DETROIT-Hubcap makers must feel like one of their products, speeding down the road waiting for a pothole to bump them into a ditch. The auto industry's embrace of aluminum wheels has been hard on manufacturers of hubcaps, wheel covers and wheel trim.
A polished aluminum wheel typically is stylish; it doesn't need trim or a cover. Thus, demand for covers has dwindled in the last decade.
Thompson International Inc., which bills itself as North America's largest maker of wheel covers and trim, said sales have been flat at about $70 million in the last two years.
The problem is partly the trim industry's own fault, said Richard Doyle, president and chief executive officer of Thompson, based in Troy, Mich.
Wheel covers fall off, he said. ``Wheel trim companies didn't do a lot about that.''
Car buyers are ``paying good money'' for highly styled wheels, he said, which ``is a direct result of the neglect of the wheel-trim companies.''
When he and a group of fellow managers acquired Thompson's operations from ITT Automotive five years ago, they set out to improve a cover's ability to grip a wheel, he said.
Thompson is also working to improve the lug-nut system, which holds the wheel to the hub, and the adhesion of paint to wheel-trim plastic.
The styling problem may prove more difficult. A promising approach, he said, is to marry decorative trim to low-cost wheels at the wheel manufacturer's plant.
The result: a wheel that is both stylish and inexpensive, he said.
William Linski, an executive at Hayes Wheel International Inc., said his company is working closely with Thompson on the new process.
``We're testing it now, and we expect to ship some (of the resulting new) products in 1995,'' Mr. Linski said.