How To Choose The Right Wheel For Your Rod

Choosing which wheels to put on to your custom or hot rod is a huge decision. Often expensive, the wheels can have a profound effect that either brings the entire build together or, in some cases, blows it to smithereens.

Each set of wheels gives the car a unique flavor and performance.   – Dave Baker

The same vehicle with different wheels gives a different vibe. One of the most popular questions Rod Authority gets asked is, “what wheels are those?” Which is usually followed by “what made you choose those?”

We decided to get in touch with some folks who know a thing or two about wheels: Matt Dowd of ASR Performance, Scott Sandoval of Billet Specialties, and Tim Kawasaki of Wheel Vintiques. We also spoke with Dave Baker, builder of Goldrush, a 1950 Mercury Coupe Custom.

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To see and feel the change different sets of wheels can have, take a look at Dave Baker’s 1950 Mercury, “Goldrush.” Baker has three different sets of wheels he uses and changes in between. He finished building the car over 10 years ago and has taken it to many shows, winning many awards. To have some fun with it, he sometimes brings the car out in the spring with a new set of wheels and runs them for the year on show circuits.

Dave Baker uses three different sets of wheels and tires for different looks and different ride characteristics.

Set One: 15×6-inch steel wheels painted gold, Firestone 6.50×15-inch bias-ply wide whitewalls, 1954 Buick Sombrero Hubcaps.

Set Two: 15×8-inch and 15x 6-inch steel wheels 225 and 275×70 radial whitewalls, moon Bonneville disc caps.

Set Three: 17×8-inch rear, 17x 7-inch front American polished five-spokes with black wall 275 and 225/50R17 radials.

How do you choose wheels for your custom builds?

Dave Baker: Each set of wheels gives the car a unique flavor and performance. For smooth ride and driving reliability, the set with the radials and moon caps was the best. For nostalgia the ’54 Buick caps got the most attention. The five spokes and 50 Series tires were meant to give it a hot rod look but was very controversial. Some people liked it, some people thought it was sacrilege. It was fun.

 

ASR Performance And Custom

ASR Performance is a full-on car shop, capable of any task that has to do with any year, make or model hot rod. The shop has built street rods, musclecars, customs, and more. ASR built Dean Scott’s 1934 Ford High Boy Roadster, which was in the running for America’s Most Beautiful Roadster at the 2016 Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, California. We fired off a few questions to Matt Dowd, owner of ASR Performance and asked how they choose wheels for a project.

Budget is the largest factor.         – Matt Dowd

When building a vehicle, how much emphasis/importance do you place on the wheel choice?

Matt Dowd: The wheels can make or break a car, and are a major factor in determining the style of car you are building. Wheels and paint are two of the biggest decisions in building a car, and can separate your car from the rest of the pack with the right combination.

How do you choose what wheel to use? Do you have a set of specific criteria as a baseline?

MD: Budget is the largest factor in purchasing a set of wheels for a build. Once the budget and the tires are figured out the next step is to pick a wheel based on personal taste and the style of the car.

Have you started with a wheel choice and then built a car around it?

MD: No, because you should pick your tires first and then choose wheels that fit your tires.

ASR Performance uses many different styles of wheels depending on the particular look the build has. Photos Courtesy of ASR Performance.

Is there a wheel, or wheel style, you do not like?

MD: That’s easy, spinners, because they’re ridiculous.

When you see a vehicle with a poor wheel choice, what goes through your mind?

MD: Eh, that doesn’t look very good, but maybe they’ll get it right next time.

Are there any other thoughts, observations or related information you feel may be pertinent to this story?

MD: One thing to remember is if you buy too large of a wheel diameter it takes away from your ride quality. If you want a show car then go fancy, but if you want a car you can get in and drive chose something that has a smaller diameter. The reason a smaller diameter gives a better ride is because you can run a slightly larger tire that will give you more of a cushion compared to a lower profile tire.

Billet Specialties

Billet Specialties has been in the automotive aftermarket industry for many years and has experience with nearly every sort of build style there is. Hot rods, street rods, customs, trucks, and off-road. But they don’t just cover wheels, they also offer engine dress up kits, steering wheels, and many other things that are eye-catchers. We caught up with Scott Sandoval, marketing manager of Billet Specialties to get an insight into what goes into a wheel choice from the manufacturer’s perspective.

… take into consideration [when selecting a wheel] are how the wheel and tire fit into the fenderwell. – Scott Sandoval, Billet Specialties

When a buyer is having trouble deciding what wheel to choose, how do you assist them?

Scott Sandoval: On our website, we have a wheel visualizer that has a database of thousands of vehicles. You are able to select your year make and model then proceed to change the color of the vehicle as well. Once that is gone through you can try on different wheels to your taste. Also, our sales staff consists of enthusiasts that participate in our hobby at a personal level as well as their professional level. This experience and knowledge base, along with what kind of looks the customer wants, combined with our online wheel visualizer, has proven for a successful result time after time.

What makes for a good hot rod wheel choice, in your opinion?

SS: The things to take into consideration [when selecting a wheel] are how the wheel and tire fit into the fenderwell, for one. There should not be very much gap from the top of the tire to the top edge of the fender on the front and on the back the tire should tuck up into the fender well this has a big effect on the wheel size to be used. Second, we work with the customer on fitment of the wheel to make sure the back wheel has a deeper look than the front as well as the classic big and little look. Third any classic five-spoke design holds its own over time, although there are many exceptions and that is where our sales staff shines with their experience.

The wheel designs by Billet Specialties can easily compliment and build style and class. Photos courtesy of Billet Specialties.

Please explain some of the physical differences between the various wheel choices available. Bolt pattern, offset/backspace, width, etc., and how that affects the design of your wheels.

SS: There are always parameters that must be worked within when designing a wheel. Bolt pattern range, for example, defines how big the bolt pad on the wheel must be and the design has to take that into consideration to accommodate that. Offset/backspace is affected by what kind of caliper clearance is needed and the thickness of the center where it contacts the rim. This is all factored in to ensure the design allows common fitments and backspace range with maximum style. Our 30 years of experience and knowledge really shine at this point.

Wheel Vintiques

We also gave a call to Tim Kawasaki of Wheel Vintiques to get even more behind-the-scenes information on wheel choice. Wheel Vintiques has had crafted original equipment wheels, custom-sized wheels, and more in the United States for quite some time. The company takes pride on its true OE fitment, great customer service, and show quality finishes.

You wouldn’t wear slippers with a suit.                        – Tom Kawasaki

How much importance do you place on proper wheel choice for a hot rod?

Tom Kawasaki: It’s one of the first things people really notice on a car. Hot rod or modern. They are just like accessories when getting dressed, and you wouldn’t wear slippers with a suit. The wrong wheels can take away from the overall appearance and aesthetics of the vehicle. Imagine and old rusty truck. Add nice wheels and white walls, it can really set off the vehicle and make it stand out like it was designed that way. The right wheels make all the difference in the world.

When a buyer is having trouble deciding what wheel to choose, how do you assist them?

TK: The first step is proper fitment and getting something that fits the style they are looking for. A lot of times the wheels are the last thing purchased or just tossed on before the build idea is formulated. This can cause issues with fitment immediately or later down the line with big brake upgrades or suspension changes or they don’t match the style properly. Style is very subjective. Often times people start their build around a specific wheel choice. A main call [Wheel Vintiques gets] is someone that already knows what they want and is looking for something specific. We show everything we have to offer and our customization abilities, custom size and backspacing.

What makes for a good hot rod wheel choice, in your opinion?

TK: I am a big fan of whitewall and original looking wheels. Powdercoating wheels to play with color helps make wheels stand out. I also like staggered looks, 15s up front and 17s in the back.

Wheel Vintiques' designs harken back to the days of old but with a little modern flare added in as needed. Custom sizes are available to fit with modern amenities. Photos courtesy of Wheel Vintiques.

So … How Do You Choose The Perfect Wheel?

Unfortunately, we don’t know that we’ve stumbled upon a magic formula on how to choose the right wheel for your build. There are many, many options on the market. Mind-blowing if you include the custom design possibilities. Ultimately, it comes down to what you want on your own vehicle. If you want a modern-ish style wheel that challenges the predefined boxes, you absolutely can. Or, you can go a traditionalist route and stick with what is known and accepted, maybe giving it a little custom twist of your own.

You can even find something that straddles the line between custom and traditional. Just to make sure you don’t dislike your own decision. It may not be a bad idea to utilize today’s technologies to help you better visualize the end result. Don’t fall prey to the latest trend only to hate the choice you made. Use Photoshop and custom-built web-based software to actually see what the combination will look like. The point is, it is your car and your design. Do what you want!

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About the author

Jake Headlee

Jake's passion started at a young age wrenching on cars with his Dad. Obtaining that glorious driver's license sparked his obsession with grease and horsepower, and the rest is history. Soon, he was a general mechanic and suspension specialist, and currently designs and modifies products for the off-road industry. Jake enjoys rock crawling, desert racing and trail running, and writing in his spare time.
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