A 2005 Chevrolet Tahoe
General Motors
GM counts the market for automotive add-ons, like the accessory wheels on this 2005 Chevy Tahoe, as one of the auto industry's most profitable sectors.
By Roland Jones Business news editor
updated 7/29/2005 10:25:49 AM ET 2005-07-29T14:25:49

Whether you call them “dubs,” “rings” or “rollers,” customized wheels with oversized rims and ultra-thin tires are one of the hottest things in the car market, and they’re bringing in the big bucks.

The industry that caters to a growing fad for installing plus-sized, often elaborately decorated wheels on cars, trucks and SUVs, has swelled into a multi-billion dollar industry in recent years, observers say.

And the trend for tricked-out rides with super-sized wheels seen on television shows like MTV’s “Pimp my Ride” is going mainstream. Once confined to the wealthiest celebrities or America’s urban youth, it’s now embraced by both soccer moms and professionals alike, and you don’t need to visit an independent custom shop to join in the fad.

“We are definitely seeing strong growth in this area,” said Russell Datz, a spokesperson for The Tire Rack, a South Bend, Ind.-based company that sells and installs plus-size wheels and tires. “It started in the 1980s with some chromed wheels in the urban and youth market, and now we’re seeing it move beyond that to a point where Mercedes or Cadillac can offer you 19-inch wheels straight from the factory.”

The Specialty Equipment Market Association, or SEMA, which represents the more than 600 companies making and supplying automotive parts and accessories, estimates that that the market for plus-size, decorated wheels represents 10 percent, or just over $3 billion of the $31 billion U.S. market for engine enhancements, body cladding, suspension systems and other car trimming — that’s up from about $1.9 billion in 1995.

The fad is so pervasive it has spawned a magazine for car customizing enthusiasts. In the latest issue of Dub Magazine, a glossy dedicated to “automotive lifestyles,” Atlanta’s party rap duo D-Roc and Kaine — more commonly known as the Ying Yang Twins — show off their favorite rides: A 1964 pearl white custom-painted Lincoln Continental and an orange 1968 Dodge Charger, both resting on 20-inch, made-to-order wheels.

The move toward more car accessories comes as baby boomers revive their hot-rod days and Generation Y, twenty-something youths reach car-buying age. And with the big automakers struggling to make healthy profits in a market where zero-percent finance deals and rebates are increasingly the norm, a broader, potentially more profitable trend of car personalization is an enticing one, says Peter MacGillivray, head of marketing at SEMA.

Video: Cars of the future

“It used to be that our industry did not come into play until a car was second, or third-hand, but now we are seeing a keen interest in accessorizing at the car dealerships, and so when a company like General Motors gets involved it’s exciting for us — it shows there’s increasing interest in the power of personalization.”

The lure of bling has indeed attracted the attention of big auto makers like General Motors, which counts the aftermarket for automotive add-ons like wheels as one of the most profitable segments of the automobile industry. GM offers about 50 plus-sized wheel and tire sets for more than 35 GM vehicles, including its full-size SUVs and trucks, and also for its mid-size and luxury vehicles.

“We got into this business a year ago last November because we realized this is something our customers really wanted,” said Nancy Philippart, executive director of GM Accessories, the company’s accessories division.

2006 GMC Yukon Denali XL wheel
General Motors
One of several larger wheels for the 2006 GMC Yukon Denali XL.
Philippart says that while wheel sales represented less than 5 percent of the division’s sales a few years ago, it now represents close to 25 percent and is growing rapidly. And with annual growth of 30 to 40 percent, Philippart says her division, which represents less than 1 percent of GM’s overall sales, expects to see double-digit growth again this year.

Philippart also notes that while hundreds of car accessory companies offering large-size wheels already exist, GM still feels it has a competitive advantage they can’t match.

“It’s easy to make a beautiful wheel, but how that wheel performs when it’s attached to a car is something people don’t always think about,” Philippart said. “Safety and performance are important too, and a bigger wheel can change how a car brakes, but we thoroughly test and validate all our tires and wheels for each vehicle and that’s our advantage: Our customers can be cool, but their safety won’t be compromised.”

Indeed, although oversized wheels offer car drivers a certain style they can also compromise vehicle safety. If a wheel is installed on a car without accounting for the potential effects of a car’s weight they can alter braking distances and cause a car’s shocks, or brakes, to wear out more quickly than usual says Matt Edmonds, vice president of marketing at The Tire Rack.

“When a manufacturer puts tires on a car they are built for a specific load, and when you change the tires you add tires that may not be able to handle that load as well,” he said. “It’s as if you put on ankle weights and then went out for a run — it’s harder on the legs and on your knees, like the suspension on a car, and it’s harder to start and stop,” he said.

In general, cars roll out of factories with average-sized wheels of about 17 or 18 inches in diameter, but consumers can “plus-size” them — increasing the diameter of the wheel by one or two inches — for between $1,500 and $3,000 for a modest set of larger wheels. More ambitious customizing can mean upgrading to a luxury set of wheels dressed up with spinners for up to $20,000, while sizes can go as high as 28 inches, Edmonds said.

Recently, Consumer Reports began testing larger wheels and recommended that car owners follow car makers’ guidelines for increasing wheel sizes, or raise them by a maximum of two.

Consumers are also finding that larger-rimmed tires don’t work as well in winter conditions, and so they are purchasing extra sets of tires for winter months, said Edmonds. “We have seen sales of winter tires grow by about 33 percent over the last year,” he said.

The latest trend in wheels is away from flashy chrome and spinning rims toward more modest wheels finished in black or dark gray, Edmonds said. Manufacturers are also working to make wheels as light and durable as possible, he added, and some are even researching the possibility of a Teflon-based coating to repel dust.

Whether or not “dust-free” wheels are for you, it seems accessorizing your wheels is here to stay — and that'll keep the money rolling in for the wheel makers.

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