We trace the car wheel from the early days of the automobile to the latest in cutting-edge technology.
Along with the mastery of fire and advent of agriculture, few human inventions have had the kind of far-reaching impacts as the wheel. There’s a long way from using logs to transport large objects and the early spoked wheels of chariots to the steel and rubber wheels used in modern cars. Much of that advancement has occurred in just the last century. Below, we follow the evolution of the automobile wheel from its early days to the radical new designs on the horizon.
The very first automobile wheel shared a lot in common with bicycle wheels of the day. In 1885, Karl Benz’s three-wheeled Patent Motorwagen had wire-spoke wheels with a plain hard rubber tire. These very early wheels lacked much of any cushion and coupled with a rudimentary suspension, produced a very rough ride.
A few years later, in 1889, brothers Edouard and Andre Michelin advanced the pneumatic tire, which at the time needed to be glued to the rim of the wheel, by developing a removable version, first for bicycles before applying the same concept to cars. The pneumatic tire had first been invented back in 1845 by R.W. Thompson but, prior to the Michelin brothers, had been the province of bicycles.
Across the pond in the US, BF Goodrich became the first American company to produce pneumatic automobile tires in 1896. Among Goodrich’s innovations was the use of carbon in their tires, greatly increasing durability. At the time, rubber tires lasted less than 2,000 miles and required near constant repairs.
While some cars of the early 20th century used wire spokes or pressed steel, Ford Motor Company’s Model-T began life using very traditional wooden spoke wheels as you’d find on field artillery. It wasn’t until 1926 that Ford adopted the used of welded steel spokes for the Model-T.
In 1934, the first drop center steel rims came into use, allowing for easier, more secure mounting of tires.
Though preliminary designs date back to 1914, it took until 1946 before Michelin developed the first radial tire for automobile use. The overlapping chord layers of the radial design made these tires much more durable. Despite this, it wouldn’t be until the mid-1970s before radial tires would become industry standard.
Michelin wasn’t the only company making important technological contributions at the time. In 1947, BF Goodrich released the first tire that did not use an inflatable innertube. This meant fewer components, less complexity, and leant increased safety and an improved ride.
The next major spate of innovations came with the development of aluminum and aluminum-magnesium alloy wheels. Though these types of alloy wheels first saw application in racing in the 1950s, they didn’t see widespread used until manufacturing and technological improvements in metallurgy allowed for alloys which were more robust and less brittle. Early production applications came in the 1960s and include familiar classics like the Mustang GT350, Porsche 911, Corvette, and Ferrari 275 GTB.
Today, custom rims are an essential part of many project and classic cars. Rolls-Royce uses what amount to anti-spinners. These are weighted center caps with the RR logo which always stay upright. The donk and hi-riser style feature comically large wheels with very thin tires, facilitated by a pronounced suspension lift. Popular in the tuning car and JDM communities is the style of “stanced” wheels. This involves increasing negative camber of the wheels (sometimes done in racing to improve cornering grip), often to impractical extremes.
Not all significant advancements for the car wheel were practical. Since the early days of the automobile, wheels were part and parcel of the overall aesthetics of the vehicle. Touches like chrome, removable hub caps, and complex spoke patterns were early ways to bling out cars. Starting in the 1950s, car designers began adding things to otherwise dull steel wheels like faux-spokes and spinning center lock caps. These designs would become popular in lowrider and other custom car scenes.
Car wheel technology continues to advance apace even today.
Michelin is working on new technology that completely dispenses with the whole idea of an inflated tire. Their tweel design uses ridged yet flexible rubber spokes to support the weight of the vehicle. This means a puncture-proof tire that literally cannot go flat. The company continues to work on their design, which, in its present form produces vibration at high speeds. Currently, the tweel is seeing limited application in slow-moving construction vehicles.
Goodyear has also come out with some compelling new designs in recent years. In 2016, they unveiled their Eagle-360 concept, a spherical wheel design intended for autonomous vehicles. The spherical wheels would be connected and controlled via magnetic levitation (currently seen in high-speed trains). While a long way from deployment, the design does have the potential for radically improved vehicle mobility.
Another of Goodyear’s new designs in the “recharge” tire which would slowly but steadily extrude new rubber to replenish the tire’s surface. Rather than having to replace a set of tires every 40-50,000 miles, the reCharge tire would only require a new rubber compound capsule. The reCharge design would also for a single set to convert from summer to winter compound, ensuring grip best corresponds to temperature.
The phrase “to reinvent the wheel” implies the superfluousness of a project and its outcomes. But in the case of these new car wheel and tire designs, reinventing the wheel is anything but redundant.