The modern car comes with a variety of customization and accessory options, with the finish of the hubcap providing that final shiny detail that can truly raise the appearance of a vehicle. Coming in vast varieties and existing largely for aesthetic purposes, wheel coverings did once upon a time serve a much more functional purposes in the automotive world.
To learn more, let’s take a quick look at where the idea for the hubcap came from and how this common car accessory has evolved over time!
A Covering to Protect the Steel Bearing of Early Wheels
The earliest wheels of the automotive world were much like the ones found on horse-drawn carriages, constructed with wooden spokes that connected the outer steel rim to the wheel’s centre hub and steel bearing. Uncovered, the hub was vulnerable to all kinds of dust, dirt, and grime from the roads of the day. To protect the steel bearing and keep packed grease in—necessary for keeping the bearing lubricated—the earliest hubcaps were devised. These original wheel dressings were small in size, usually fashioned from nickel-plated brass and placed tightly over the wheel hub, leaving the less vulnerable wooden spokes exposed.
Wood Gets Replaced with Superior Spokes of Steel
As the earliest cars evolved, wooden wagon wheels susceptible to cracking when exposed to the elements gave way to stronger steel-spoked wheels in the late 1920s and early 1930s, which remained exposed but still required a form of protection for the wheel’s hub. Hubcaps of the day began increasing in size to provide slightly more coverage, giving room for aesthetic touches such as stamping the carmaker’s name on in brass or stainless steel.
Caddy Rolls out the First Full-Coverage Wheel Dressing Designs
In 1934, Cadillac was the first automaker to place a stainless-steel covering over the entire wheel, screwed into place with a centre hubcap. This protected the hub while covering up the steel spokes which were notoriously difficult to keep clean. The overall effect gave the car a much more streamlined look, and quickly became a symbol of high-class luxury. Cadillac called their unique design “wheel covers,” which has caused debate over the years over the use of the term versus “hubcaps.” If you’re considering learning how to become a mechanic, you’ll be interested to hear that the terms are generally interchangeable in the industry today. Collectors and automotive history buffs are more likely to make the distinction.
Caddy Keeps Rolling out New Designs
Once Cadillac came out with its first slick wheel covers, you could say it was on a roll with hubcap design, going on to lead the industry in unique new styles. One of the most famous of the time was a heavy, chromed 1950 design nicknamed the “Sombrero” because of its resemblance to the traditional hat. While other more basic, economical hubcaps existed at the time, nicknamed “dog dish” caps because of their size and shape, Caddy’s sleek wheel covers were in especially high demand—giving way to a rash of hubcap thefts in the 1940s and 50s.
A Look at the Plastic Makeover for Those Interested in Auto Mechanic College
Interested in attending auto mechanic college? You’ll be interested to hear how things evolved for the hubcap in the 1970s, when car manufacturers discovered that ABS plastic offered a less expensive, more durable construct of the accessory while continuing to offer drivers the shiny brushed steel or chrome look buyers wanted. Built to snap firmly in place, plastic hubcaps were also more efficient at staying on than previous heavy steel-based models, which had frustrated car manufacturers and owners for years for flying off at the slightest bump.
At the time, drag racing had become popular in American neighbourhoods, but the problem of loose flying hubcaps became such a safety issue to spectators that hubcaps were banned from the activity. Drag racers began painting their wheels and decorating them with chrome lug nuts and coverings, which some say may have given rise to the chrome wheel, followed by the popularity of mag and aluminum wheels. By the late 80s, ABS plastic wheel covers pretty well wiped out steel hubcap use by carmakers. The hubcap sure has come a long way from its humble start on wooden buggy wheels.
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