Since the early days of the 20th century, specialty coachbuilders were making custom cars for the rich and famous. Back then, custom-built cars used wooden-spoked wheels. In the late '20s and early '30s, upscale cars started using steel wire in place of wooden spokes that tended to dry out, split and rattle. Both wooden and wire spoke wheels had a center hub bearing that was packed with grease and covered with a stainless steel or brass hubcap. Manufacturers started decorating the little hubcaps, typically with the company name.
In 1934, Cadillac came out with an art deco-styled stainless steel wheel cover, held in place with a single screw that covered the steel spokes. This gave the Cadillac a streamlined look. The new wheel covers meant class and luxury. Then in 1938, Cadillac started using stamped steel wheels with fullsize wheel covers. During the post-war years, standard cars had small button-size, or dog dish, hubcaps while deluxe models had stylized full-size wheel covers.
Harley Earl's Corvette Motorama show car was all about style, so, of course, sleek wheel covers were a part of Chevrolet's possible new sporty car. The rest is history. But the comparison to European sports racing cars was immediate and so was the disconnect. For the purists, nearly everything was wrong. Yes, Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar cars had six-cylinder engines, but their cars were small, had manual transmissions and real wire-wheels. The Corvette was big, had an automatic transmission and pretty wheel covers over basic Chevy steel wheels. To the Europeans, the Corvette was a joke, but they wouldn't be laughing for long.
This two-part series will take a look at the evolution of Corvette wheels; from the humble stamped steel wheels the car shared with regular Chevys, to aluminum-alloy knock-off racing wheels and finally alloy production wheels. Aluminum and nickel-alloy wheels can have intricate designs and they are slightly lighter, but can bend and crack easily, and are expensive. Steel wheels are stronger and are almost impossible to crack, but become impossibly heavy as the wheels get larger in diameter and width. This is why all Corvettes since the 1984 C4 have had aluminum alloy wheels. Modern Corvette wheels are the easiest way to update and personalize the look of any older Corvette. The history of Corvette wheels is just as rich as the car itself. Let's have a look-see. Vette
From 1953-'62, Corvettes used standard Chevy 15x5 stamped steel wheels. Beginning in 1957, RPO 276 optional wheels measured 15x5.5 and came with a passenger car button hubcap. This was usually ordered with the Heavy Duty Racing Suspension. Then from 1963-'66, the 15x5.5 wheel was standard.
A big part of the 1953-'55 Corvette's charm was that the body was not over decorated; it was proportional, sleek and elegant-looking. The one-piece wheel cover appeared to have an outer ring with a ribbed centersection and a simulated race car-like spinner that got the ire of sports car purists.
To jump-start interest in the sputtering Corvette, the body got a complete makeover, although the interior was mostly unchanged. The new wheel cover had a 10-rib design with a raised center section and a simulated spinner. This wheel cover was used from 1956-'62.
The only carryover parts on the all-new '63 Sting Ray was the engine selection. The new wheel covers had a slight outer ring, a center section with six thin ribs and a fake three-bar spinner. Real aluminum knock-off wheels (RPO P48) were on the options list from 1963-'66.
Every year from 1963-'67 Corvette wheel covers were different. The 1964 wheel covers featured an outer ring with a cone-shaped center section with nine radial open slots and a simulated three-bar spinner. The center of the spinner was decorated with Corvette crossed-flags.
All previous Corvette wheel covers had a slight outer ring and dished center section. The 1965 wheel cover had a slight outer beveled edge and a flat surface with six wedge-shaped polygon openings, each with a beveled inner edge and a three-bar spinner in the center.
Five-spoke mag wheels were becoming very popular in the aftermarket. The 1966 wheel cover reflected that trend with a slight outer ring and five spokes that angled inward into a center dish shape, with open slots between each spoke, and a raised center section with a three-bar spinner.
In 1967, it was a breakthrough year for Corvette wheels. The 15-inch steel Rally Wheels were now 6 inches wide and had five oval-shaped functional cooling slots. Instead of a full wheel cover, there was a dished, chrome outer beauty ring; a separate center cap and no simulated spinner.
From 1963-'66, Kelsey Hayes supplied genuine ribbed, knockoff 15x6 aluminum wheels. By 1967, the knock-off spinner was prohibited by Federal mandate so the aluminum wheels were actually bolt-on with a center cap instead of a spinner. The real knock-off wheels would sometimes come off if not properly tightened.
The Rally Wheel design was used from 1968-'82. In 1968, the rim width was increased from 6 inches to 7 inches, and in 1969 increased to 8 inches. The outer beauty ring got deeper and the center cap more pronounced. The steel rims were painted silver. These were very handsome wheels.
The last Corvette wheel covers were called Bright Metal Wheel Cover in 1968 and Deluxe Wheel Covers from 1969-'73, were most popular in 1968 and 1969. The $57 design was considered futuristic featuring 72 radiating fins that dished in, and then out with a small center cap.
Cast-aluminum wheels arrived on the 1973 Corvette order sheet (RPO YJ8), but only four sets were ordered because Chevrolet recalled the wheels due to porosity problems. In 1974, the wheels were on early order forms, but none were sold. The alloy wheels were finally available in 1976 and 6,253 sets sold.
To celebrate the end of the C3, Chevrolet offered the Collector Edition. One of the main features was the unique aluminum wheels that featured 36 radial fins with a plastic finned center cap. The design was similar to the 1967 finned wheels and was only available on the Collector Edition.
Alloy wheels were now standard all Corvettes. The '84 wheels measured 16x8.5 front and 16x9 rear. From 1985-'87, the front and rear wheels measured 16x9.5. The wheels were directional and the outer fan blades pulled air through the wheels to cool the brakes.
Because engineers were concerned about the ability of the base suspension to handle the 9.5-inch-wide wheels, the new six-slot wheel width was reduced 1 inch to 16x8.5. However, 17x9.5 wheels were part of the $970 Z52 Sport Handling option. Seventy-percent of 1988 Corvettes had the Z52 option.
Turbine-style wheels were part of the 1990-'92 mid-cycle refresh. The front and rear wheels measured 17x9.5. The Kelsey Hayes-designed wheels were cast in one piece and made in Japan. Like previous C4 wheels, the fan blades pulled air through the wheel to help cool the brakes.
The ZR-1 was the C4's King of the Hill. All 1990-'95 ZR-1s had 17x9.5 front and 17x11 rear wheels. ZR-1 wheels from 1990-'93 had the turbine blade-style design. 1994-'95 ZR-1 had painted silver five-spoke A-Mold wheels. 1995 Indy Pace Car replicas had the same wheels.
The 1996 Grand Sport had ZR-1 front and rear wheels. Rear fender flares were added to cover the wide tires. The Grand Sport's ZR-1 wheels were painted black and had a polished rim. The 1996 Collector Edition Corvettes had ZR-1 wheels painted silver; front 17x8.5 and rear 17x9.5.
Illustrations & Graphics by K. Scott Teeters