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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.