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Installing New Aftermarket Wheels

This article addresses a couple of pitfalls to watch for when installing aftermarket wheels in place of original equipment.  Contrary to what one might hope, they are not always simply a drop-in fit on all cars.

I had discovered a slow leak on one of my tires on my 1993 Dodge Daytona.  When I bought it I had transferred my tires and wheels from my 1992 Daytona, which was in the process of being scrapped due to rust.  The 14-inch Goodyear Integrity tires still had half their tread left at 45K miles, whereas the 15-inch tires that came with the 1993 were obscure brands and in poor shape.

Imagine my surprise when the tire shop told me that there was no leak at the tire itself, but that the steel wheel was rusted through, and had two pinhole leaks.  While the center insert was in good shape, the rims were hopelessly rusted.  It had never occurred to me that this would ever be an issue.  The photo shows one of the original 1993 rims; the 1992 was far worse, but I neglected to take a picture before scrapping them.  Soapy liquid bubbled furiously in two places when applied.

Editor’s note: some readers have pointed out that the cheaper, generally Chinese wheels usually sold by mail order and the less reputable shops may not last any longer than junkyard wheels — perhaps a year or two. Buy with caution and thinking “ long term investment,” not “what’s absolutely cheapest?” — as Bob did.

I had several options.  Since the slightly “better” rims were 15-inch, I could not save the good 14-inch tires to use on them.  I didn’t trust the 15-inch rims long-term, and did not want to prowl junkyards and get rims that would themselves fail in the near future. 

I could buy new 14-inch rims and have the good used tires swapped over for $25 each, plus balancing.  But the tires would only last a year or two.  Instead, I opted to buy new alloy wheels and tires, the most expensive option, but the least maintenance required at a time when my plate was too full to have this ever be a problem again.  I also have always hated dealing with removing and installing the plastic hubcaps that these cars came with, and now they are a thing of the past.

replacement wheelsA local tire shop sold me the 15-inch x 6.5 wheels shown at right (their 14-inch selection was limited and poor).  These are painted aluminum alloy, so they may eventually pit slightly, but they are very unlikely to succumb to the same fate as their predecessors.  These were $477 with tax, for all four.  Cosmetically, they work well with the Daytona, and didn’t expose so much of the calipers and drums that painting is mandatory (although it might look even better to do so).

This also gave me the chance to switch tire brands.  While Goodyears came with the 1992 Daytona, and I’ve used them since, they are not my first choice.  They wear well and have a good ride and handling, but the Integrity has poor traction in the rain.  They break loose at the slightest touch of the throttle.  Instead, I went back to Michelins, which have always given me superior handling, tread life of 100K miles, and a firm ride.  I chose the Hydroedge model, which is specifically designed for good wet traction and water channeling.  These were $668 for the set of four 205/60R15, including tax, mounting, balancing, disposal, and RoadHazard warranty.

The rims came with keyed lug nuts, which are both for dress and anti-theft.  I was not thrilled with this, as it requires a socket to remove them.  I went to my usual tire shop for the Michelins, and the mechanic there offered his opinion that the thin-walled socket is guaranteed to fracture early.  We agreed that I should shop around for standard chromed lug nuts that do not require a socket.  The thread for these, by the way, is M12-1.5, and the hex head is 19mm.

An important part of this installation is what is known as “hub centric rings”.  These are hard plastic spacers that fill the gap between the car’s axle diameter and the new wheel’s inner diameter.  Since the wheel is sold into an unlimited selection of vehicles, and axles are all different, these adapters are necessary for a proper fit.  Without them, the wheel is only centered by the lugs, which allow some slop and a possible offset to the wheel, leading to vibration and tire wear.  They did not have the rings in stock at the time I bought the wheels, so I drove for two weeks without them.  Vibration was slight but noticeable.

The other problem is that the dust caps on the rear drums extend too far to install the decorative cap in the center of the wheel.  The mechanic suggested hammering the dust cap in to make it fit, but it needs to go in at least ¼”, and there is almost no clearance between the dust cap and the end of the spindle.  Instead, I need to explore a spacer ring that will push the rear wheels out slightly – or live with it.

hub centric ringOnce I installed the hub centric rings, the vibration went away, and the ride was smoother than before (although the Michelins are definitely harsher than the Goodyears on secondary roads).  The shop at which I bought the rims downplayed the importance of the rings; my regular tire shop expressed more concern and seemed far more knowledgeable. 

Having driven with and without them, I’m convinced that it’s mandatory to use them.  For the Daytona, the inner diameter was 57.1 mm and the outer diameter 73.6 mm.  The wheel shop should research and order the proper fit for your vehicle.  These were included in the price of the wheels.

Proper lug nut torque is important not only to secure the wheel, but to avoid rotor warpage.  For this car, 95-115 ft-lbs is the proper torque.  For the aluminum wheels, I opted to go for the lower range of the spec. 

Always snug the lug nuts, then lower the car and perform the final torque with the car on the ground, so you don’t pull the car off the jack or support device.  I use a torque wrench whenever I remove and install wheels on my cars.  I’ve never had warped rotors or wrestled with stuck lug nuts as a result.

wheel spacers

There are two types of wheel setups out there — “hub-centric” and “lug-nut-centric.” The difference is explained by the names: hub-centric setups rely upon the hole in the middle of the wheel to slide perfectly onto the protruding ridge from the wheel bearing assembly. In this setup, the lug-nuts serve only the purpose of holding the wheel against the bearing assembly; they do not keep it centered in any way.

bob and the carLug-nut-centric setups will typically not have a protruding ridge from the wheel bearing assembly, and will use different wheel-studs (the studs that the lug-nuts actually screw onto). Wheel-studs for lug-nut-centric setups are typically a shoulder style; which is to say that they have a smooth rounded (not threaded) section near where the stud sticks out of the bearing assembly. Wheels for this setup have a very tight tolerance on the lug-nut hole size and position, and must fit very nice and snug on the smooth portion of the wheel stud. The lug-nut then holds the wheel against the bearing assembly, while the shoulder style studs keep it centered.

You must be especially careful with this when purchasing and installing wheel-spacers (to bump your wheels out further). Putting lug-centric spacers onto a hub-centric bearing assembly / wheel combination is a recipe for disaster; as is putting hub-centric equipment onto a lug-centric bearing assembly if the bearing assembly does not have a machined ridge to accept hub-centric equipment.

The wheel will ride out of round, and you'll blow the bearing - and hopefully not be involved in a fatal accident as the wheel goes rolling down the road (sans your vehicle).

Most wheel spacers are (as you mentioned about rims) Chinese garbage. Aluminum spacers are fine, but the aluminum studs they use are frightening - SAE Grade 5 (ISO grade 8) or SAE Grade 8 (ISO Grade 10) studs should be just common sense; OEM studs are typically 5s, but a lot of aftermarket stuff (the reputable aftermarket stuff) is overkill at 8, especially for off roading (Jeeps / Trucks / etc.) which is fine.

It is critical to use the correct taper lug-nuts with lug-centric wheel setups, as the seating of the wheel cannot be guaranteed otherwise.

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