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Wheels

Wheels

by Stephen Bayley

Wheels must not roll easily, they have to look good as well. Stephen Bayley gives a resumé on wheel design. By the way, did you know that the famous italian Borrani wheels are based on a development from Coventry.

Cars are defined by their wheels, obviously. Without wheels, a car would be a stationary metal hut whose engine existed only to power the air-con, and the essential distinction between mobile and static architecture would have disappeared. So, designers are taught to take wheels very seriously. It’s a part of studio tradecraft to know the optimum ratios between wheel height and beltline, for example. It affects the whole aspect of the car. 

These ratios are numbers which every designer knows. More subjectively, we enjoy looking at cars whose wheels and tyres seem to fit the arch in a way that suggests swollen muscularity straining at a T-shirt’s sleeves. If wheels look lost in their arches, a car seems weedy and maladroit. This was the only error spoiling the otherwise consummate masterpiece that was the NSU Ro80. Or, compare a 427 Cobra with a Mini Metro (the latter compromised by having to use old narrow Mini subframes in a new wider body, the former being influenced by the great gobs of V8 torque urgently needing management-by-tyre). 

And in the contemporary marketplace, designers also know how a car’s precise position in the social hierarchy may be determined by the wheels alone. Detroit used to call this status apartheid ‘series differentials’, meaning how different interior trims indicated what money you had spent on your Pontiac. Stuttgart, Munich and Ingolstadt now outperform Detroit in this psychological intimidation as effortlessly as they do in dynamics. If you buy a cheap Audi A4, you are forever stigmatised by its small wheels with apologetic detailing. It’s not that the over-wrought and enormous wheels on a top-of-the-range car look like a gross addition, it’s more that the simple wheels look like a humiliating deduction. It’s that cruel. 

Interestingly, the English and the Americans have played a big part in the history of the car’s wheel. One hundred and forty years after Sir Humphrey Davy identified magnesium as an element, Ted Halibrand starting sand-casting mag wheels in California. With his forge, Halibrand put the word ‘mags’ into the language. His influences came from aerospace (Lockheed was nearby in Burbank) and his market was the new clique of hot-rodders who used the liberations of the GI Bill to test human tolerance to pearlescent paint and high acceleration. 

Halibrand’s distinctive wheels, with their very technical aspect and fine ribbing, appeared on the Thorne Engineering Special which won the Indianapolis 500 of 1946. Soon, another wheel with kidney-shaped ventilation slots became a customiser’s favourite and his signature item. Later, a finer pattern Halibrand wheel was used in most Briggs Cunningham Specials and was standard fit on factory Ford GT40s and Carroll Shelby’s Daytona Cobras. With their wildly exaggerated three-ear spinners, these ‘Halibrands’, became immediate identifiers of some of the greatest sportscars of the sixties. 

The classic threaded wire wheels which cast magnesium eventually replaced found their scriptural home in Milan at Ruote Borrani, founded in 1922. But Borrani’s design for a lockable wheel on a splined shaft was based on a British bicycle patent. Indeed, Borrani emerged from an earlier entity called Rudge- Whitworth Milano. So, with its origins in Coventry, the classic seventy-two spoke Borrani wire wheel was the standard fit on Ferraris made between 1946 and 1966. 

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Porsche too was distinguished by its wheels. Before adopting discs, Porsche had a unique system where, to avoid duplicating components, the studs carrying the wheel were integral with the brake drum, meaning that the ‘wheel’ was in fact just a steel rim, an annular device, carrying the tyre. This made, say, a 550RSK, look exceptionally technological underneath the arches, although the great Porsche expert, Karl Ludvigsen, tells me the design was copied from a Ford truck seen by Porsche when visiting America. So, Midlands bicycles influenced Ferrari and Midwest trucks influenced Porsche. 

Again, in the sixties, the classic 911 was defined by its alloy wheels designed by Heinrich Klies for the Otto Fuchs Metallwerke. Other wonderful examples include the laboratory-precise Dunlop ventilated wheels on the Jaguar D-Types and the idiosyncratic ‘Wobbly Web’, designed by Lotus’ Gilbert MacIntosh and inspired by a nineteenth-century pulley, but made famous by the egregious and sharp- elbowed Colin Chapman. 

On road cars today, size alone seems the chief determinant of wheel design. And I think this is a very German thing since it lends a sense of aggression – rather than delicacy – to a car. And this is enhanced by the absurdity of extremely low- profile tyres. Certainly, less flexible low-profile tyres behave in ways which can enhance performance, but if they were dynamically essential, Formula One cars would have them too. Instead, Formula One cars have notably high-profile tyres because the compliance of the sidewall adds a measure of ‘comfort’ which the nearly solid suspension does not allow. Design is always about a compromise. 

Certainly, design student today are still busy drawing concepts with wheels that look like rollers smeared in rubber rather than discs wearing tyres. But pausing recently to stare mournfully at a photograph of the crashed Facel Vega in which Albert Camus died, it’s remarkable how vast the tyres were (at least until one of them exploded). It occurred to me how ridiculous an Audi A8 would look with balloon-like tyres on small wheels. And that got me thinking … maybe it is time for another aesthetic direction in wheel design. 

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