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Story and photos by Paul Williams

Look around at this year’s new cars, and it’s obvious that wheels are getting bigger. The aftermarket wheel sector is now a US$2.1 billion industry in North America, and with so many consumers replacing their stock wheels with bigger and cooler designs, car manufacturers are now offering designer rims straight from the factory.

According to industry executives, nice wheels have become a major selling point on the showroom floor.

“Wheels can make or break a car,” said Karl Elmitt, the exterior designer of the 2006 BMW M5, in a recent phone interview with
Autos. “They are like the icing on the cake, the final design flourish.”

However, you wonder just how many variations-on-a-theme designers can come up with. After all, a wheel is basically just a circle.

“That’s partially true,” Elmitt explained. “But when seen from different angles on a moving car, the wheel also has other shapes, ellipses and depth.”

He pointed out that different cars have different requirements, and some have a special character that has to be reflected in the wheel design.

“One of the challenges, especially for an M wheel, is to show the depth of the wheel — having the spokes go from the furthest possible outer point to the furthest inner point, the classic sign of a high performance wheel — and to do this without the wheel becoming too heavy. [For the new M5] … each spoke has a fairly deep groove, which helps to reduce weight, and gives the wheel the characteristic split-spoke M look.”

It’s not just BMW that has unleashed its designers on big, signature wheels. Luxury cars like the 2005 Acura RL, for example, now use 17- and 18-inch wheels, while 17-inch rims are standard on compact cars like the Mazda3 GT. Even trucks are getting big wheels, with 20-inch available on the 2005 GM Silverado.

But it turns out we’ve come full circle, no pun intended.

A 1927 Model T Ford rode on 21-inch wheels (they were wooden-spoked, although wire wheels were optional); 20 years later, the postwar Ford wore 16-inch wheels. Throughout the 20th century, wheels continued to get smaller. It was a sign of being a modern car.

By 1979, the wheel size for a Triumph TR8 sports car was proudly advertised as 13-inch with “low” profile 70-series Goodyear tires to match them.

The recent trend to bigger wheels, while very much part of accessorizing your car, does have practical benefits. A bigger wheel implies a correspondingly lower-profile tire, and that can translate into better cornering performance. A bonus to sticking with factory rims is that they’re designed specifically for the vehicle on which they are mounted, and are less likely to upset the vehicle’s handling dynamics.

Manufacturers like BMW, with the company’s emphasis on performance, technology and design, have produced some of the most appealing wheels available, with the 18- and 19-inch double spoke alloys of the M3 being one of the key design features of that car.

“An M wheel has to be one the lightest wheels, and highly recognizable as an M product,” said Elmitt. “Usually M wheels feature a combination of five or ten spokes, and of course they are large: 18- or 19-inch. The reason for the tapering (spokes on the 2006 M5) is firstly these shapes complement the new design language that BMW is using, and secondly these shapes have an inherent dynamism and fluidity and therefore in my opinion, more character.

“Designing a wheel in my case always involves drawing, be it sketching on paper or sketching on a computer,” Elmitt continued. “Once we have an accurate and well-rendered design that we like, it goes into CAD (computer assisted design, specifically Alias) and is partially engineered. Then a mock-up is made.”

Elmitt explained that for the new M5, at least five different designs were made as accurate models that were actually fitted onto the car. At that point, some subjective decisions were made.

“One was too chunky,” he said. “One was not sporty enough and so on, until the wheel you see on the car won through.” There is still a subjective element in choosing the right wheel for a car, even if it’s for a $100,000-plus super-sedan.

The fascination with wheels appears set to continue and grow, with car manufacturers more interested in selling their own accessory wheels to compete with aftermarket suppliers. It’s like jewellery for your car.

If you think you know your wheels, identify the manufacturer for each of the wheels pictured in this article. Click here for the answers and enlarged images of these great wheels.

And if you’re considering plus-sizing your wheels and tires, use Autos’s handy calculator to determine the correct size.

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