Custom Wheels? They Need Custom TLC

Now you've really gone and done it. You've decided to change both the appearance and the performance of your car or truck, and do it in the quickest way possible--by adding custom tires and wheels.

You aren't alone in your decision to spiff up your vehicle. The aftermarket, or custom auto and truck industry, in this country is valued at an incredible $19.3 billion a year.

And custom tires and wheels account for as much as $2 billion of that, says Dick Wells, vice president of corporate projects for the Diamond Bar-based Specialty Equipment Market Assn., the biggest vehicle parts trade group in the world.

You've probably noticed that those custom tires and wheels are, well, pricey.

There are good reasons for this, not the least of which is that tire and wheel making is a highly labor-intensive process. You can't make them (not yet, at least) with machines alone.

At almost every step of the process, skilled humans wielding a variety of sharp, heavy tools are working on the rubber or the metal. They're pounding here, trimming there and putting their imprimaturs on the product. In fact, some of those many numbers on the sidewall of a tire actually tell who built the tire, as well as where and when.

Here are some tips for protecting your new investment.

Tire Maintenance

Run the tires at the pressure recommended by the vehicle manufacturer. And remember: Pressure goes up as the tire gets warm from use. Check pressures at least twice a month, and do so after a freeway run.

Run the flat of your hand over the surface of the tire tread (preferably while the car is not moving!). If the tire is wearing unevenly, you'll be able to feel the difference between one side of the tread and the other. Uneven wear can cause a bumpy, noisy ride and difficulty in braking and steering.

If tire wear is uneven, it's time for a wheel alignment or tire rotation. It's a good idea to consider rotating the hard-working tires on front-drive cars every 5,000 to 7,000 miles.

Your own driving style also has a tremendous effect on tire life. Keep this in mind: Every time you hear a squeal from your tires, it's costing you money, not impressing bystanders.

Use a silicon-based liquid tire protectant, especially here in Southern California, where smog, heat and ultraviolet rays combine to turn rubber to dust. But remember: These dressings are slippery, so don't ever use them on the tire's tread, only on the sidewalls.

One more note on custom tires: If you opted for sporty, low-profile or low-aspect-ratio rubber, you've probably noticed that while steering, braking and general handling improve, the ride is a lot rougher than you expected. Be not alarmed. That's normal (or, as they say at the service station, "They all do that, lady").

That term "low-profile" (which you'll see advertised as perhaps a "60-series" tire) means the sidewall is short in relation to the width of the tire. The shorter the sidewall, the bumpier the ride. The short sidewall not only transmits the road's bumps into the cabin, it actually amplifies them.

Tires built for comfort have a tall sidewall (an "80-series," for example) but don't provide sporty-car handling. Buying tires always involves a trade-off between comfort and performance. The trick is to find the balance that's right for you.

Wheel Care

Back in the ol' hot rod days, a "mag" was a custom-built aftermarket wheel made of super-light, super-strong magnesium. Mags can also be super-expensive, and true mags today are usually relegated to racing-only applications. Now mag is applied freely to any kind of custom wheel.

Customs these days are made of steel, aluminum, magnesium or a combination of those materials. And the vast majority of custom wheels are bought for their looks, not their performance potential.

So for the proud new custom-wheel owner like you, the crucial question is: Just what the heck are these things made of, anyway? Knowing the materials is the first step in developing a proper care regimen.

It's also critical to know whether the wheel has been treated with a clear coat, which does the same thing for wheels that it does for a vehicle's paint job: protect the surface from invasion by any nasty interloper determined to break through the barrier and set the stage for rust.

If the wheels do have clear coat, you should not use any abrasive cleaners. This means no more dishwashing-soap-in-the-bucket washes on Saturday mornings.

If the clear coat is breached (you hit a curb, a rock hits you, or you used the wrong cleaner), you can cover up the problem with some clear enamel. This quick fix should do the job permanently and is usually unnoticeable. Also, never clean clear-coated wheels with any sort of brush (bristled or otherwise) or SOS-style kitchen cleaning pad.

In all cases, make sure you're using the proper cleaner and protectant. For instance, Alcoa has a spray cleaning solution for aluminum wheels, but it won't do a thing for or may even harm steel or magnesium.

Be sure to check the condition of your wheels regularly. Occasionally inspect and clean the backs of brake dust and grease, always using the appropriate cleaners.

If you've hit or jumped a curb or plowed through a particularly nasty pothole, chances are you've damaged your custom wheel. In most cases, the cost-effective treatment for such problems is simple: Replace it.

Buy only wheels that have the industry-standard "SFI Spec" approval, and, no matter what anyone might tell you, replace the valve stems in the tires whenever you replace the wheel. It's just a good, safe practice.

Wheels and tires are the only parts of your vehicle's complicated suspension system that you see every day, but even small, well-researched upgrades can leave you impressed with the results.

You might not feel like a CART champion driving the family about in your minivan, but, darn it, you'll be looking good! And this being SoCal, what else really matters?


Steve Parker is the auto expert on KCBS-TV Channel 2 News' "This Morning" and host of "The Car Nut," a call-in program airing Saturday from 8 to 10 a.m. and Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. on KXTA-AM (1150). He invites your questions and comments via e-mail at; or in writing at Car Care, Highway 1, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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