A quick wheel inspection now can prevent a headache later

Photography by David S. Wallens

You probably love the wheels on your car. But are they safe?

Yes. No. Maybe?

Wheels, like any other object made of metal, have a finite lifespan. They could get crushed on the assembly line or crumble into dust after centuries in storage. 

More realistically, they’ll eventually succumb to use. Could be an impact–or several impacts–from a curb or pothole, could be loose hardware that eggs out the lug seats. 

The take-home message: Wheels don’t wear out as quickly as tires, but they’re not eternal.

Step 1: Clean ’Em

Before firing up the pressure washer, before breaking out the heavy artillery, before finding someone with an X-ray machine, start with the basics: a mild cleaning. 

When we put our 20-year-old Volk Racing TE37 wheels–a lightweight, forged aluminum model from the heyday of the sport compact scene–back into service, we started with Simple Green followed by some Griot’s quick detailer. Use time rather than brute force. 

[Project VW Rabbit GTI: How to Professionally Detail a Car at Home]

Let’s do a deep cleaning, too, peeling off the goo that once secured the wheel weights. A plastic razor blade–again, think mild–can be your friend here. 

Step 2: Inspect ’Em

Give the wheels a thorough inspection. This isn’t rocket science, but take some time here, too. 

Where to look? Everywhere. More specifically, start at the outside and work your way in. 

Our vintage Volks are now worth a few grand, so before putting them back into service, we gave them a thorough cleaning and inspection. Deep in our garage, we even found the (rare and thus now expensive) center caps.

How do the lips look? Straight and true or beat up by numerous encounters with curbs, potholes or worse? Trace them with your fingers, too, as they might feel a wobble that your eyes miss. 

Visual cues can signal lurking trouble. For example, a simple nick on the rim might help you find a bit of a bend. 

Then work your way up the spokes–following the path of an impact–so start at the base and, again, use your eyes and fingers to search for trouble. Check the backsides, too. 

How do the lug seats look? Do they still look properly machined from the factory, or have loose lugs or incorrect hardware egged them out? 

Scott Weiss, president of König Wheels USA, recommends a regular inspection schedule. For a car that sees severe use–think road racing, track events or even autocross–inspect the wheels whenever they’re off the car. 


For a street car, how about a look-over whenever you stop for gas? “Just look around each wheel,” he tells us. “You’ll see sign of damage, flat spotting, rounding, anything like that.”

3. Repair or Replace ’Em

Find something suspicious? Yes, wheels can be repaired, and professional outfits do exist. But then you have to ask some more questions: Has the wheel’s integrity been compromised, and is it more cost effective to just start with a new set? Fortunately, there’s an entire industry to fill that need as well.

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Comments
David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
1/10/23 11:53 a.m.

While you're inspecting your wheels, don't forget about your tires, too. Even if they still have plenty of tread, are they still safe? Our own testing shows that old tires aren't as safe as you might think....

 

SteveFields
SteveFields New Reader
10/24/23 12:32 p.m.

Wheels can be bad without any visible signs of damage. Happened to two original steel wheels on my 1967 Alfa GTV. Repeated attempts to balance the wheels with the tires on failed. The tire shop spun the wheels with no tires, and they were obviously "out of round". Again with no visable sign of damage. Metal fatigue from 50+ years of driving...

 

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
10/24/23 1:50 p.m.

In reply to SteveFields :

Our wheels do take a beating....

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