The History of the Great Cover-Up: U.S. Hubcaps & Wheel Covers
Now wait a minute...are they called hubcaps or wheel covers? Is there a difference between the two? And while we're at it, why did they start using hubcaps to begin with? These and similar questions have baffled the great minds of the world for many years. So to get to the bottom of these questions, it's best to examine the long, tortuous and yes, actually interesting history of the automobile hubcap.
Let There Be Hubcaps
Car enthusiasts have had a running love affair with hubcaps for decades. Some say that the art deco styling of the famous Chrysler Building in New York is a tribute to the hubcap. (At the very top of the building there is a series of giant overlapping wheel covers. And at the 61st floor below the ornamental eagles, there are bands of ornamental automobiles that have shiny hubcaps).
But, how did hubcaps come about in the first place? Well, originally there was a functional necessity for the cap. See at first, autos were made with wooden spokes like a buggy or wagon wheel. The wooden spokes connected the outer steel rim to the center hub which contained the wheel bearing. The wheel bearing was packed with grease. Something was needed to cover the center hub which could keep the dust out and the grease in. What was needed was a "hub" "cap." Some people today actually spell it hub cap rather than the technically correct spelling of hubcap. So this hub cap (which could have also been called a dust cover) came into existence strictly for functional reasons, but it was a small center cap designed to go over the center hub leaving the wooden spokes exposed. Unfortunately, the wooden spoke wheels were not long for this world. Although they were varnished and sometimes even decorated with pin-striping when new, they would soon begin to age and crack and look pretty lousy. You could always hear from a distance a car with aging wooden spoke wheels creaking down the road.
It's Better to Look Good Then to Work Good
In the late twenties and early thirties, steel wire-spoke wheels began to replace the wooden spoke wheels. These also required the center cap over the hub, which still left the steel welded wire spokes exposed. By the thirties, function gave way to style and decoration. The hubcaps became larger and stamped with the auto manufacturer's name in brass or stainless steel and were utilized as a decorative design feature, but still covered only the hub. The wire-spoke wheels were a problem because they were hard to keep clean and made an annoying wind noise as the cars would go down the street.
Honey, I Want a Cadillac...or at Least Their Hubcaps
In 1934, Cadillac fitted its new model with a stainless steel disc which was held in place by the screw-on center hubcap which fit over the top of the disc. The disc actually covered most of the wheel, covering up the wire-spokes completely. This new styling feature gave the wheel a luxurious streamlined look.
Oh, "Wheel" "Covers" I Get It!
So where does the term "wheel covers" or "wheelcovers" come in? In 1938, Cadillac began using pressed steel wheels similar to what is used today. They covered the wheels with luxurious full sized hubcaps...or "wheel covers." So the term wheel cover was born, but for some reason the term hubcap has never yielded its top position as the most commonly used term for that thing-a-ma-jig that covers up the wheel of a car. The important thing is that Cadillac made the full sized wheel cover the symbol of luxury and class. Soon, hot rodders began to seek out the old Cadillac wheel covers for their 1930-1950's custom rods. Probably the most classic Cadillac hubcap was the heavy, brilliantly chromed 1950 wheel cover nicknamed the "Sombrero" because its profile resembled a sombrero hat. Cadillac owners soon began to realize that their hubcaps were very much in demand. They would usually figure this out when they would go to get in their car and happen to notice that they no longer had any hubcaps...ouch; another victim of "hub capping" (hubcap stealing) which was the sad state of affairs in the forties and fifties.
You've probably heard the term Moon (or racing disc) hubcap which became popular in the fifties. Interestingly enough, the first spun aluminum Moon wheel cover was not invented in the fifties. Bob Rufi, the fastest man alive in 1940, used spun aluminum hubcaps from, of all things, a WWI Jenny war plane to help streamline his 140 mph record breaking speed machine at the Bonneville Salt Flats.
Drags, Mags and American Flags
Early drag racers used to soup up their cars and on weekends drive them to the drags. Drag racing soon became as American as apple pie. As cars got faster, some safety issues arose. The hubcaps had a nasty habit of flying off and giving unprepared spectators a new part in their hair. New rules were instated that required drag racers to remove their hubcaps before racing, for safety reasons and also for proper inspection of the wheels. Racers began just leaving their hubcaps off after the drags and driving around town like that. Soon, seeing a car with no hubcaps came to mean "drag racer." Drag racers began painting their wheels and decorating them with chrome lug nuts and chrome dust covers (center caps). Some believe this led to chrome wheels followed by the "mag" (magnesium) and aluminum wheels which became very popular in the sixties.
There is a Great Future in Plastics
Finally, in the 1970's auto manufacturers began fitting their new vehicles with ABS plastic hubcaps. These wheel covers look like chrome or brushed aluminum caps. By the 1980's, ABS plastic wheel covers virtually replaced the use of steel hubcaps by auto manufacturers. Although plastic might sound cheap or flimsy, the fact is, ABS plastic is rugged and durable and most importantly, it is light. The lighter the hubcap, the less likely that it will fly off. Now, you need to know that some plastic wheel covers made by auto manufacturers are not that great at all; they fly off too easily. Being sturdy, rugged and light alone is not enough. The wheel cover needs to have a good solid retention system. The best is an all steel 360 degree retention ring that can really grip the steel wheel and help the hubcap stay on the wheel.
Life of the Party
Now that you have become an expert on the world history of hubcaps, you can dazzle all of your friends at the next party with your amazing knowledge of the mysterious hubcap. Well, maybe not dazzle them...maybe more like not completely bore them to death. Hopefully, you enjoyed the overview and actually learned something along the way.