They're large, they're flashy and for tire dealers they can translate into big bucks.
Chrome-plated custom wheels are one of the hottest-selling auto accessories on the market as many enthusiasts are ``going toward the flash'' and preferring the look of chrome wheels, according to Mike Cassar, brand manager for Rancho Dominguez, Calif.-based American Racing Equipment.
Chrome wheels, long a popular item for muscle cars and street rods, are particularly in demand among sport-utility vehicle drivers. At South Bend, Ind.-based Tire Rack, a major distributor of wheels and high-performance tires, chrome wheels make up half of its sales in the ever-growing light truck tire segment, said Matt Edmonds, Tire Rack's marketing director.
With wheel sizes continuing to grow larger, light truck and SUV owners are more concerned with appearance than with cost, according to Mr. Cassar.
``They want the style. They're looking for something totally different than a small truck driver who wants flash but also wants it functional and durable,'' he said
What's driving the trend? Larry Anderson, president and owner of Wheeltech International Corp. in Ontario, Calif., said he doesn't think a resurgence of interest in chrome wheels has suddenly occurred but that more people are able to afford them than in the past.
``There's always been a need or a love affair with the chrome wheel,'' Mr. Anderson said. ``It all started with steel wheels, and when alloyed wheels started becoming popular everyone started looking at chrome-plating aluminum wheels. The only reason it was not as big a deal as it is now is because of the price point, but the prices have been coming down, so that's what's actually driving the market. Everybody's always wanted them, but in most cases it was price prohibitive.''
Supply of chrome wheels isn't limited anymore, he explained, as even the Chinese have expanded chrome-plating capacity. In the U.S., almost all wheel manufacturers have developed and in some cases improved a chroming process. Thus, as the law of supply and demand dictates, chrome wheel prices have gone down, he said.
Chrome wheels require the least amount of maintenance and auto makers have added chrome wheels as original equipment options on more passenger car and light truck models, he added.
With the explosion of light truck and SUV production and sales, Mr. Anderson noted that the wheel business has followed the auto market by producing more wheels for light trucks. ``I think that with the movement toward the SUVs and the light trucks, that's taken away from the passenger cars and sports cars,'' he said. ``As one market increases the other one decreases.''
The number of tire dealers offering chrome wheels also has increased in the past decade compared with specialty shops, he said. That's not surprising, considering that since chrome wheel prices have decreased, a customer can spend $1,000 on a tire/wheel package that used to cost $3,000, he said, adding that dealers who employ knowledgeable sales people to sell wheels can garner a good profit.
American Racing's Epic line offers a 24-inch chrome wheel that's priced around $1,000, Mr. Cassar said, noting the wheel maker encourages its tire dealer customers to display the largest wheels they have in stock. The bulk of chrome wheel buyers generally are males aged 16-35.
But even with chrome wheels being more affordable, someone will always pay for a new wheel style, Mr. Anderson said.
``That's what we call the `love tax''' he said. ``The love tax is basically when someone comes out with a new style and a larger size, they just sell it for more money. As the style becomes more common place...then the price starts coming down. It's called the love tax because you're paying the extra money because you like the look of the wheel.''