Reinventing The Wheel

How custom rims are feeding car owners' jones for chrome — no matter the cost.

click to enlarge FOOD CHAIN: Lounging next to his Honda Accord, Obed Hernandez says that for him, rims are more important than food. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
FOOD CHAIN: Lounging next to his Honda Accord, Obed Hernandez says that for him, rims are more important than food.

Come stand before the wheel wall at Rent-A-Rim, but you'd better wear shades. Designer shades, of course. Shine-ee. Up close, these gleaming chrome beasts are bigger than you'd expect — stack a couple sideways and they'd make a pretty good coffee table. Better yet, slap 'em on your car and boost its street cred; and in some circles your personal sexy will get extra RPMs, too.

Custom wheels — rims, shoes, dubs, blades — and their companion skinny tires are the hottest trend in a thriving automobile aftermarket that includes electronics, lighting and other custom accoutrements. Rims are the fad that turned into a trend that became an entrenched part of car culture.

Talk about reinventing the wheel. The industry generated more than $4.2 billion in sales in '05, a robust 10-percent increase from the previous year. Revenue has doubled in the last decade. "The reason car enthusiasts go to the wheels first is that it has the most immediate impact on the appearance of your vehicle," says Peter MacGillivray, vice president of marketing and communications for the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA), an industry trade group.

What are the driving forces behind this nation of wheel nuts? As a fella who's perfectly content with the 16-inch stock jobs on my '03 Nissan Altima, I endeavored to find out. Wheel appeal is a tricky matrix of hip-hop's widening cultural influence, our collective obsession with celebrities and their toys, the American push to personalize our possessions, and savvy marketing.

It's also worth noting that the designer wheel business is booming while American automakers find themselves in dire straits. Rims are "one of the only successful stories in the automobile industry right now," MacGillivray says.

Not all the news about custom wheels is glowing. These vanity items have caused some folks to overextend themselves, only to have their rims repossessed by rent-to-own operations. Custom wheels are also prime targets of thieves, who sometimes go to great lengths to steal them, even including murder.

click to enlarge "SOMETHING FOR ME": Toquanda Baker smiles at her reflection in the shiny new 20s on her '93 Infiniti. - Wayne Garcia
Wayne Garcia
"SOMETHING FOR ME": Toquanda Baker smiles at her reflection in the shiny new 20s on her '93 Infiniti.

It's a summer afternoon, and a steady flow of folks pop into Rent-A-Rim on N. Dale Mabry in Tampa with a chrome jones. A muscular guy in a tank top and b-ball shorts stops in to make a payment, his toddler son in tow. A 50-something man with a bad comb-over inquires about juicing up the wheels on his '77 Monte Carlo. It's nothing for people to drop $2,000, $5,000 or more so that their vehicles can roll in style.

Toquanda Baker, a 26-year-old single mother of two who also has a foster child, waits for 20-inchers ("20s" in wheel argot) to be installed on her 1993 Infiniti J30. She works two jobs — in childcare and at SweetBay — and is buying nearly $2,000 worth of rims and tires on a one-year rent-to-own plan that'll end up costing her more than twice that.

She's chosen wheels she considers to be more "girlie" — deep dishes of blinding chrome without spokes or fancy doodads. "They're something for me," Toquanda says, a tad shyly. "I wanted to spend something other than on bills ..." She catches herself. "Well, it's a bill, but it's something special for me. A lot of my girlfriends have 'em. We're equal as the men. I got these by myself — without a man."

Go, girl. Even so, it's still mostly a guy thing. Today's core rim enthusiasts — 16-25-year-old males — mirror the hot-rodders of the '60s, only it's more about the dash for flash than the need for speed. It's not uncommon to see 20-inch rims, custom paint jobs and sick sound systems on four-cylinder imports that go 0-60 in half an hour.

click to enlarge WHEEL PROUD: Rob DeMatti  and Robert Alexander (below) show off their pimpin' rims. - Eric Snider
Eric Snider
WHEEL PROUD: Rob DeMatti and Robert Alexander (below) show off their pimpin' rims.

In fact, one of the more ludicrous aspects of the wheel scene is rag-ass "beater" cars sporting big chrome spokes. Robert Smith, who runs a Chicago PR firm that deals extensively with hip-hop culture, says that this phenomenon is often the subject of jokes in his African-American barber shop. "You never want the bottom of your car to be worth more than the top of it," he says by phone with a chuckle.

Others see it differently. "It's part of an aspirational lifestyle," says Myles Kovacs, a native of East Los Angeles who founded the hip car-culture magazine Dub. "You grow up in the 'hood and you aspire to success and its status symbols. Cars are an easy extension of our egos, and the beautiful thing is that they're mobile. If houses had wheels, some guys would drive around in their homes."

Rims can give a kid swagger, make him look like he's from a higher socioeconomic class, Kovacs says, adding, "I heard someone say recently, you've got white collar, blue collar and gold collar — that's when you have no money but you act like you do."

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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