In the Beginning, There Were Spokes
The evolution of the car rim naturally begins with the first cars ever created. Going back to Henry Ford’s first Model T, tires for the popular vehicle utilized wooden spoke artillery wheels, which didn’t last long and made for a very stiff ride. They were quickly replaced by welded metal spokes, covered with an air filled rubber tube. Although those early compounds didn’t last long, it was a much better ride than their wooden predecessors. Hence: the birth of the pneumatic tire.
Success breeds mass production, and the 2-piece, stamped disc rim was the answer to the question “How do we produce four wheels for all these cars without going bankrupt?” Strong, inexpensive, and easy to produce, this rim took 2 halves then stamped and fastened them together with welds or rivets. Precision balance was not nearly as crucial to production in those days as was cost and availability.
The continual increases in performance needs actually sent car rims back to the early days for a little while. Long before motorized passenger vehicles even existed, the earliest wheels began as solid horizontal cuts of wood, with holes in the center for an axle. They were later made much lighter and stronger by using spokes banded to a hub by a ring of bent wood. Using the grain of the wood for strength while greatly reducing the mass was one of the most significant developments of mankind. The same concept is used in rim designs today.
Although metal rims are still very popular today, alloys like aluminum and magnesium have become very popular. Introduced in the late sixties, these materials are much lighter than steel while still providing plenty of strength. This translates to more horsepower to the ground. They can’t be repaired like steel rims, and they are definitely more expensive, but they can increase the performance in most any vehicle.
Well, there isn’t any way to improve the shape. It’s stayed the same from the start. The significant changes have been made in structural design and materials. Advances in those areas will continue, as they always have. But what game changers lay in store? Michelin has been testing an Active Wheel System that actually incorporates many of the cars functions into the wheel itself. Some of the new tire materials being tested eliminate the need for inflation, and some are working to combine the tire and rim back into one solid, airless piece of composite material. Are we going back to our roots? Only the future can tell.