Wire Wheels Overview
by Arthur Kelly
I have heard many "short" discussions about wire wheels. It seems to me that the reason those discussions were short is that very few people knew a whole lot about wire wheels. First - a story, which will lead to the some conclusions / information about wire wheels.
In 1993, at the VTR SouthEastern Regional in Sebring Fl, while the judges were looking over my TR4, one of them noted that my right rear wheel was a forty-eight spoke wire wheel ( my TR4 should have had 60 spoke wheels). That was interesting and showed me how little I knew - I hadn't even noticed this in the almost two years since I had gotten the car back. In fact, I really had to look to see the difference. (The 60 spoke wheels have a second row of spokes behind the outer row of spokes). Since the 60 spoke wheels are original for the TR4 and since they are safer, I decided to replace that 48 spoke wheel and figured that as long as I was at it I might as well refurbish the 4 other (60 spoke) wheels. I began to research various options.
I knew that the four 60 spoke wheels were the original wheels on my car and that they had about 95k miles on them. The 48 spoke wheel had obviously been a replacement (my car, which I had picked up new at the factory in '64, had been sold to someone else who had it for several years before I bought it back in late '91). I could see that the original four 60 spoke wheels needed to be restored and I thought I could have them trued, tuned and repainted the correct color. I wanted to get the best wheels I could for the least amount of money.
A local TR club member (which is one reason why it pays to join a club) gave me the name of a place in California specializing in British wheels. Then another club member said he had an old 60 spoke wheel which I could have for nothing. I thought I was all set. I could keep the car on the road by sending the 60 spoke wheels one or two at a time (since I now had five 60 spoke and one 48 spoke wheels). My idea was to have the five 60 spoke wheels refurbished and then get rid of the 48 spoke wheel and have "proper new wheels all around" as well as a spare.
I called the wire wheel company in California and inquired about cost etc. It appeared that it would cost $105 for each wheel to be completely refurbished (that included shipping both ways). That appeared reasonable and new wheels were more expensive. I shipped the 60 spoke wheel which I had been given with instructions for them to re-do it. I figured this way that: 1) I would have a sample of their work, 2) I could figure a scheme for sending the other wheels so that the car would never be off the road and 3) I could spread the cost over several months.
After about a week I got a phone call from the company in California. What they said was that the wheel was not worth refurbishing because the splines were too worn. I really didn't know what they were talking about. However, after a 20 minute conversation I finally began to understand some vital things about wire wheels.
What I Found Out
A wire wheel consists of an inner hub and an outer rim connected by spokes. These spokes can become bent or broken, which will cause the wheel to be out of round, or warped, and possibly weakened. "Rebuilding" the wheel means that the spokes are replaced if damaged or missing, and all spokes are equally tightened so that the wheel is round once again. This is called "truing" and when finished the wheels are said to be "true." During a normal rebuild the wheel is also stripped of paint and rust, then primed and repainted. When that is all done the wheels are "tuned". That is not difficult to understand, although I have since found that "truing" is an art. But there is a problem in that the hubs are also vital. If the hubs are worn it is a waste of time to rebuild the wheel.
So we need to understand the role of the wire wheel hubs. Let's assume the car has disc wheels. In order to install wire wheels the disc wheels must be removed. Then the bolts, on the axle, which held the disc wheels must be replaced by shorter bolts to prevent interference with the spokes (the old bolts can be shortened but I recommend replacing them). A splined hub adaptor is bolted onto the new bolts at the ends of each axle. After the adaptor is in place, the splines on the inner hub of the wire wheel fit into splines on the hub adaptor. A "knock-off" then screws onto threads at the end of the adaptor and holds the wheel onto the car. (see my article on wire wheel tightening at the vtr web site).
When new, the splines are long and shaped like a pyramid with the top 10% cut off. As the splines wear, the sides become uneven i.e. the sides of the pyramid are actually ground down or become "L" shaped. The splines (both sets - adaptor and wheel) eventually wear out and after about 70k miles a clicking sound will come from the rear wheels when the clutch is first engaged. If the wheels are pulled off and the both sets of splines are inspected, the wear is evident. (Eventually this wear will cause the hub to spin inside the wheel, although I imagine that this would take quite a long time before happening). An important consideration here is that because the splines are cast they cannot be repaired. Hence, if the splines are worn, both the wheel hub and the hub adaptor must be replaced. If only one of them is replaced, the old splines will quickly wear down the new ones.
I had no idea what the mileage was on the wheel which I had been given and which I had sent to California. I told the company to keep it rather than pay the shipping charges back to Florida. Then I inspected the hubs and hub adapters on the other wheels on the car. They were visibily worn. Refurbishing was no longer the answer; all the wheels (and the adaptors) would have to be replaced. The next step was to decide which wheels to buy.
At the time I was doing this, most new wheels that I found available were made in India for Dunlop. They ranged in price, at several vendors, from 132 to 150 dollars apiece. However, The Roadster Factory had wheels made in the U.S. by Dayton. These wheels were regularly priced at 189 dollars apiece. But the impression that I got after talking with 4 or 5 vendors was that the Dayton's were definitely a better quality wheel. Then I realized the because of an ongoing TRF sale and because TRF also gave credit towards "freebies" the total difference in price came to only about 12 dollars per wheel. I decided to buy the Dayton wheels.
The next step was to choose the correct hub adapters, which were about 75 dollars apiece. An important note here is that the adapters are different for the left and right side of the car due to opposite turning threads on the knock-offs. Two left and two right hand hub adapters MUST be used. I ordered four hub adapters and four wheels (figuring I would keep the best of the old wheels as a spare and buy a fifth wheel at a later time). In addition I replaced the old adaptor bolts on the axles since they were worn.
I received the parts and spent another 50 dollars to have the tires/tubes taken off the old wheels, installed on the new wheels and then dynamically balanced. Care must be taken here that the tire shop understands how delicate the finish is on the wire wheel rims and that the shop has a machine which will not chip the rims.
Now the clincher - When the new bolts, adaptors and wire wheels were installed I noticed the most significant change in road handling that I had ever seen. The car felt "tight" and, of course, that clicking noise from the rear wheels was gone. In addition a front end vibration which I had at 58-62 MPH was gone. And the wheels look great - my wife's comment was "They look exactly as they did when the car was new."
To sum it up - it was well worth it. As usual, it pays to do your homework regarding prices, deals etc. before deciding what and where to buy. A new set of wheels costs about twice as much as having the old ones refurbished but will last much more than twice as long. Refurbishing does nothing to the old splines on the wheels, never mind the hub adaptors.
An important reminder --- the method used to tighten your wire wheels will effect not only your safety but also the life of the wheels. See the article on tightening wire wheels .
Arthur Kelly, ArthurK101@aol.com
VTR TR4 vehicle consultant