What's the Big Wheel?

Bigger is better and badder. That's driving the sales of custom wheels these days. Auto makers now regularly offer their vehicles with 18-in. wheels, some as large as 20 inches. Custom wheel shops offer 26-in. rims. Meanwhile, some 30 inchers were spotted at SEMA's big aftermarket show this year. This my-wheels-are-bigger-than-yours mentality has lit up sales. SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Assn.)

Bigger is better — and badder. That's driving the sales of custom wheels these days.

Auto makers now regularly offer their vehicles with 18-in. wheels, some as large as 20 inches. Custom wheel shops offer 26-in. rims. Meanwhile, some 30 inchers were spotted at SEMA's big aftermarket show this year.

This my-wheels-are-bigger-than-yours mentality has lit up sales.

SEMA (Specialty Equipment Market Assn.) reports retail sales of custom wheels grew from $2.9 billion in 2000 to almost $3.3 billion last year.

Bill Carlin, the director of the tire and wheel division at Keystone Automotive Operations Inc. in Exeter, PA, distributes 31 different wheel lines and sells more than a million sets of custom wheels annually.

While pickup truck business has always been good, Carlin says sales to car tuners during the last two years have grown and SUV custom wheel sales have “gone crazy.”

The hot wheels right now are rims that go up to 26-inches for SUVs and spinners.

What's more, while sales of custom made wheels are up, prices are down because of increased competition and an influx of quality custom wheels made in China and Korea. Of course, price is relative.

Richard Calbay of DUB, a celebrity automotive lifestyle magazine, says that three or four years ago a 20-in. set of chrome wheels cost $500 per wheel. Today that same set runs about $350 per wheel.

He says now that consumers can buy a bolt-on adapter, rather than the whole wheel and spinner, they can keep their costs down to $2,000 to $2,500 a set, rather than pay up to $15,000 for a set of custom made wheels and spinners.

As the popularity of custom wheels grows, new-car dealers are selling them outright, installing them and maintaining them, says Jim Spoonhower, vice president of market research at SEMA. “And they're getting better margins doing it.”

Brian Kull, owner of Philadelphia's WheelthingFX, saw a 35% increase in his sales of custom made wheels to dealers last year. Wheelthing sells about 6,000 sets of wheels annually.

But dealer involvement in the sale of custom made wheels is not uniform. Liz Magarity, head of marketing at Magarity Chevrolet in suburban Flourtown, PA, says it doesn't get much demand for custom wheels.

Conversely, AutoHaus, a Los Angeles dealership, doesn't sell a vehicle without custom wheels. AutoHaus customizes all its vehicles for lease or sale.

“The trend in wheels is that customers want the biggest wheel that can fit under the car,” says Josh Wagner, sales manager at AutoHaus. “We're now fitting the BMW 745i with 22×10 Collectizone wheels.” Colectizone owns AutoHaus.

Los Angeles-based Prestige Products has styling centers in 18 new-car dealerships. “We operate like we're part of the dealership,” says Art Corey, director of sales and operations.

Prestige, in business for 23 years, has seen customers change radically.

“In the high-end stuff that we do, our customers range is the early 20s to 70,” says Corey. “The people we're seeing now, the Baby Boomers, 50 and up, spend huge amounts of money on wheels and tires.”

The Waikem Motor Group jumped into the aftermarket “head over heels,” says Dave Waikem, an owner of the dealership collection.

It's comprised of 13 franchises: Ford, Nissan, Suzuki, Honda, Subaru, Audi, Mitsubishi, Chrysler, Jeep, Buick, GMC, Hyundai and Kia.

It's located 50 miles south of Cleveland and may be the prototype for dealers looking for more aftermarket business.

About a year ago, the group started Waikem Motor Sports. “We do it all,” says Waikem. “We lower the car, we redo coil springs, shocks and we use a lot of different aftermarket wheels. We do everything but mess with the engine.”

The group provides aftermarket parts, including custom wheels for any brand that it sells. “It's a huge market,” says Waikem.

Gary Cowger, president of General Motors Corp.'s North American operations, says that for the first time he saw a set of 30-in. wheels at this year's SEMA show.

“They were impressive, but I can't imagine what you'd put them on,” he says.

It may take an act of Congress, literally, to rein in the size of custom wheels because of safety concerns. But for now, the demand continues.

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