A new graph from RimBlades USA shows how automotive wheel technology has changed over the last 130 years. Starting with wire wheels and hard rubber tires, wheel design has progressed to reflect manufacturing technology, material costs, and engineering goals. Notably, the graphic shows how some wheel technology – like aluminium alloy rims – had been offered for decades before becoming popular.
“Alloy wheels were first offered by Bugatti all the way back in 1924. Despite the fact that the technology existed, it really wasn’t until the 1980s and 1990s that alloy wheels became popular,” says Adam Dangleman of RimBlades USA. “Back in the 1970s and early 1980s – and before – most wheels were stamped steel with hubcaps.”
In 1885, German inventor Carl Benz built a two-seater wagon with a 1-cylinder engine. The wagon had three wire-spoked wheels and hard rubber tires that were either glued or nailed to them. In 1888, John Dunlop patented one of the first inflatable tires. While Dunlop’s design was immediately popular with bicyclists, it was also firmly attached to the wheel, making it difficult to fix a flat. Three years later, in 1891, Brothers Andre and Edouard Michelin designed an inflatable tire that could be detached from the wheel. Michelin’s tire design was featured in the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris automobile race in 1895. Since then, modern tires have been based on the Michelin design.
Meanwhile, wheel designs changed from bicycle-like wire designs to wagon-like spoke designs. In 1924, rolled and stamped steel was used to produce a steel wheel that would eventually become the industry standard for more than five decades. In the 1960s, alloy wheels began to catch on with enthusiasts. By the mid 1970s, aluminium alloy wheels were offered on most new vehicles. Alloy wheel diameters have grown in size substantially from the mid-70s on, increasing from 14 or 15 inches to 18 or 20 inches today.