longer produced I’ve seen similar steel wheels on police vehicles in America. Looks great.

      I agree with Daniel regarding unmarked US police cars. You can spot them a mile off thanks to the steel wheels.

  3. The Corgi version of the P6 had little integral jacks by each wheel so you could change any and exchange with the spare tyre. Hours of fun in pre-screen days.

  4. I love plain painted steel wheels (particularly white ones), but i doubt they will make a big comeback, as they do enjoy chipping paint and rusting a lot.
    I had to repaint the white steelies on my domingo every now and again to keep them looking fresh.

    Luckily, you can get alloys with the old steel-look, but i imagine they are quite heavy compared to more spindly modern design.

    1. The new Ford Bronco Sport is available with a set of mock-steel alloys – very nicely done and very appropriate for this car, I think:

    2. Hi Simon. The body-on-frame version of the Bronco has a vertical C-pillar and looks much better for it:

    3. I don’t quite mind that C-pillar personally, at least it’s a distinctive detail – though perhaps it’s too wide at the bottom and it doesn’t make that much sense to style it this way and then black it out. I think it’s only available in black but perhaps they initially thought of offering a choice of different finishes, Q2-style?

  5. Thank you for reviving this interesting subject, S.V.
    A wheel I personally like very much is the Pontiac “Eight lug wheel” used in the sixties; basically the brake drum with an aluminium outer ring attached to it with eight bolts:

    Almost industrial in their simplicity and ruthless logic, the wheels on early Citroën ID19s were very good too:

    And finally these wheels seen on seventies Jaguars and Daimlers are as delicious as the cars they support:

    1. Another brake drum with rim around it

      Note the number of balancing weights at the rear

  6. This must surely be one of the most distinctive steel wheels ever, from the 1978 Fiat Ritmo (Strada in the UK):

    1. This is probably the ugliest wheel ever made. Fortunately (?) the rest of the car was a good match.

    2. This is one of my very favorite wheel designs, together with the wheels on the silver E39 gooddog has posted – Fiat have also offered great stylized steel wheels on the Barchetta, I think they were the ideal choice of wheels for that car:

  7. Brake drums with attached rims seem to have been quite common for some time. Renault’s 4CV and several Panhards had them. And I once owned a vehicle with this feature: a Vespa (before they got disc brakes).

  8. And the one of my personal favorites wheels. These are on the Voisin C27 Aérosport

    1. Surely this is just a trim – the wheel is probably wire-spoke.

  9. I fear we are stuck with massive wheels, as they are needed to counterbalance modern vehicles’ wall-like sides.

    On a happier note, some of my favourite wheels are steel ‘sports’ wheels, as on earlier Fiat 126s and later Volkswagen Beetles.

    https://www.veikl.com/d/Fiat-126-Photo-1972-48078

    https://www.veikl.com/d/Volkswagen-Super-Beetle-Brochure-USA-1975-EN-88096

    I also like the ‘white and black’ wheels fitted to Beetles in the late ‘60s. Fitting whitewalls as well was possibly a bit much, though.

    Incidentally, while Volkswagen adverts from the period are celebrated as being very clever, brochures from the late ‘60s are similarly inventive, with the art director happy to show older cars in arresting settings. That’s only possible and justifiable when one’s product is well-known, of course.

    https://www.veikl.com/d/Volkswagen-Beetle-Brochure-US-1968-EN-25754/17

    1. Hi Charles. The wheels fitted to late 1960’s Beetles were actually black and cream in colour. My father bought one new in 1968 in the same colour as this one, Delta Green:

      Dad wasn’t too keen on the wheel colours, so immediately bought aftermarket slotted finisher trims that fitted around the hub caps and covered the wheels.

    2. Hello Daniel – nice car. My uncle had a ‘68 in grey / off white.

    3. The run for large brakes has nothing to do with the materials used in the pads. Asbestos free pads are just as effective as the old stuff. Some of the most effective pads use sintered copper but they wear out the discs in no time and because of copper’s excellent heat transfer tend to boil the brake fluid if it is not brand new.

      Look at the brake distances of modern cars compared to the Seventies or even Eighties (most modern cars manage braking to a standstill from 100 kph in less than forty metres – that would have been unthinkable not so long ago) and how fade resistant modern brakes are.

    4. When talking about painted wheels don’t forget that real Benzes had colour coded wheel trim

    1. ah, sanity at last, much thanks Adam for that.
      I hate all alloy wheels bigger than 15″, and am
      very fond of white cars with black steelies, as
      on my boy racer Datsun 1600 (510) which clocked
      up over 150,000 rorty and reliable miles in its ten
      years in my care.

    2. Sorry, I can’t share the love for black wheels, be it steel or alloy. I think this trend started with ugly SUVs that wanted to look gangster, but a few years afterwards, every car seems to come with them. It always reminds me of people who use rusty black steelies with their winter tyres, without putting hubcaps on.
      At least they should have a bright rim around the black, then they can be acceptable for me.

  10. If I could work out how to post images on here I would provide examples of my personal favourites:-
    MB eight hole alloys as per my W124 300TE
    BMW alloys on my E39 525
    MB AMG alloys on my W204 C250cgi

    1. Thanks again👍
      Mine were a lot cleaner than that on my W124.

    2. Hi Mike. Apologies in advance if I’ve already mentioned this to you (hopeless memory) but if you click on the ‘Driven to Explain’ tab above and scroll down, you’ll find instructions for embedding photos in comments. You will need to use a photo hosting app or website like Imgur. There are different sets of instructions depending on the device you are using, Android, Windows or Apple.

    1. Thanks gooddog 👍
      Top image was exactly the same as mine.

    2. E34 M5 with alloy wheels and separate cast magnesium wheel trims designed to create a turbine effect to draw hot air away from the brakes

    3. These are great wheels, Dave. I like anything that has a smooth, flat surface. Do you happen to know if the wheel trims were actually side specific?

    4. The wheel trims were not handed/side specific.
      Here’s a detailed view of the ‘turbine’ wheel

    5. That’s really interesting, Dave, thanks for posting. While the trims aren’t side-specific, I would assume the black ‘impeller’ insert was, to force air inwards to cool the brakes? That said, I suppose it doesn’t matter in which direction the air is moved through the brakes, so perhaps they weren’t handed after all?

    6. I don’t know whether there were handed impellers but the actual ‘turbine’ – the grey part made from magnesium – was identical on both sides. The idea war to create a constant air flow pulling hot air from the brake through the wheel, emanating in the gap between the grey trim and the edge of the actual rim.
      The whole experiment was part of BMW’s effort to make sure the M5 had impressively good brakes. These wheels were cpombined with two-piece discs where the brake disc’s hub and the actual friction surface are separate parts held together by radial pins to make sure the brake ‘ring’ and the hub can expand under heat independently from each other, preventing the usual distortion of the friction surface into a cone shape.

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