History of the Wheel

A loose look at the wheels and tires that lowriders have loved to roll on.

They may be the first custom thing that you put on your car. For that matter, maybe they’re the only custom thing that you ever put on your car. Regardless of how trick your ride is, most often you start with the wheels. Being the focal point of most cars, your rim and tire package can make or break the look and style of your ride.

Since the beginning of lowriding, there have been several unspoken rules to this game: one would be that a sharp set of wheels will set you apart. This was especially true back in an era undergoing many changes with equality for minorities and the growth of individuality, and it remains true today. The final rule would become the ultimate code for lowriders, and that’s the smaller the wheel, the closer to the ground it gets you (remember, this was before the days of hydraulics as we know them today).

Throughout time, the lowrider wheels of choice have changed and evolved. Many in the early years, as members of a custom car faction in the ’50s, started out with some red “oxides” and clean hubcaps. This was during a time when aftermarket rims were not available except as options through car dealers. In recent years, rims have made a major impact on the multi-million dollar automotive aftermarket, with more tire and wheel options available than ever before for lowriders and car customizers alike. This was definitely the case with the rise of the mammoth chrome rims.

For many cars, no matter what they’re rolling on, they are and always will be a lowrider simply because of the type of car that it is. Now we’re not here to give you a list of cars that are unmistakably lowriders. A ’63 Chevy Impala, no matter what you bolt on it, carries the persona of a lowrider, much like a ’32 Ford roadster is considered the “poster boy” for hot-rods.

The point is that our rims and rubber have changed throughout the years, and it’s not so much the application on the car, but the car itself, one that waited to shed its mundane appearance and spread its wings amongst the lowrider community, that’s the “star.” Instead of a sport coupe that doubles as a family car, it’s now a jewel-encrusted “king” that dances through the streets and punishes its rivals in competitions of honor and prestige.

So we’re here to shed some long-awaited light on the rims and tires that pushed our culture through the high times when it seemed that everyone and their mother was riding, as well as the low times when we were looked at as a weird cult of Latinos with some major mental defect.

For those of us who have lived, loved and studied lowriders for the past few decades, we see that times change and our current definition of lowriding has to be able to accept these changes as long as it keeps with our style. This means that we will be seeing more big wheels on lowriders, and the pedigree that we have maintained for decades will be validated through these advancements. History marches on, and the Lowrider Movement will roll on with it.

Naked ladies are always a favorite because of the style and flare that they bring to the street. But did you know that they were also the first to be used as a spinner-type wheel? It’s true. A bracket was used to mount to the spindle so while the lady stood still the wheel spun around her.

The cross-laced rims that came from the Tru-Spoke and Cragar design teams flossed fat, bent spokes clustered around the five lugs that kept all of their style mated to your ride. For many years, these rims were enough to make the girls from local neighborhoods drool while you’re doing laps on Whittier Blvd., decades before the anti-cruising attitude of the Whittier P.D.

McLean and Roadster were two of the first straight-laced wire wheels on the market that didn’t need an adapter to hide the lugs. The absence of an adapter was addressed with a design that consisted of shorter spokes and a spinner cap that covered the lug nuts. Though they were a great alternative to the original cross-laced spokes, they were no match for Dayton, which would emerge as the true king of the wire wheels.

Many younger lowriders are suckers for some thin “whites” and a set of five-spoke Cragars or Astro Supremes. This may be due to the fact that they were the first set of mag wheels that we can remember. Other brands would soon follow, like Dynasty, Fenton and Rocket. Nothing can beat the style of Cragars or Astro Supremes, however, and this ideal is reinforced by many of the top-notch wheel manufacturers today that work off of the basic five-spoke style for their current designs. These forged relics brought lowriding to its rise and would be used as a “mile marker” for the end of the golden age of lowriding in the ’70s. Mag rims and caps would not be enough for the lowrider enthusiast as times began to change.

The “silver” age of lowriding slammed on the scene laced up and ready to party. Like a fresh pair of Nike Air Flights, wire wheels came with straight- or cross-laced spokes that radiated the sun and gleamed in the night, which made them hard to ignore while you crawled down the boulevard blasting Parliament from your ride. As our cars began to shed their stock “skins” for new candy-covered patterns and enough fat flake to choke a python, there was a newfound need that the rims of old could not satisfy.

The new paint schemes of the ’70s needed something with more flare and flash, which unearthed the wire rim market. They started with cross-laced rims like Tru-Spokes, fat-spoke deep-dished reversed-style rims, and morphed themselves to a thin straight-laced Dayton with a few transitions along the way. Someone down the line got tired of the variable-fit oval mounting holes, long-shouldered lugs and lining up the back spacers every time that you swapped rims for work mode after a weekend of cruising, and more progress was made.

Nothing can compare to the feeling that you get when you smack that lead hammer down to tighten up your “Ds” (as Daytons are known by most)! Dayton’s initial fame came in the early ’80s when the vast majority of lowriders felt that wire wheels defined lowriding. Even with all of the other quality manufacturers of wire wheels, Dayton seemed to stand with their head above the pack due to their unique straight-laced design. This clean design harked back to the 1932 race-inspired wheel with all of the spokes going straight to the center of the wheel, only being secured to the car with an adapter and a knockoff.

Daytons were the epitome of what everyone wanted in a day when rims were generally inexpensive. These high-priced Daytons were not only the cleanest rims on the market, they were a status symbol of wealth and prosperity. Using an adapter and knockoff allowed the rim to sit without the lugs interrupting the elegant straight-laced spokes. Though many have since copied the Dayton design, none can compare to the quality and durability that you get when you buy a set of Dayton wire wheels.

Here we have hit another milestone with big rims, which have earned the unofficial designation as the wheel that represents the newest generation of lowriders. Present day rims have not only changed in style, but much like everything else, they’ve become status symbols. Not wanting to be caught with some “teenage” rims, it’s all 20-plus inches here. Size has no limit with owners willing to tweak the suspension as well as the body just to put on the biggest, shiniest set of wheels possible.

So as soon as you bought those 24-inch rims and thought that you were the king of the block, your neighbor pulls up on a set of 26-inch bastards that reek of blatant excess. From manufacturers such as Lexani, Giovanna, Katana and TSW, the refining of their catalogs has already begun and there’s no limit to their audacity. One style has managed to stay true to its roots and still carry the same appeal as its ancestors, only the spokes on these mammoth-size wheels are bigger than ever.

The rubber that wrapped these chrome servants of lowriding started with the big, fat “gangster whites.” A true look of the ’50s, these tires are still in high demand with suppliers doing their best to keep them in stock.

The next mark on the road would be made by Vogue with a tire reserved for Cadillacs and luxury cars. Vogue radials had a tight inset whitewall with a pin-thin gold stripe line to the edge of the tire. Then there’s the 5.20s. Originally intended as a replacement tire for early Volkswagens, 5.20 and 5.60 Premium Sportway tires were two-ply tires kindly referred to by most as “bicycle” tires because of their slim figures and mere 5 inches of rubber touching the road. The hiss from a fresh set of 5.20s, along with its profile, helped make this the official lowrider tire for many years.

Sometime around 1984, the company that produced the popular 5.20 line of tires would discontinue their output and close their doors forever. Today, the stockpile of 5.20s has depleted to almost zero, and a set of 5.20s is a prize find for most OG car builders. For those who spent the majority of their time on the road instead of the flatbed, the BFGoodrich P175/75-R14 would find its way on the scene as the smallest tire available in a 14-inch size. Soon after this introduction, even smaller sizes came to the forefront; the P175/70-R14 is an even lower profile tire.

With body styles changing from large to midsize, 14-inch wheels started looking out of proportion, while the need to get as close to the ground as possible would continue. Also, GM “G-body” cars sit higher on the frame than more traditional pre-’79 lowriders, so many switched over to the tire and wheel combo most desired by lowriders today, a P155/80-R13 tire on a 13-inch rim. The preferred rubber of choice in this size would be a Cooper radial, which gives more grip to the road while you’re hanging a three-wheel at 90 mph.

Nitto Tires has not only met the demand of the plus-size rims, but has led the way through the latest lowrider trends by offering rubber to accommodate almost any size wheel. A true leader in the tire market for more than 20 years, Nitto has wrapped almost every high-end car from California to New York. So you see, big wheel critics, there’s really nothing new when it comes to big wheels and lowriders.