A Swap Meet Scrounger’s Guide to Vintage Wheels

Text & Photos By Tommy Lee Byrd

One of the easiest and earliest methods of automotive personalization comes in the form of tires and wheels. Aftermarket rolling stock originally offered a combination of upgraded strength, convenience, and appearance. The custom wheel industry kicked off in the racing world, but by the late ’60s, aftermarket wheels were commonly used as an upgrade for regular street cars. You could buy them through many mail-order companies, such as JC Whitney, or you could even buy them through major retailers, such as Sears, JCPenney, and more. As aftermarket wheels became more affordable, everything from Corvairs to Corvettes had many options for custom fitments. Dozens of brands gave customers a wide range of styles, finishes, and sizes to fit their needs.

We could write a book about the history of the aftermarket wheel and the major players in the industry, but the purpose of this article is to educate you on the various types of wheels that you may stumble across at a swap meet. While you may be fortunate enough to find some cool Halibrand wheels, or magnesium American’s at a swap meet, you’ll likely be met with a gigantic price tag. These wheels are like gold to old-school drag racers and hot rodders. You may also find that front runners (wheels that measure 3 to 5 inches in width) bring more than the more common 6-, 7- and 8-inch-wide sizes. It’s easy to get a little too excited by the high prices on eBay or at swap meets, so control your spending habits and do your homework before you unload a bunch of cash on a set of wheels.

If you’ve ever walked through a swap meet, you’ve likely seen some vintage wheels stacked up. Some are wildly expensive, while others are dirt cheap. It usually comes down to the wheel’s construction. These magnesium American Racing Torq Thrust wheels bring big money because they are considerably more scarce than the aluminum versions.

There are lots of important factors to remember when searching a swap meet for vintage wheels. The obvious things, like size and bolt pattern, can be checked with a pocket-sized tape measure, so don’t leave home without one. Always check the condition of the wheel thoroughly, but understand that you’re taking a gamble when buying vintage wheels. There could be hidden damage, such as bends or cracks in the material. You’re dealing with fatigued metals that could be upwards of 60 years old, so be prepared for potential heartache if your wheels end up as garage decoration. On the bright side, the perfect set of legit vintage wheels can take your old-school muscle car to the next level. Let’s dig into the fun of scrounging around at a swap meet, and take a look at some great vintage wheels that may be awesome additions to your project car or parts collection.

SIDEBAR: Racing Wheel Pioneers

Funny Cars and altered drag cars were allowed to run spindle- mount front wheels. These wheels are lighter than typical 5-lug wheels, due to the lack of material in the center section, and the lack of provisions for front brakes. American Racing built these 12-spoke examples, a very popular design that was built only in magnesium.

Aftermarket racing wheels can be traced all the way back to the 1900s, but things really got serious in the ’40s and ’50s. Originally, all-steel racing wheels took the place of wooden-spoke wheels to provide better strength and handling. Then, racers wanted strength without the extreme weight. Magnesium was the material of choice for lightweight racing wheels, dating back as early as 1946 when Ted Halibrand debuted his special 18-inch racing wheels designed for Indy racing.

Halibrand Engineering Company built wheels primarily for Indy racing throughout the rest of the ’40s and into the ’50s. Racers began using the Indy-style wheels for other types of machines, including salt flat racing and drag racing. As drag racing got more serious in the late ’50s, purpose-built magnesium wheels hit the market. The biggest difference in an IndyCar wheel and a drag racing wheel was how it attached to the car: IndyCar wheels attached using six pins and a knock-off hub assembly, while most drag racing wheels attached using conventional 5-lug bolt patterns. It was also somewhat common to see 6- or even 8-lug magnesium wheels for drag cars to match the heavy-duty truck axles that were used in the early days.

While Ted Halibrand’s company led the way in magnesium wheel offerings, a fellow by the name of Romeo Palamides came onto the scene during the ’50s. He built a pair of magnesium rear wheels for his personal dragster, which graced the cover of Hot Rod magazine in 1956. The enormous amount of feedback he received about his custom rear wheels sparked a new business, which would later be named American Racing Equipment. A few years into his endeavor, Palamides’ wheel offerings consisted of a four-window rear wheel (known as a Standard) and a 12-spoke spindle-mount front wheel. A stroke of genius came around 1960 when American Racing Equipment debuted its Torq Thrust wheel, a design that would become an industry icon.

There are several popular rear wheel configurations for vintage Top Fuel dragsters. Early Halibrand wheels, like these, featured four oval-shaped slots, also known as windows. Halibrand later went to a five-slot design with much larger windows. Notice the dull gray finish—this material corrodes quickly, but it sure looks cool.

Originally produced exclusively in magnesium, the Torq Thrust wheel eventually transitioned in the aluminum construction and instantly became an affordable custom option for muscle cars and hot rods. This would send a ripple throughout the wheel industry, as many high-performance wheels made the switch from magnesium to aluminum construction. Magnesium had inherent issues with corrosion, as even highly polished wheels would quickly turn back to the original gray finish. Aluminum wheels, even if left completely raw, would keep a good shine, which appealed to hot rodders and muscle car owners. By this point, the term “mag wheel” had already stuck, so even though many aftermarket wheels are constructed with aluminum, steel, or the combination of the two metals, they’re still referred to as “mag wheels.”

One drawback of a cast- magnesium wheel is that the material can deteriorate and become brittle. This 12-spoke American has graduated to “wall hanger” status with a broken spoke. Magnesium can be welded, if you know the right guy, but broken wheels were often scrapped.

Cragar was another big player in the aftermarket wheel industry. The Super Sport (S/S) wheel took the world by storm in 1964, with a timeless five-spoke design with a combination of a steel hoop and a cast centersection. Cragar S/S wheels were affordable and plentiful, and they ended up on countless drag cars, street machines, and even daily drivers. While they provided little in the way of performance gains, the Cragar S/S holds a special place in the custom wheel timeline, and you can still buy them to this day.

Halibrand originally jumped into the wheel business with magnesium castings that saved weight, compared to stamped steel wheels. Many of the early wheels are completely smooth with no cooling windows. Notice the knock-off “spinner” with six locating pins, a popular way to attach wheels on open-wheel race cars.
By the 60’s, Halibrand was manufacturing purpose-built drag racing wheels, like these 16-inch “big window” wheels. Primarily used for Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars, the 16×10 sizing eventually grew to accommodate wider slicks. These wheels are cast magnesium and bring big money.
Halibrand’s most popular front runner option was this spindle-mount design, which was often used on Funny Cars in the 60’s and 70’s. All Halibrand wheels have the word Halibrand and a model number cast into it, unless the markings were removed during extensive polishing.
Contrary to Halibrand wheels, early American Racing wheels did not have any branding information cast into the wheel. These early Torq Thrust front runners have no identification markings, but the spoke design and magnesium construction confirm that they are indeed American’s Racing. These wheels fetch huge prices, and they’re typically used on gassers from the 60’s.
common way to personalize the wheels in the 60’s and 70’s involved painting the spokes—sometimes to match the body color, but you’ll also notice that gold spokes were quite popular in the 70’s.
American Racing Equipment still produces classic wheel designs, such as the Torq Thrust D, pictured here. A quick way to tell the old American from the new ones is the lug nut area—old American’s require a shank and washer- style lug nut, while the new recreations use an acorn-style lug nut with a tapered seat.
Another popular American Racing wheel is the 200S. Some people call them “Daisy” or “Coke Bottle” wheels because of the spoke design. These wheels came out in 1969, and the most common sizes range from 6 to 8.5 inches wide. You may find some 15×10’s out there, but you’re not likely to find any original 200S front runners at a swap meet, as they are incredibly rare.
Cragar is an iconic wheel brand that made huge waves in the automotive aftermarket in 1964. The timeless five-spoke design still looks cool on the right type of build. Even though Cragar is still producing the S/S wheel, the originals have a little different design, and are more desirable by purists.
Original-design Cragar S/S front runners are more pricey than common rear sizes, but they’re perfect for a vintage- style muscle car or drag car. You’ll want to stay away from the unilug wheels from the ’70s and ’80s if you’re going for originality.
Another cool Cragar design was known as the Super Trick wheel. It was a lightweight spun aluminum wheel that debuted in 1970. These wheels were used on all sorts of door slammer drag cars and were a popular choice for street cars as well. Super Tricks were a multi-piece wheel that bolted together.
Centerline jumped on the spun aluminum bandwagon in the 70’s and created a wheel that was similar to the Super Trick. It was called the Auto Drag—it had the same smooth finish, but had fake rivets instead of bolts. Other wheel companies knocked off this design, as it was quite popular in the 80’s.
Most aftermarket wheel companies were relatively small, but as the trend continued to grow, wheel manufacturing giant Motor Wheel Corporation decided to play ball. The Michigan-based company was a supplier to the Big Three, but its first aftermarket product was called the Spyder. It offered a unique look, and featured a chrome-plated steel hoop with a cast center.
Motor Wheel jumped into the racing wheel market for a short time in the early 70’s. A racing version of the Spyder was produced in one-piece cast magnesium and were most often used on the rear of Pro Stock cars. They are extremely rare.
Another magnesium racing wheel from Motor Wheel is called the Fly. This was undoubtedly one of the lightest drag racing wheels ever produced. The front runners were made from magnesium and known for being fragile. Rears were made from aluminum.
Kelsey Hayes, manufacturer of the famous Chevrolet Rallye wheel, also hopped on board the aftermarket wheel bandwagon in 1969. Hayes developed the “Stripper” wheel to utilize a steel hoop and an aluminum face with 20 spokes of varying lengths and angles. These wheels are rare in any size, but the 15×4 front runners pictured here are nearly impossible to find.
A timeless classic aftermarket wheel is the “slotted mag.” Even though “mag” is a common name for the wheel, they were typically made from aluminum. Ansen, Fenton, and U.S. Indy are the top dogs when it comes to slotted mags, but there are about a dozen other manufacturers who built similar wheels.
Like most other vintage aftermarket wheels, narrow slotted mag front runners are often more desirable, and usually bring more money at a swap meet. If you’re picky about the brand, flip the wheel over and you’ll often see the brand cast into the rear of the wheel. If there is only sizing information and no name cast into the wheel, you’re dealing with a knock-off.
ET was another great brand of the 60’s and 70’s. ET produced one of the better Torq Thrust copies available at the time and offered them in several sizes. The ones pictured here are 15×8.5. Most of ET’s street wheels were unilug.
A closer look at an ET wheel shows the oblong unilug bolt hole. Unilug wheels require a special offset washer to accommodate the bolt pattern of your vehicle. Direct drilled wheels are usually preferred, but many 70’s wheels featured the unilug design.
The 60’s saw several wheel companies bring new designs to the market. The typical five-spoke wheel was popular, so companies put their own spin on the trend by creating alternative spoke designs. Foresight created the “Drag Mag,” which featured a split spoke and black accents.
Keystone was yet another brand that offered affordable aftermarket wheels. You can still pick up some Keystones for cheap these days, but again, front runners are hard to find. Keystone Klassic wheels are perfect for an early 70’s build.
We’re getting into semi-modern territory, but let’s be real—the Weld Racing Draglite wheel debuted about 40 years ago! These wheels first saw national exposure on Lee Shepherd’s Pro Stock Camaro, and they’ve been going strong ever since.
Weld Racing wheels are easy to spot, because they will have clearly stamped branding, with KCMO (Kansas City, Missouri) alongside. Most will also have a date code. The wheels pictured were built in 1992. Cragar built a similar wheel, and many others would later offer the design.
Subscribe to our Magazines