Whatever Happened to Hubcaps?
By J. Smith
Most cars today above entry level have alloy wheels of some sort of styled wheel, typically alloy, that has both function-allowing the car to roll-and form-intended to look attractive. Few cars have utilitarian steel wheels covered by hubcaps, usually made of cheap plastic. Not all that long ago, however, nearly all cars had steel wheels covered by metal hubcaps, usually styled in some way. The styled metal hubcap, however, seems to have gone the way of the AM monaural radio.
A century ago, automobile wheels were not all that different from their horse-drawn counterparts or even bicycles. They remained uncovered, showing off painted spokes made of wood, or bare-metal spokes in prestige cars. The tires themselves were thin, pneumatic and gray-black did not become standardized until sometime later. But the wheels were naked. The hubcap consisted of a small metal cap affixed to the wheel bearings, much like the aforementioned horse-drawn carriage. Too diminutive to serve much of a decorative purpose, it was wholly functional. And so it remained, for the most part, until pressed steel wheels replaced spoked wheels.
Spoke-based wheels, whether metal or wood, are quite striking. They are also costly to make. The switch to steelies was purely a question of cost-they performed the same function but could be mass-produced in a fraction of the time it tool to assemble wheels from spokes. They functioned the same, but lacked the aesthetic quality of spokes. And they left the unattractive center of the wheel exposed. Manufacturers quickly covered the center with plain steel caps. Which was fine for your Model A or Chevy, but not so good for a Caddy or Packard. Enter the styled hubcap.
The hubcap could stylishly cover bland steel wheels, lending an air of sophistication to what was otherwise mundane. According to Hubcap Mike, Cadillac-ever the style leader in the 1930’s-set the pace by putting stylized hubcaps over wire wheels to give a streamlined look. But when it switched to steelies, hubcaps were the only way to give a luxurious look to Caddy wheels.
In the heyday of the hubcap, from the 50s through the 80s, most cars had pressed steel caps that covered the entire wheel. Jack handles of the time had a lug nut wrench on one end and a flattened, screwdriver-like appendage on the other that was used to remove the hubcap to get to the lug nuts. The hubcap usually had the symbol of the car’s brand, with some manner of styling to match. Luxury makes had elaborate styling, often non-functional wire spokes to evoke the élan of an earlier age of motoring. Only fleet vehicles left the lug nuts exposed.
Although styled, to my eye, hubcaps often had a slightly cheap look. Invariably made of pressed steel, painted and possibly chromed, they didn’t quite have the panache of well-designed wheels. But most people liked them-after all, they bought millions of cars with them. And whatever their aesthetic merits, they had many problems. They often popped off under hard cornering or whenever the mood struck. They were easy to steal. And they often got dented while changing tires or battling the elements.
Even worse than metal hubcaps are their plastic heirs, which still adorn down-market vehicles today. They scratch easily. And because they usually don’t cover the entire wheel, they add brake dust to the collection of road tar and dirt. But don’t scrub them too hard or you’ll dull the finish or leave a series of etches behind. They also break easily and often. And, like metal ones, occasionally pop off. On my last car with plastic hubcaps, they were such a nuisance that I simply removed them and bared my steelies to the world. On the bright side, no one seems to steal plastic hubcaps.
But consumers increasingly check off alloys on the option list and avoid them altogether. And you certainly won’t see hubcaps on anything resembling a prestige vehicle. Arguably, a vehicle can’t be prestigious if it offers hubcaps even in a base model. Center caps Ja, hubcaps Nein.
So hubcaps are largely relegated to the dearly departed section of automobilia. But does anyone miss them? Collectors probably do, but I doubt any new car buyers want them back. At least none without personal memories of the Truman Administration.
So it seems that, in the past hundred years, we have come back to where we started: bare wheels with center caps. As they say, what goes around comes around . . .
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