A look back at color-matched wheels and wheel covers. A design feature worthy of a comeback…

Audi TT RS color matched wheel

Audi is now equipping these color-matched wheels on high performance RS versions of several of its new models. (Photo: Sean Connor)

For a very small manufacturing cost, applying paint to a car’s wheels or wheel covers that matches body color can add a lot of visual interest to a vehicle’s profile.  And if chrome trim or brightwork is applied tastefully with it, “sparkle” might be the right description for the effect.  While automakers have been experimenting with this trick since the dawn of the automobile, it didn’t become a widespread fad on everyday cars until the 1970s.

SOME BRIEF HISTORY (see slideshow at end of article for a thorough visual tour of color-matched wheels and wheel covers)

Body color paint was widely used by most manufacturers to decorate wheels, spoked or otherwise, to an ornate level through the 1920s.  Tougher Great Depression economic times during the 1930s and early ’40s dictated lower costs everywhere, so fancier wheel designs (even full wheel covers) were tossed in favor of cheap, small metal “hub caps” covering only center lug nuts and axle hubs.  They became the norm on everything except high-end luxury cars such as Rolls-Royce or Bentleys.

To spruce up the dismal look of these plain wheels with small dog dishes glued onto them, most automakers painted the wheels the same color as the car.  It cost nothing extra, but added a small amount of flair.  While actual hub caps were used on price-leader versions of American cars until the early 1980s, they survive today only on police cars and taxis.  For the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on full wheel covers and styled alloy wheels with paint specially applied to various embossed sections.  (Minimal artistry is involved with plain colored wheels with center hub caps, and they’re not likely to ever return.)

As economic times boomed in the 1950s, full wheel covers returned.  By the middle of the decade Mercedes began widespread use of one-piece color matched wheel covers, along with Edsel in 1958.  Cadillac followed suit on their entire 1961-62 lineup, applying body matching paint in between chrome slats on styled wheel covers.  While Cadillac’s interest in color matching was short lived, two of General Motors’ other divisions (Oldsmobile and Chevrolet) created styled steel wheels with paint appliques in the late 1960s.  Both wheel designs proved so popular, they survived unchanged into the 1980s.

As color matching wheel covers grew in popularity on upscale cars in the early 1970s (Ford Thunderbird, Mercury Marquis, Lincoln Continental, Rolls Royce, Mercedes, Oldsmobile), the public began to associate them with luxury.  After the 1973 gasoline shortage, automakers seeking to capture buyers ditching large luxury cars created more upscale versions of compact economy cars.  Suddenly Ford Pintos, Dodge Darts, Chevrolet Novas, Chevrolet Vegas and newly created compact Buicks and Oldsmobiles were sporting painted wheel covers.

Pontiac went through two bursts of enthusiasm with multiple color matching wheel designs: the first spanning the late-1970s, and the second lasting from the mid-1980s until a decade later.  Cadillac and Lincoln used color matching briefly in the late-1970s on their highest-priced models, followed by Chrysler in the early 1980s that mostly sought to emulate Mercedes-Benz (last use of color matched wheel covers was 1983 in the U.S.).

By the 1990s, only Pontiac and Rolls-Royce/Bentley were still using color matching on a large scale.  From 1991-95, Buick briefly experimented with painted center caps on Park Avenue wheels.  But by the end of the 1990s, the fad that had peaked in the 1970s was gone altogether.

WHAT’S OLD MAY BECOME NEW AGAIN

In the last several years, Audi has been offering wheels with color-matched edging on some of its highest performance RS models sold in Europe but not the United States.  At this year’s New York auto show in April, Audi displayed them on their TT RS coupe.  Perhaps they feel, as many do, that what’s old needs to be new again.

CLICK ON ANY OF THE PICTURES BELOW TO EXPAND TO FULL SIZE.  USE ARROWS UNDERNEATH PICTURES TO SCROLL BACKWARD OR FORWARD.

About Kristi Burns

I've been married to a car fanatic for 20 years, and together for over 25. He and I share a passion for owning classic cars, working on them, participating in car club events & shows, and writing about things automotive.
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