It usually holds true for just about any car: install a set of custom wheels and it’s visual value more than doubles. Nice wheels can turn a boring car into one with instant appeal to people who otherwise never gave that car a second look. With the right wheels and stance, you’ve created something that others envy – or something they want.
Some classic mag wheels from the 1970s.
Decades ago, musclecars primarily wore wheels like Weld Pro Stars, Cragar S/S, American Racing’s Torque Thrust D’s, Keystone Classics, Western Dish mags or Vector wheels like on the General Lee. Anything else didn’t look right on a musclecar, so nearly every car was jacked up in the back and wore a set of the aforementioned wheels with fat tires.
But we’ve entered the new millennium for wheels, and there are literally hundreds of companies that offer wheels for nearly any vehicle. It used to be a simple task to buy wheels, now there are so many to choose from it’s almost endless.
Although the classic look still remains a favorite amongst many gearheads, the new styles and sizes have infiltrated the musclecar segment like a thief in the night, and everyone has taken notice. It’s hard to resist a classic musclecar with modern wheels these days.
Custom Wheels For Under $399 Each
We can’t resist the look of a nice set of 17-inch wheels on a classic musclecar, despite the fact that thirty years ago it was almost unheard of. Wheels used to be easy to identify at a glance, but today’s choices require one to take a much closer look at the wheels – and that’s exactly what we’ve done for this article.
Big brake kits require bigger wheels; Project BluePrint's wheels are under $399 each.
We’re going to take a look at affordable wheels for $399 each and less, in 15-inch to 17-inch sizes from American Racing, Billet Specialties and Weld Racing. In order to remain affordable, we’re going to stray away from the 18 to 20-inch wheels that run upwards of 500 – 1000 bucks each. Still, many custom wheels can be purchased for a reasonable price, but it’s always best to know what size you want, what your backspacing needs are, and whether those wheels will fit your car properly.
Most factory brakes on classic cars will fit behind a 15-inch wheel without any problems, because they typically had 14- or 15-inch wheels to begin with. Even some aftermarket brake upgrades will still fit behind a 15-inch wheel since there are some companies who keep this in mind to appeal to the restoration crowd.
Some of Billet Specialties' wheel choices. Left: Classic looks that never grow old. Right: some of the Street Lite wheels. All are great looking billet aluminum wheels for under $399 each.
Backspacing is also an issue with new wheels, especially for classic cars. Many companies that make 17-inch wheels only offer wheels designed for newer, front-wheel-drive cars with a high positive offset, and they don’t fit so well on an older car.
Billet Specialties Buyer's Guide (street values): at left, 15x8 RT - $238; at right, 17x8 Rally - $317.
A positive offset means that the mounting surface for the wheel is closer to the outside edge of the wheel (think front wheel drive), whereas a negative offset would have the mounting surface towards the inside of the wheel (think deep dish here).
A zero offset is when the mounting surface is in the center of the wheel, and that’s what many classic RWD cars fall under. Many modern musclecars tend to have a positive offset also, and even those wheels don’t fit on our classics without spacers.
So who do you turn to when you have a classic musclecar, or a street/strip cruiser, and every place you go has wheels for modern cars? Finding wheels for a RWD classic car with a zero or negative offset means that only a handful of manufacturers will have direct-fit wheels available, and the three companies we mentioned above – American Racing, Billet Specialties and Weld Racing – are on that short list.
Even with the vintage wheels, we’re trying to come up with new wheel styles that look like they’ve always been there. -Keith Kern
You’ll find that the local parts and service stores aren’t going to have many wheels to fit your classic car. Sure, they’ll offer adapters or spacers to make their positive-offset wheels fit your classic musclecar; but why spend an extra $200 – or more – for adapters just to get their wheels to fit?
Your money would be better spent on wheels that will directly fit your car, and you’re in luck because the three manufacturers we talked to still offer choices in both wheel diameter and in backspacing.
Keith Kern, Director of Sales and Marketing at Billet Specialties, says that even today the five-spoke wheel is popular. “We have different wheels for different markets,” Kern said, “the Pro-Touring trend likes the bigger diameters and they like multi-spoke wheels. For street and strip, the 5-spoke wheel is more popular and not as heavy as the multi-spoke wheels.”
Billet Specialties' Legends Series offers the classic five-spoke look with choices of polished or gray center.
But they are still trying to create new designs that are going to appeal to the masses, and “reinventing the wheel” is a part of the process for any wheel manufacturer.
Kern said, “We’re trying to design wheels that are going to stick, and be as timeless as possible. Even with the vintage wheels, we’re trying to come up with new wheel styles that look like they’ve always been there.” He says he is still amazed every day at the kind of designs that their artists come up with.
Why is the five-spoke wheel so popular? Because the five-spoke design works well for wheels with five lugs, and it helps to design a sleeker looking wheel that gives a larger window between the spokes. With multiple spokes, a larger center cap is often incorporated to offset the balance of having five lug nuts and more than five spokes.
Old school looks that never seem to get old.
American Racing also offers a lot of fresh new styles that enhance classic cars with a modern look, and yet still remain affordable. Their two-piece wheels offer a little more flexibility when choosing wheels.
Chris Plump, sales manager for the American Racing custom division, says, “When you order from the American Racing Custom Shop, you’re buying the ability to personalize a one-off wheel. You know it’s going to fit right, without spacers, and our testing and quality assurance make sure the wheel is easy to balance and the ride is smooth.”
Plump said that they can custom match a wheel color to your car if that’s what you’re looking for, their custom shop handles orders like these quite often. He also said that customers are not stuck with wheels that have the typical bolt patterns, either. “We also offer drill-from-blank services to fit customers with unusual bolt patterns,” he said.
American Racing Buyer's Guide (street values): at left, 15x8 Torque Thrust D - $179; at right, 17x8 Burnout - $239.
With regards to their two-piece designs, Plump says, “We have a dozen two-piece styles in inventory that we can build with custom offsets, and we’re adding more all the time. For finishes, we have a great range including polished, painted, clear-coated, chrome and PVD.”
PVD is Physical Vapor Deposition, and much like it sounds it is a process to physically deposit a metal vapor onto wheels as a highly adhered metal or alloy coating. This helps to make the wheel surface harder, and more resistant to corrosion.
Amercian Racing also has a lot of flexibility when it comes to fitments. They handle special orders at their Custom Shop in California, and they can build custom offsets in eighth-inch increments that can fit virtually any vehicle. American Racing has been around for a long time, and if you’ve seen a musclecar then chances are you’ve seen a Torq Thrust wheel, one of their more popular wheels.
The modern styling on these wheels from American Racing are bound to appeal to the enthusiast looking for a wheel that fits their ride - and their personality.
Wheel Education: What You Save Now Will Cost You Later
We all know that you can run down to the local auto parts chain store and find 17-inch wheels for just over a hundred bucks each, but believe us when we say this: you absolutely get what you pay for. If you see wheels that you think look good new, do some research first and see what people are saying about them after owning them for a year or so.
The "wall o' wheels" might be tempting with low prices, but you do get what you pay for. Most of these require an adapter, adding to the overall cost.
There’s nothing worse than spending $600 on inexpensive wheels only to find out a year later that you can’t remember why they appealed to you in the first place. Wheel quality is important, and the time spent on preparation for the finishes are just as important as the finishes themselves.
Plump said, “All of the wheels that are shipped from the American Racing Custom Shop are inspected, front and back, for any imperfections. They’re hand cleaned and hand polished before they’re boxed and shipped to the customer. To me, a sign of quality is that there is a clean finished look on the back of the wheel as well as the front.”
Another way to help you decide on wheel quality is to check sites like Craigslist. If you find dozens of people selling wheels from one particular manufacturer, and the wheels are less than a year old, it’s a good indication that the wheels didn’t meet the owner’s expectations. We’ve seen wheels in the past that simply couldn’t be balanced properly because of excessive runout, or because they weren’t perfectly round.
It’s also important to know how the wheels are assembled, and where they’re assembled. The three manufacturers we talked to all make their products right here in the US. From materials to final quality control processes, the wheels stay with their respective companies on US soil, something they are each very proud of.
Wheels being assembled at American Racing. The top photo shows how the wheel shell is heated to allow the centers to be inserted prior to welding. Precision measuring equipment is used to make sure that the wheels are assembled properly. If not, they hear about it from their customers - whom they count on for feedback about their quality.
Refinishing your wheels can get expensive, and sending them out to be polished again isn’t cheap either. Do this once to your inexpensive aluminum wheels and you could easily have more invested in them than you would have spent on a better set of wheels. This is why companies like American Racing, Billet Specialties and Weld Racing have been around for a long time, they make quality wheels that you’re still going to be happy with several years later.
There isn’t really a reason to chrome plate billet aluminum because all you’re doing is making it unrepairable. -Keith Kern
We asked what makes billet aluminum a better surface, and Kern said, “Billet aluminum is so dense, it’s not as porous as aluminum and it doesn’t oxidize, so there isn’t really a reason to chrome plate billet aluminum because all you’re doing is making it unrepairable.”
Plump said, “We stand by our product and each custom built wheel is personally inspected for appearance, cap fitment, balance and runout. Our goal is better than industry standard and we put every two-piece wheel we build on a balancing machine. Each wheel we ship includes the report page that shows the result of the test of that specific wheel.”
Pad Height, Street Wheels, and Racing Wheels
Weld Racing offers differing pad heights to help clear brake calipers.
We’ve looked at two of the three wheel companies that make attractive and affordable wheels. The third, Weld Racing, also offers attractive wheels at affordable prices. But many people use Weld Racing wheels for their race cars, and there is a difference between a race wheel and a street wheel.
Some people might be tempted to put a cool looking racing wheel on their musclecar, but usually those racing wheels won’t hold up to the rigors of daily driving: like pot holes, railroad tracks and general bumps in the road.
We talked to Kyle Fickler, VP of Sales with Weld Racing, and he said, “Street wheels are made with a different alloy and a heavier shell than race wheels. When the durability moves up the list, there is a tradeoff for weight, but you need that durability for conditions that are out of the driver’s control.”
15-inch wheels from Weld Racing allow you to go as wide as 15-inches for that throw-back look from the 70s with wide rear wheels and narrow front wheels.
Weld Racing offers something with their RT-S line called pad height. Pad height plays a big part in brake caliper clearance, and sometimes that pad height makes a huge difference with the looks of the wheel. The pad height is available in low, medium, and high, and can allow your spokes to clear brake calipers without losing the offset.
Weld Racing Buyer's Guide (street values): at left, 15x10 S71 - $302; at right, 15x7 Prostar - $208.
The RT-S line is also available in varying widths, and you can still get a 15-inch x 16.25-inch wheel for under $399 for your street rod. That’s a lot of wheel and matched up with a set of pizza-cutters up front gives your street rod or musclecar an awesome stance. The RT-S also has an available black center finish to contrast with the highly polished shell.
For those who are looking for a forged wheel, their Sport Forged wheels offer the look of a dragstrip wheel in a highly polished and affordable 15-inch street wheel.
Fickler said, “Often times we end up with people wanting a different pair of wheels to mount their drag radials for racing, and a pair for street use.” These wheels are affordable and allow that option for those who use their car for weekend warrior work and daily driving.
Large discs are slated to become a shell through a method where it is drawn down over a form through hydraulic force. Another machine stamps out the centers for the Pro Stars, and then tests are done for radial, rotational and impact that simulate real life use of the wheels.
Caring For Your New Wheels
How to Care for the Finish on your Wheels
- Chrome-plated aluminum: Clean a chrome finish using mild dish soap and water; dry with a soft cloth. After cleaning, apply a coat of soft, non-abrasive cream wax or wheel seal to prevent surface corrosion.
- Clear coated: Clean a clear-coated finish using mild dish soap and water; dry with a soft cloth.
- Teflon coated: Clean a Teflon-coated finish using mild dish soap and water; dry with a soft cloth.
- Painted and clear-coated: Clean a clear-coated finish using mild dish soap and water; dry with a soft cloth.
- Machined and clear-coated: Clean a clear-coated finish using mild dish soap and water; dry with a soft cloth.
- PVD coated: Clean a clear-coated finish using mild dish soap and water; dry with a soft cloth.
- Polished aluminum: Clean a polished aluminum finish using mild dish soap and water; dry with a soft cloth. After cleaning, apply a coat of soft, non-abrasive cream wax or wheel seal. A specially formulated custom wheel polish and wheel seal is recommended to return shine to oxidized wheels.
- Chrome-plated steel: Clean a chrome finish using mild dish soap and water; dry with a soft cloth. After cleaning, apply a coat of soft, non-abrasive cream wax or wheel seal to prevent surface corrosion.
Treat the finish of your wheels the way you would treat the finish of your car. Most household cleaning agents are too harsh and must be avoided. Mild dish soap and water is all you need to properly clean your wheels.
All three of the manufacturers we talked to said that wheel cleaners in a spray bottle should be avoided because they can contain acid, or they’re possibly lye based.
Typical road soils trap moisture that, over a period of time, can cause corrosion. Brake dust, created by the friction of your car’s braking system, is corrosive and can cause pitting of the wheel’s finish.
Take care when cleaning the tires and do not allow tire cleaner to contact the wheels, as the harsh chemicals can cause permanent damage to the appearance of the wheel.
Never clean wheels when they are hot. Always allow wheels time to cool before cleaning with soap and water. Never spray cold water on extremely hot wheels.
Do not use abrasive materials to clean wheels as they can damage the finish. Use caution when cleaning tires with a bristle brush and never use scouring pads. Steam cleaners and strong chemicals sometimes used in automatic car washes can cause permanent staining or corrosion.
The bottom line is that you need to care for your wheels like you car for your car, if you wouldn’t think to spray a chemical on your painted car, then why spray a chemical on your painted or polished wheels? The one thing that we often see is that a person will spend thousands on a paint job, thousands on their engine and drivetrain, and thousands more on the suspension, but when it comes to wheels they want to save a few bucks.
A nice set of wheels makes your car look like everything you want it to be, take care of them, and you won’t find yourself wondering what happened to that cool set of wheels you bought the year before.