Introduction to classic racing wheels
Introduction to classic racing wheels
I dont claim to be an expert about anything, including old racing wheels.
We know who the experts are. Theyre the guys that are in the swap meets before the sun is up, buying up as much as they can of whatever they think other people will want. Some of them hoard hundreds of old wheels. Several of them have over a thousand of them. If you try to sell them something, its quite possible that theyll tell you it isnt worth much, in the hope of being able to buy it cheap. They almost never pay more than a hundred bucks or so for a pair of wheels, but then they act like theyre doing us a big favor by expecting us to buy them from them for several times what they paid.
These people certainly know more than I do.
One of these guys once told me that he thought that it wasnt fair when someone who was actually going to put some old wheels on his car beat him to them at a swap meet, because they kept him from earning a living.
Since nobody else seemed to be writing anything online about them, in the spring of 2001 I spent a weekend writing this page. Since then its become one of the most popular pages onthis entire site, and it grows regularly.
If you take a look at any book or magazine dealing withTop Fuel dragsters and Fuel Altereds from the early Sixties through the mid-Seventies, youll see that virtually every one of these cars used cast magnesium rear wheels that were made by one of two companies: American Racing Equipment, and Halibrand Engineering.
Heres a bit of background on both of them, followed by a quick look at some of the other companies that played a significant role in the American aftermarket wheel industry.
American Racing Equipment was started by Romeo Palimedes in 1959. By 1960, American Racing Equipment was advertising their magnesium rear wheels from six to ten inches wide, along with magnesium spindle-mount twelve-spoked front wheels in 15 by 3 1/2 inches.
Several years later, in the mid-Sixties, when the M&H Tire Company began making their revolutionary M&H Racemaster wrinkle-wall drag slicks in wider sizes, American Racing Equipment (and Halibrand Engineering) wheels were produced in sizes as large as 16 by 13 inches wide.
The American Racing Standard was an aluminum four-spoke wheel that went into production in 1967.
The Standard was intended for use on light trucks, and had no provision for attaching a center cap.
This is a pair of 15 by 8 1/2 Standard wheels that was drilled in the early Ford 5 1/2-inch bolt pattern.
Part of the appeal of these wheels is their uniqueness. This is an original design that was produced in small numbers and never copied.
These wheels were never very common. Ive never seen a car with a set of four of them. Ive seen four pair of these wheels: three pair in California, and the pair shown here. One pair was 15 by 7 and the other three pair were 15 by 8 1/2.
Through the Sixties and into the Seventies, virtually all Top Fuel dragsters used motorcycle-style laced wheels on the front, which were made by lacing machined aluminum hubs to aluminum motorcycle rims that were commonly made in Italy by Akront or Borrani.
When someone built a new dragster, American or Halibrand might have sold several pairs of rear wheels, but no fronts. For all practical purposes, it was only when someone built a Gasser that American or Halibrand would sell a pair of narrow, five-lug, bolt-on, magnesium front wheels. This has become significant to those of us who are now building cars with old magnesium wheels.
American Racing made magnesium twelve-spoked spindle-mount front wheels in 15 by 3 1/2, 17 by 2 1/2, and 18 by 2 1/2-inch sizes, for Altereds with Anglia or early Ford spindles.
By the time the altered-wheelbase A/FX (Factory Experimental) drag cars of the mid-Sixties evolved into full-blown Funny Cars in the late Sixties, American was also producing a magnesium spindle-mount version of their classic five-spoked wheel.
Many styles of American magnesium racing wheels were produced. One was the Le Mans, which was cast so it looked like a Torq-Thrust that had been faced off in a lathe, with the outer surfaces of the spokes being completely flat, similar to the 1970s Pontiac wheels that they inspired.
Another was the rare bear paw five-spoked wheels, which have a very large rib running down each side of the spokes, so they almost look like ten-spoked wheels. (You may never see a pair of these on a car, but while I was at the 1999 Rat Fink Reunion at Mooneyes in San Leandro, California, I saw a custom-built show trike from the Sixties with a pair of them.)
Other styles were the original four-slot Standard wide rear wheels; and the extremely successful five-spoked Torq-Thrust and Torq-Thrust D five-spokes.
One of the first American Racing wheels that were intended for the street was the aluminum Torq-Thrust, introduced in 1963.
The original Aluminum Torq-Thrust wheels were only produced in 14 by 6 (shown on the right), 14 by 7, 15 by 6, 15 by 7, and 15 by 8 1/2 (shown on the right). The 15 by 6 versions all had Sport Wheel cast into the insides, and all of the other sizes were marked Torq-Thrust.
Although they have been seen on virtually every type of race car and street car imaginable, the first aluminum Torq-Thrusts were especially popular with Corvette owners.
The early Torq-Thrusts could be considered to be the definitive aluminum hot rod wheel.
Early Torq-Thrusts are easily the most widely-copied aftermarket wheel in history. Versions of it have been produced by many companies, including Ansen, Appliance Industries, Crestline, Durachrome, E-T, Fenton, International Manufacturing (IMCO), J.C. Penney (El Tigre), and Superior. Here are some clues for identifying some of them:
Appliancewheels were popular in the Seventies. Their five-spoked wheels can be identified by the word Japan stamped on the inside, and also by their large, recessed holes for the lug nut washers to seat in. As long as you dont mind the deep holes for the lug nut washers, Appliance five-spoked wheels are considered to be good-quality Torq-Thrust copies.
Crestlinewheels were popular in the 1960s due their low price. The Crestline name is cast into all of their wheels as well as the inside of their aluminum center caps. Crestlines can also be identified by a rough edge around the outside of the mounting flange, which is neatly radiused on all of the original (aluminum and magnesium) Torq-Thrust wheels. In the 1960s and 70s, Crestline was the only company that made a narrow, aluminum 15 by 4 Torq-Thrust copy. Generally speaking, Crestline wheels are fine for most nostalgia cars.
Fentonfive-spoked wheels were inexpensive and not outstanding in any way in their day. Aaron Fenton was a marketing man, whose most notable accomplishments were taking over Don Edmunds cylinder head and intake manifold company and then shortly thereafter ending all of its production, and providing cheap parts on time to department stores. Fenton wheels have as much prestige as a Spark-O-Matic shifter, and about as much class as your daughters boyfriend.
Superiorfive-spoked wheels have no name cast into them. They were made in Van Nuys, California. Superior wheels were popular in the Seventies and are considered to be quality wheels.The original Torq-Thrust Dwas released around 1965, and was configured to provide disc brake caliper clearance on then-current Corvettes. The hub of the wheel was moved outward a half-inch, and the spokes curved inward at the ends.
The original aluminum Torq-Thrust D was only produced in 15 by 6 and 15 by 7.
The wheels that are pictured here were originally made as 15 by 6s and then narrowed on the inside to 15 by 4 1/2s.
Magnesium versions of Torq-Thrust D and Torq-Thrust wheels were produced in a variety of styles. Sizes ranged from 15 by 4 to 16 by 13 bolt-on for bolt-on wheels, as well as a 15 by 3 1/2 spindle-mount that was often used on Funny Cars. They had either straight or dog-leg spokes, the latter being made for race cars with disc brakes, and known as the Torq-Thrust D. Straight-spoked wheels were offered with spokes that were peaked along the center, or rounded. Early magnesium rear wheels are most commonly found with straight spokes, and about equally divided in popularity between peaked and rounded spokes.
Although American Racing hasnt made magnesium wheels for decades, and no longer makes the original Torq-Thrust, the company currently produces several modern versions of the aluminum Torq-Thrust wheel. The Torq-Thrust D and the newer TTO are the only ones that are one-piece castings.
The only vintage racing wheels that American Racing Equipment ever made without casting their name into them were made out of magnesium.
If you are looking at the inside of an old aluminum wheel, unless the name American Racing Equipment is cast into the wheel (along with the wheels size and offset), it was made by someone else.A newer version of the Torq-Thrust D was introduced in the 1980s, with spokes that are completely curved. Regardless of whether you like the shape of the curved spokes of the current Torq-Thrust D, it remains a classic wheel that is somewhat faithful to its original version.
However, to make room for larger wheel bearings on cars built after 1983, the company decided to change the bolt pattern of the center caps, which had been an industry standard for about thirty years. The move to the larger bolt pattern meant moving the bosses that are cast into the wheel for the cap mounting screws outward. This in turn created clearance problems for the wheels lug nut washers, which now fit into machined recesses that are created by the end mill that provides the seats for them. The result is a truly classic design that was changed into something that just doesnt look right. But theyre available in 15 by 4 1/2, 15 by 6, 15 by 7, 15 by 8 1/2, and 15 by 10-inch sizes, in 4 1/2 and 4 3/4-inch bolt patterns (with a few of those sizes also available in a five-inch bolt pattern), from most any speed shop or tire store.American Racingintroduced theTorq-Thrust Original, also called the TTO, in April of 2004. The TTO wheels have several changes compared to the ones from the 1960s. The new product announcement on page 26 of the June, 2004 issue of Street Rodder says that Instead of reissuing the disc-brake-unfriendly design, American Racing retro-engineered the original design and re-released it under the TTO (Torq-Thrust Original) banner.
The first visual difference that you may notice is that the holes for the lug nut washers are recessed more than the companys early wheels were, like they were recessed on the old Appliance wheels as well as the way they are on American Racings other current wheels.
Also, the wheel pictured in the ad for them on page 22 of the same magazine shows that the cast-in recess that is found between the inner-most area of the machined lip and the outside edges of the spokes on the original aluminum Torq-Thrust and Torq-Thrust D has been eliminated.
A further difference is that the center cap is Americans late-style cap, which has a larger bolt circle than the original wheels that American made. This was done to allow the center holes to be larger, to fit later-model cars.
In June of 2004, American Racing sent me the following message. Quote:
The Torq-Thrust Original (part number AR309), like all of our later-generation vintage wheels, uses a conically-seated lug fastener, not a mag shank with washer. The TTO is a one-piece, low-pressure casting of aluminum alloy, which is heat-treated. The original Torq-Thrust wheel featured backspacing of 3.5, while the new TTO offers a backspacing of 3.75. By using a .75 head lug nut with a thin-wall socket, there is no contact or clearance problem with the hub area or center cap footprint of any Torq-Thrust.
Other American Racing Equipment wheels
Aside from the Torq-Thrust, the most popular aluminum wheel made by American Racing Equipment was another five-spoked design, called the 200-S (with the S standing for Satin), also known as the Daisy. The earliest ad that Ive seen for the 200-S was in the January, 1969 issue of Rod & Custom.
The 200-S was available two ways: in a standard, as-cast finish with a machined lip, which was by far the most common; or with the outer faces of the flat spokes polished. Ive also seen these wheels with spokes that were fully polished, but doubt if they left the factory this way.
In the design of the Daisy wheel, American Racing deviated from their usual practice of using center caps that attached with five screws around the outside of the cap. Instead, the wheel used a smaller center cap with threads around its edge.
The 200-S was also made in a four-spoked version for cars with four-lug bolt patterns, and in that form was called the Libre. On the street and in SCCA racing, these were very popular on import cars, especially Datsun 240Z coupes and 510 sedans, as well as MGB and Triumph roadsters.
These wheels, like many other American Racing wheels, were cast at a foundry in Portland, Oregon. When the foundry shut down in the late 1970s, American Racing then contracted their casting to Rockwell industries. Those wheels do not say American Racing Equipment on the insides like the earlier ones.
The T-70 and T-70R wheels were other five-spoked designs. These had a very unique look due to their narrower spokes, which had a more pronounced peak. The T-70R, with the R standing for rib, had a flange running down each side of the spokes. T-70s were produced from 1969 through 1971.
Here is a pair of rare old wheels with spokes that are similar to the ones on the 200-S wheels.
The American Racing S2 was a two-piece magnesium racing-only wheel that Ive never seen in an old catalog or ad.
The few pairs of them that Ive seen have all been 16 by 10.
Ansen Automotive was started in 1948 in Los Angeles, by Lou Senter.
A gifted mechanic and engineer, Senter produced an extensive line of innovative speed equipment that included pop-up pistons, competition shifters, and the first NHRA-approved bellhousings.
The most popular Ansen wheel was the Ansen Sprint, which was introduced in 1963.
The Sprint was the first aluminum slot wheel, being centrifugally cast, a technique seldom used in the wheel industry back then. They were produced on a tracer lathe and shipped in their natural, machined finish.
Ansen Sprints featured five slots in the side of the wheel. This design was later copied by many wheel companies, including American Racing Equipment, Cragar, Fenton, Mickey Thompson, Superior, and US Indy.
All Ansen wheels were made of aluminum and had their name cast into them.
Ansen produced some five-spoked wheels were unique in having no provision for the standard five-screw, bullet-shaped center caps that were originated by American Racing Equipment. Instead, Ansen used their own smaller, round center caps (along the lines of the caps used on the American Racing 200-S daisy wheels). Another Ansen five-spoked wheel used a center cap that interchanged with American Racing caps. Ansen five-spokes were only produced with rounded, as opposed to peaked or creased, spokes.
Another company, American Dragmaster, produced a unique version of the aluminum slot wheel, using a rounded, bowl-shaped face with six slots. As far as I know, this is the only style of wheel they ever made other than a Torq-Thrust copy. Ive seen several sets of 14 by 7-inch American Dragmaster six-slot wheels, but only two pair of their 15 by 7 and 15 by 10-inch wheels. The outside face on these wheels looks okay, but they are the only cast wheels I know of that were rough-cast and not machined around the rim.
The design of the Cragar S/S began in 1962, with marketing starting in 1964. Its styling was influenced to some extent by American Racing Equipments highly-successful five-spoked Torq-Thrust wheel.
The S/S was one of the first production wheels to use a cast aluminum center with a rolled steel rim (both of which were chrome-plated), the way some 1957 Cadillac wheels were made. The S/S was also the first die-cast aluminum wheel. The wheel was designed with ribs and extra material added near the hub. The result was a wheel that offered a load-carrying capacity that was unmatched in the aftermarket wheel industry. Its classic styling made it a huge success with drag racers, hot rodders and custom car builders.
Cragar S/S wheels were made in 15 by 4 1/2, 6, 7, 8 1/2, and 10-inch sizes, and Ive also seen early versions of them in 16 by 10.
In addition to the standard 4 1/2, 4 3/4, and 5-inch bolt patterns, S/S wheels were originally also available in the then-popular early Ford 5 1/2-inch bolt pattern.
The original Cragar S/S is still being produced, along with a newer version, designed by the late Larry Shinoda, which is offered in larger diameters.
Several Cragar S/S promotional items were released, that included belt buckles, T-shirts, jackets, and even womens earrings that looked like little Cragar S/S wheels. Cragar earrings were not sold, but were given to racers wives and to some Cragar employees.
On display in my shop youll see a big Cragar banner, a new Cragar T-shirt from the 70s that I got from former Cragar owner Joe Hrudka, seven of the big cast aluminum Cragar mugs, and a chrome Cragar S/S belt buckle. Now all I need is a Cragar S/S tie clasp and a pair of Cragar S/S cufflinks.
The Cragar legacy began with George Wight. Back in 1923, George opened a wrecking yard in Bell, California, and named it Bell Auto Parts. Being a race fan, George noticed that some of the wrecked Model T Fords that became part of his inventory had been modified for racing. Recognizing their significance, he set aside part of the shop for speed equipment, which included cams, heads, and intakes. The wrecking yard quickly evolved into the worlds first speed shop.
In 1928, racing engine builder Harry Miller put together a group of people that included an investor named George Schofield, aviation experts from Beech, Lockheed, and Moreland, and engine designer Leo Goossen. The result was the Miller-Schofield Company, which produced carburetors, overhead-valve heads, and lightweight pistons for the new Model A Ford. The company prospered until becoming a victim of the Great Depression in 1930.
In 1931, a successful race driver, Harlan Fengler, found an investor, whose family ran Crane Plumbing, to put up the capital to save the business. The name for the new company was created by shortening the investors name, Crane Gartz, to Cragar.
Manufacturing its overhead-valve heads for the Model A and Model B Fords, Cragar earned an excellent reputation. But near the end of 1932, the Depression again took its toll, and Cragar Corporation closed.
At that time, between selling used parts and making its own speed equipment, Bell Auto Parts was doing well. In early 1933, George Wight was able to buy all of the Cragar inventory and tooling.
This move put George in need of some help in running Bell Auto Parts and Cragar.
George was a character. His parents had worked for the railroad, and he claimed to have been born somewhere in Arizona in a caboose.
One night, he happened to meet a talented young mechanic named Elbert Roscoe Turner, who had just arrived in Bell after having hidden in a boxcar all the way from Texas. The two hit it off, and Roscoe became Bell Autos first employee.
That brings us to Roy Richter, who was born in 1914. As a teenager in the 1930s, Roy was fascinated with race cars, and was one of the many racers who was often found hanging around Bell Auto Parts. When he finished high school in 1933, he started working at Bell as a pattern maker.
Roy became a master fabricator who led an extraordinarily rewarding life that first included building championship-winning, cast-aluminum tether cars, and beautifully hand-formed aluminum midget race car bodies. When George Wight died in 1943, Roy took over the business.
As a racer who enjoyed life, Roy recoginized the importance ofsafety equipment. Back in the 1930s, he had been among the very first midget racers to wear a real crash helmet. In a garage behind Bell Auto Parts, Roy and his employees began buildingBell helmetsin 1954. First worn at Indy in 1955, they were so well-received that theBell Helmet Companywas moved into a building next door with four employees in 1956.
Roys many other accomplishments included overseeing the production of the now-classic and copied three-spoked and four-spoked Bell steering wheels, as well as Cragar intake manifolds and blower kits for dragsters.
Although Roy Richter has since passed away, his legacy lives on.Bell HelmetsandCragarboth remain siginificant members of the automotive industry.
In 1990, the story of Roy Richters incredible career was the subject of one of the most amazing automotive books ever written, called Roy Richter Striving For Excellence, by Art Bagnall. Long out-of-print, used copies of this superb hardcover book can be found for $40 to $75. If you only ever buy one book about the history of hot rodding, this would be the one to get. You wont be disappointed with it.
E-T wheels were created in the mid-1960s by Dick Beith, who started the company while he was working as a high school metal shop teacher.
Shown here is one of the original E-T III 16 by 10 two-piece wheels. These were the only wheels that E-T made strictly for drag racing.
The reason for building these wheels in two halves was to make it easier to change tires at the track between rounds, although it still takes a lot of muscle to unseat the bead. The mating surfaces on each of the halves have a machined, stepped recess. This provided adequate sealing without an O-ring or a gasket, since these wheels were designed to be used with slicks, which use inner liners or inner tubes.
The original E-T III 16 by 10 was sand-cast aluminum. The entire face of the wheel was painted gold, perhaps to resemble the Dow 7 coating that was commonly supplied on the magnesium Halibrand Sprint that inspired it. Unlike Dow 7, the paint was prone to chipping.
It took a lot of work to get these rough sand-castings this even and smooth.
The most popular vintage E-T wheel was known as the E-T V (five), a Torq-Thrust copy.
The E-T V five-spoked wheels were considered good-quality wheels with decent castings and good machining.
E-T wheels often used distinctive center caps. Although they shared the same mounting pattern and chrome-plated, molded plastic construction as the original American Racing Equipment Torq-Thrust caps, E-T caps were made with a pronounced oval outside surface with the distinctive green and chrome E-T logo. These center caps, and a modern, two-piece version of the E-T five spoked wheel called the E-T Five, are available today from E-T.
Some of their early street wheels were produced with the E-T Unilug, an oval-track-shaped steel washer that could be inverted or replaced to change the bolt pattern of the wheel. One version has a centered hole that fits Chevy 4 3/4 wheels, and the other styles offset hole fits the Ford and Mopar 4 1/2 pattern in one position and the 5 on 5 pattern when its flipped arouind.
Like many wheels being produced today, the current E-T Five is a two-piece wheel that uses a cast aluminum center and a rolled aluminum rim. This type of construction makes it possible for a manufacturer to produce a wheel with any offset by varying the placement of a universal center.
A Halibrand magnesium 16 by 14 Indy wheel
A magnesium Halibrand Speedway 16 by 12
Halibrand Engineering was started by Ted Halibrand in 1946. Originally based in Culver City, California, and later in Torrance, California, Halibrand products included locking fuel caps, steering boxes, torsion bars and quick-change rear ends for Indy cars and sprint cars, and a wide variety of magnesium racing wheels for many types of race cars.
Halibrand wheels were used on Can Am cars, Fuel Altereds, Fuel dragsters, Indy cars, midget racers, and sprint cars, as well as sports racing cars that included the Shelby Cobra, Ford GT-40, Lola, and McLaren.
The earliest Halibrand wheels I have seen of are 18-inch magnesium wheels that are on a restored Indy car that was built in 1951.
Halibrand magnesium wheels were used on every car that won the Indy 500 from 1946 to 1963.
Many Halibrand wheels were made in the standard six-pin pattern for use with knockoff hubs. (The pins only locate the wheel on the hub or pressure plate, while the knockoff holds the wheel to the front hub or rear axle.) Six-pin wheels were commonly used in all types of racing except drag racing.
Bolt-on wheels could be ordered from Halibrand for virtually any application.
Halibrand Kidney Bean wheels were used on many types of race cars, from 12-inch Midget wheels to the original magnesium 18-inch Indy car wheels.
The Halibrand Sprint was made in a wide variety of sizes for many types of race cars. One version of the Sprint was the big window, which was made for drag racing and sprint car applications in sizes ranging from 15 by 4 1/2, 15 by 6, and 15 by 8, up to huge 16 by 13-inch wheels for Fuel Altereds, Funny Cars, and Top Fuel cars.
Kidney Beans were also available in spindle-mount versions for Anglia and early Ford spindles, and were found on many Altereds, and later on some early Funny Cars.
To protect them from oxidizing and pitting, Halibrand magnesium wheels were often shipped after being sent to a plating shop and given a gold coating called Dow 7. (Keith Black Racing Engines is one of several companies that used Dow 7 on magnesium blower cases and other parts.) Due to changes in the plating industry, platers that still work with this coating are hard to find. It resembles a flat gold anodizing. It was not extremely durable, and had to be redone occasionally to keep the wheels looking new. The circumference of the wheels, in the area covered by the tire and tube, was also coated, either with Dow 7 or an aerosol can of Krylon Harvest Gold spray paint, depending on who you ask.
In 1979, Ted Halibrand sold the company he created, and retired. In 1991, the racing community lost Ted Halibrand to a heart attack.
Having changed ownership and being relocated several times, the Halibrand company was last based in Kansas.
Original, unmodified Halibrand magnesium wheels in good condition remain the most sought-after of all vintage racing wheels, and the most valuable.
When Ted Halibrand ran the original Halibrand Engineering company, they made all of their wheels out of magnesium. They never made any aluminum wheels. Its ironic that both the last and second-last incarnations of the Halibrand company made all of their wheels out of aluminum, and despite the demand for them among traditional hot rodders and nostalgia drag racers (not to mention those of us that restore old hot rods and race cars), they never announced any plans to produce any Halibrand magnesium wheels.
In addition to their quality, light weight, and historical significance, something else that makes Halibrand magnesium wheels outstanding is how they transform the looks of the car theyre mounted on. While their function was a much greater design priority than their appearance, we have Ed Weimer to thank for creating the patterns for casting the original Halibrand wheels. It was his work that gave the wheels spokes, cut-outs, lips, and ribs their timeless, agressive look.
According to veteran Halibrand employee Bob Falcon, Teds pattern maker was Ed Weimer, the same guy who made the original patterns for the Hilborn-Travers fuel injection products. Those patterns were made in his home garage workshop, just off of Overland Avenue in the Palms region of Los Angeles. Palms was just across Venice Boulevard from Culver City. When Halibrand moved the shop to Torrance, Weimer relocated to one of the single-bay shops that Ted built on the west side of the property. This was in late 1963, when we started building the Halibrand Shrike race cars for Indy.
One of the neat things about Ted Halibrand was the pride that he had in the high level of quality of the components we manufactured. Nothing irritated him more than those times when we had a product failure. We really worked to make certain that it would never happen again.
Very few of the original wooden molds that were used to produce Halibrand magnesium racing wheels were preserved. Back when Halibrand Engineering had been sold and become a division of a company whose main interest was dune buggies, the employees often took old Halibrand wooden molds out to the California desert, where they burned them in late-night campfires.
Ted Halibrand was an engineer. He knew how to design wheels so they would be as strong as they needed to be without adding extra material to them that would have made the molds difficult to cast and the wheels heavier than they should have been. If he had ever had a problem with a poorly-designed mold, he would have corrected the problem instead of taking it to foundry after foundry and then still having problems with porosity in the castings. Ted Halibrand built wheels that worked well, and that people wanted to buy. He never had a fifty-foot trailer to take his products to trade shows, and he didnt wear an embroidered Halibrand Engineering tour jacket.