AKRON—The next time you walk by your dealership's custom wheel display on a slow business day, you may want to stop and take a closer look at some of those shiny wheels. If you use some imagination, some of those wheel shapes may remind you of a snake or spider, or if you're a ``Star Wars'' fan, you might see a wheel you swear could pass for an evil storm trooper starship.
Believe it or not, your fantasies may not be far from what the original designers thought when they created those wheels. Wheel designers often live in their own creative worlds, inspired by movies like ``Star Wars,'' industrial magazines and even odd-looking furniture, according to Misao Kuribayashi, product development director for Enkei Wheels.
A rapidly-changing wheel market pushes many designers to think of that unique wheel no other company offers.
``Each designer has a different kind of mindset,'' Mr. Kuribayashi said. ``Everybody has a different philosophy to come up with a new idea. They watch everything.''
Mr. Kuribayashi has known wheel designers who have been inspired by auto shows, aircraft designs, art museums, and even by the automakers themselves and their recent concept cars.
Sometimes a new wheel design is born from a car itself. A Dodge Viper, by its very name, inspires wheels with a snake motif, he said.
Enkei, one of North America's largest wheel manufacturers, usually can have a new wheel available in stores roughly five months after a design is approved, he said. Wheel designers don't just develop a new wheel for the sake of being eccentric, but to meet a market need.
``Once we determine what kind of requirements the market has,'' he said, ``we're going to explain to our designers what we need.''
Enkei's sales people talk to tire dealers and tuner store managers and read the latest market research in automotive magazines to find out what types of wheels are selling and how people feel about them, he said.
Because North America is a melting pot of different ethnicities, cultures and income levels, he believes there are many niches wheel makers and designers have to accommodate.
The fastest-growing segments in the custom wheel market include tuners—a trend started by second-and third-generation Asians who modify their cars to resemble Japanese products and design—and sport-utility vehicle owners, particularly the high-end SUVs, he said.
These two groups differ widely in tastes, Mr. Kuribayashi said. Tuners generally like a more conservative, conventional look to their wheels with a silver painted finish and prefer aluminum alloy or magnesium wheels.
SUV owners generally prefer sophisticated wheel designs that have a European, luxurious appearance, usually with a chrome finish, he said. Twenty-inch wheels currently are a hot commodity among the SUV crowd.
In addition to shape and size, paint finishes have become an important part of custom wheel design, he said. Enkei offers wheels with what it calls a ``hyper'' silver paint finish to make wheels look more luxurious and shiny.
The company also is developing processes to protect wheels against road-hazard damage, but Mr. Kuribayashi wouldn't elaborate.