When we embarked on our 1971 Dodge Dart project, it was a decent first project car that we wanted to transform into a cool cruiser and musclecar. We began with the basics, some of the first things you should look at when you buy a used musclecar. Making the car drivable and comfortable was our first order of business, but that was just the beginning.
As Project Bullzeye started getting some upgrades in the engine compartment, we knew that we had to do something about the stance if we were going to do more upgrades to the drivetrain and suspension.
This is where American Racing and Nitto Tire became a part of the build process for the Dart. If you’ve been following along, we took a look at five very different styles of wheels from American Racing and digitally added them to the Dart to see which wheels we would like best. We had a lot of feedback, some liking the factory 14-inch rally wheels, and some opting to go with the wheels we decided on: the VN425 TT SL.
For those of you who are familiar with the early A-body Mopars, you’ll know that the tiny 5×4-inch wheel bolt pattern leaves little-to-no choice when it comes to aftermarket wheels. What you can find, usually doesn’t look that great, and what you want requires an upgrade to the more popular 5×4.5-inch wheel bolt pattern. This left us with a decision to move forward with the planned upgrades to the Dart.
Since our plans include more power (eventually) we knew we needed to update the front and rear suspension, primarily to rid the car of the wimpy 7.25-inch rearend and replace it with a Strange Engineering S60. That took care of the rear of the car, and the front received a complete makeover with ’73-’76 spindles and a Wilwood disc brake conversion to beef up the braking. With these modifications underway, that made room for more wheel choices, and that’s why we were able to turn to American Racing for the VN425.
If you’re familiar with American Racing’s classic wheels, you might notice a bit of a resemblance to the original Torque Thrust wheels with the VN425. The VN425 is a modern version of the Torque Thrust II wheel that has made it’s way on to many musclecars and street rods. The VN425 is available in a polished or dark gray finish, in sizes ranging from 17-inches to 22-inches, and widths from seven to 15-inches.
The VN425 is a two-piece wheel that begins life as a billet aluminum center blank and a shell. The assembly is done at American Racing’s warehouse in Cerritos, California, and then tested to the standards of a one-piece wheel. Two-piece wheels allow more flexibility when it comes to tolerances, but American Racing uses the tightest allowances when they check a wheel for runout and for quality when it comes to the build process. It’s one thing to see these wheels when they’re completed, but something entirely different when you see them being assembled first hand – and that’s just what we got a chance to see.
We ordered our wheels and made the trip to Cerritos to see how the wheel centers are mated to the shell, and American Racing invited us inside to get an up close and personal look at the wheels that ended up on Project Bullzeye.
A nice set of wheels is a great visual enhancement, and can make almost any car look better. But you can ruin the looks of the car by choosing a wheel that doesn’t fit properly, or with looks that belong somewhere else – we’ve all seen those cars. However, for a classic car like this Dart, it’s almost mandatory to put a modern wheel with a classic touch on it, and the VN425 is one of those wheels. It was a tough choice to pick one wheel amongst the five we started with, but how can you go wrong with a five-spoke wheel on a classic musclecar?
Assembling the VN425 Wheel
As we arrived, we were given the grand tour of their facility – from the front offices to the warehouse, and to see where the wheels are built and welded together. Each order is custom tailored to the customer’s specifications: when you order you wheel you order by wheel style, wheel diameter, and offset.
We ordered a set of staggered, 17-inch wheels to clear the Wilwood brakes that were going on the Dart. These wheels are just part of the build process that transforms the Dart from your Aunt’s grocery-getter into a respectable musclecar.
Although the choices for finish include polished, satin, black, and grey, we chose black for the contrast – and for how great those red calipers look behind the black spokes.
In the shop, our wheel centers were stacked up neatly amongst all of the other orders to be completed that day. The wheel shells were pre-made and selected from their inventory. The process began by putting the centers inside the shell and making one final check before final welding.
The first order of business is to punch the hole in the wheel for the valve stem, something that varies depending on the style of wheel. Most of us think of the valve stem being front and center for a wheel, but for this particular style the valve stem mounts on the back side, leaving the front of the wheel unobstructed. With a high polish and clean look, the VN425 makes for a great show car wheel, with a smooth look to the outside of the wheel.
The hole for the valve stem is punched into the shell, and based on the order, spacers are placed on the assembly table to mock up the backspacing on the wheel. Our first wheel had a 4.5-inch backspacing, so the appropriate plates are laid out and the center is dropped into the shell. As you can imagine, it needs to be a tight fit between wheel center and shell, but pressing the center into the wheel shell is not an option.
Heat is applied to the shell as it spins on a rotating table, and when the shell expands enough from the heat, the center can be dropped into the shell. As the shell cools, it contracts and the wheel center becomes snug in its new home.
From here, the center is checked to make sure that it’s properly positioned within the shell. The next step is to place the entire wheel into the automated welder that will secure the center into the wheel with one continuous bead.
Any wheel exceeding our runout tolerances or not passing a visual inspection gets rejected and either reworked or remade. -Chris Plump
Assembling all four wheels took just a few minutes per wheel. Sales manager Chris Plump said, “Every Custom Shop two-piece wheel is checked for both radial and lateral runout and the printout of the exact measurements is included with each wheel. Our tolerances are some of the tightest in the two-piece wheel industry.”
Finally, the wheels will be spun to check for runout, and also to be sure that they meet the demands that American Racing puts them through with precise measuring being done.
Because of the expansion and contraction of metals from the extreme heat that is applied, any minor alignment issues can be taken care of with their lathe. The wheels are inserted into the lathe, and the mating surface of the wheel is milled to square up the wheel center with the shell. Plump said, “Any wheel exceeding our runout tolerances or not passing a visual inspection gets rejected and either reworked or remade.”
Once the wheels have passed final inspection, the spec sheet for each wheel is included when boxed up, but before that happens, the completed wheels are then sent to their polishing department where they’re given one final polish, front and back, before they can be wrapped up with protective sheeting and placed into a box. Each and every polished wheel receives this treatment to get that mile-deep shine.
Care and Maintenance
If you go into a chain parts store, you’ll see all sorts of wheel cleaners on the shelves. Some say, “for all steel wheels”, others say “for all alloy wheels”, and then there’s one that says “safe for all wheels”. This can be confusing, how is there a specific cleaner for alloy, and one that is safe for all wheels – wouldn’t that include alloy?
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Even some of those cleaners will suggest that you spray the chemicals on an inconspicuous part of the wheel first because it could damage the wheel.
Plump stated that you should never use chemicals on your American Racing wheels, nor should you use any type of household cleaners. He told us that these chemicals can spot or discolor the highly polished finish on the wheels and you may never get the shine back without professional treatment. The wheels are not clear coated, they’re polished… so you’re working with the bare metal on these wheels.
Plump suggests using a very mild dish soap and water to clean your wheels and to maintain the shine. A soft cloth is highly recommended, never use anything abrasive, and you’ll enjoy the polished shine for years to come. Simply hose off the lose dirt, and use a soft cloth to hand wash the wheel to remove any dust or dirt.
The Making of a Musclecar
We’ve gone through a lot of steps to bring this 1971 Dodge Dart to its current level: beginning with a mild cruiser/grocery getter with 14-inch steel wheels. While some purists are adamant about maintaining the originality of a classic car, it sometimes leaves you at a deficit when it comes to improvements.
The original drivetrain wasn’t going to handle the kind of horsepower we have planned for the Dart, and it would have simply been a bad idea to upgrade the suspension without upgrading the wheel bolt pattern.
This is a common dilemma with early Mopars, and there isn’t a “one part fits all” conversion for these cars. While the factory rallye wheels look great, there’s just no comparison to the classic look of a modern wheel like the VN425 TT SL, the modern Torque Thrust wheel.
Not only did we need to increase the wheel diameter to clear the four-wheel disc brakes, but we wanted to get a little bit of a staggered look with wider tires all around – and just a little wider in the rear – to make this former grocery getter into a real looker.
Of course, just a set of wheels isn’t going to get the car rolling so we had to decide on some rubber to wrap around those beautiful wheels. Sizing tires for a 1971 Dart without any body modifications (i.e., rolling fender lips, mini tubs) means that you’re going to be slightly limited on size.
We wanted to go with a bit of a staggered look with wider wheels and tires in the rear, and we also wanted a good all-around tire that can handle the few days of rain that we get, and stick to the hot pavement like glue when we warm up the tires for a little aggressive driving.
We reached out to Nitto and their suggestion for a good tire for us was the NT555 Extreme ZR. This tire carries a 300 treadwear, which makes it a good tire for some aggressive cornering, but not so sticky that we can wear them out quickly.
A higher treadwear typically indicates a harder tire compound, and that would be better for high mileage, not so much for extreme handling. Since this car is driven to work, and doesn’t see a lot of miles, the tires will hold up just fine and give the performance needed when the go-stick is pressed.
We wanted an aggressive look, with good handling characteristics, and the NT555 was a great choice for the way this Dart will be driven. For a street performance tire, the treadwear of 300 will mean that you’re not going to wear your tires out so quickly, but it will still give plenty of grip.
Looking at the specs for wet and dry performance, the bars are even, making it a great all around tire for many environments, and good for all-year performance in non-extreme climates. As tires becomes more aggressive with the dry performance rating, the wet performance rating decreases slightly. With the Dart being driven primarily in Southern California, we do see some rain and wet roads occasionally, and this NT555 makes for a great street tire.
Nitto has tires for just about any vehicle, from high mileage family sedans to extreme performance tires that will help keep your car glued to the road, and everything in between. You can see the full line at a retailer near you, or check out their website for sizes and styles.
To see the full line of American Racing wheels for cars or trucks, check out their website; you can take a look at wheels based on vehicle selection – or do like the rest of us and look at all of them and dream big. American Racing has really stepped up their line of custom wheels, and no matter what your tastes are, there’s definitely something for everyone.