HOUSTON (July 24, 2002)—Texas is truck country, a major battleground for pickup and sport-utility vehicle market share.
Chevrolet has its Silverado 1500. Its arch rival, the Ford F-150, already the official truck of the Professional Bull Riders, got even more down home when Ford was fixin' to anoint its new F-150 SuperCrew. The King Ranch F-150 pays homage to a venerable south Texas ranch that's bigger than Rhode Island.
So is it any wonder that when Texans ride tall in their pickups or SUVs, many opt for wheels the size of manhole covers? In urban centers and small towns, even miniscule Geo Trackers can be spotted prowling the streets on massive chrome wheels that seem more fitting on an 18-wheeler.
“Probably three or four years ago, 17's were the big things. Now you've got 24-inch rims,” said Rex Bomar, a truck enthusiast and veteran automotive finance man. “What they make those for is your Escalades, your Avalanches. They have big wheel wells, and a lot of owners, if it's a two-wheel-drive vehicle, will use a 24-inch rim so you can go with a lower-profile tire, say a 45 vs. that 70 series. It's all for looks.”
Mr. Bomar had 20-inch custom wheels and 45-series tires put on his gunmetal gray Chevrolet Ava-lanche. “If I were a kid, and lowered the truck a bit, it would fill in the wheel well more,” he said.
OK, big wheels are a big deal in Texas. But if you're picturing a bunch of tobacco-chewing cowboys, think again. In Texas, SUV and truck customizing “isn't related to one age group or race,” said Rudy Zargas of Uptown Wheel and Tire Store in Houston. “It's just like fashion. Different people want different things on their vehicles.”
Pedro Escovedo, a cook at Rain Forest CafÃ&Copy; in Katy, Texas, likes his wheels and tires super sized. So Mr. Escovedo had Rollo's Autosport spice up his 1992 GMC pickup with 20x8.5-inch Neeper Synchro wheels and P275/45R20 Goodyear Eagle GTIIs.
“I like their style,” the 26-year-old Houston resident said of the package, which set him back $2,500.
Sergio Hidalgo, manager of Rollo's, told a visitor how they recently installed a set of Nitto NT-404 305/45R22s wrapped around 20x9.5-inch Lowenheart LD1s on a Cadillac Escalade. The luxury SUV belongs to the “wife or girlfriend” of a local professional ballplayer. The cost? $10,000.
“Women want the glitter,” Mr. Bomar agreed. “My wife wanted custom wheels on her Lexus GS400. The factory wheels are 17's and I put 18's on it. I didn't want the kid look. As soon as I put the tires and wheels on, she said, 'Now, that's nice.' ''
Eddie Allison bought his 2001 GMC Yukon Denali because, he said, in the Lone Star State “everyone else has a Cadillac Escalade or a Lincoln Navigator.” The service technician said he's invested $55,000—about one-third of the national median price of an existing home—in his truck.
A big chunk of change went to 20x8.5-inch Epic Marquis wheels and Goodyear P275/55R20s.
“I'm just into modified automobiles,” explained the 41-year-old drag-racing and performance enthusiast, who said he's owned about 10 trucks. “The Denali comes with air ride. I want to lower the truck 2 inches in the front and 3 inches in the back to get that custom look.”
Jack Chen of Action Wheels Inc., a Houston importer and wholesaler, predicted that “20-inch wheels will probably be the standard size” on pickups, adding that 2003 full-sized Dodge pickups will be equipped with 20-inchers, much like the P275/45R20s on Ford's Harley Davidson F-150 since at least 2001.
But as truck and SUV manufacturers cash in on the big wheel craze, retailers needn't remain on the sidelines of the $6.3 billion aftermarket business in tires, wheels and suspension products and brakes.
The Specialty Equipment Market Association said that market represented nearly one of every four dollars spent in 2001 on consumer cars, trucks and SUVs.
When he ran successful used car and truck sales operations, Mr. Bomar became a believer in the power of custom wheels and tires. When he first started out, he had cars and trucks that sat unsold for 30 days. When he installed a set of custom wheels and tires, the slow movers would sell in a day or two—occasionally as fast as 30 minutes.
So Mr. Bomar devised his own Texas two-step: Put aftermarket wheels and tires on roughly half his inventory (about 30 vehicles) and add a “mild custom” paint job or lower the vehicle.
“It's the first thing I would do,” he said. “I had to make my products different. Anybody can buy a Plain-Jane vehicle. I fix the vehicle up the way I would want it to look if I were buying it.”
He started out buying used tire-and-wheel packages for between $350 and $400 from Tire and Wheel Connection in Houston. In about two years, he had bought so many that used sets became hard to find.
Praising Tire and Wheel Connection for its service, he said he switched to using new goods. Eventually, he was buying $20,000 worth of wheels and tires a month.
He still remembers, half-awed, one set of gold-tinted wheels that became the proverbial golden goose. “I had a set of 18x10 Colorado Custom wheels that generated over $20,000 in profits over about four years,” Mr. Bomar said.
He would put them on a truck, and people would buy the vehicle, but not want to spend $4,000 extra for the wheels. Or buy the vehicle with the wheels and several months later bring the truck back, claiming they could no longer afford the payments. The vehicle would be resold.
A 1998 extended cab step-side pickup is illustrative. Mr. Bomar paid $17,500 for the Chevrolet, spent $3,600 adding wheels and tires, lowered the truck 2 inches in front and 4 inches in back, and installed a wood-grain interior kit. Total outlay: $21,100.
“I sold the car almost immediately for $28,000,” he said.
Mr. Bomar said one of his strongest selling points was telling this to prospective buyers: “You can buy a vehicle that's stock and spend another $6,000 or you can buy from me and have the bank finance the whole thing. And this way, you know the wheels and tires work with the truck. If you go out and buy them afterward, you can't return them.”
Hispanics are good customers, Mr. Bomar added. “Most of them are construction workers. The kids want the 20-, 22- and 24-inch look. But you take the older gentleman—he wants the custom look, but needs something he can drive to the work site and not worry about blowing out the tire.
“They often have one or two sons working with them. They want a customized truck and they all pitch in. When that truck's paid for, they buy another one and Dad helps. They help each other,” Mr. Bomar said. “Honestly, it's like the way things used to be. As the rest of us have become more independent, I'm sorry to see that sort of thing fall by the wayside.”