After fire, the wheel provided the greatest technological thrust for human survival and subsequent domination of the planet in ancient times. We could travel faster and farther, filling in the blank edges of the maps, shrinking the known world.
The first time we can place a date and origin on the wheel is 3,500 BCE, in Mesopotamia. They were sections of logs held a variety of ways beneath a platform. Cornering was troublesome as the rollers were a solid configuration. This led to a fixed axle with independent wheels mounted on the ends.
The next technological leap was the spoke. The use of spokes lightens a wheel considerably compared to a solid wood wheel. Crude attempts at this included leaving gaps between the planks. As more speed was necessary for hunting and war, less and lighter materials were used. Rims and spokes narrowed, eventually to the point a skilled worker was needed to build them. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks, known for their chariots, pioneered these efforts.
Soon people realized the need to protect the ever-thinning wheels. The first tires came along as strips of leather, iron or wood attached around the wheels. They proved much easier to replace than the wheels themselves. Iron rims were seen on Celtic chariots around 1000 BCE.
Fast forward to 1802 when G.F. Bauer patented the first wire-tension spoke wheel. They were attached to bicycles first, then, in heavier-duty configurations, made it on to automobiles. Many vehicles still used wooden-spoked wheels until the 1920s.
Disc wheels, reminiscent of the solid wood wheels, became popular in the 1920s. The rim and disc were quick and inexpensive to manufacture. We can see the same evolution happening to metal wheels as it happened to wood wheels, with lighter materials and a return to spokes. Faster and faster each evolution spins round. New materials were introduced. Alloy wheels come in either aluminum or magnesium. With those metallurgical advances came new manufacturing techniques like forging and high and low pressure die casting.
Now, wheels for your car come in sizes and bolt patterns of all types. Before you just pop any old set of wheels lying around, or go spending big $$ to get the shiny ones, you’ll need to make sure they fit your car. Bolt pattern is very important to match up, although there are wheel adapters to rectify that issue. Four, five, six and eight lug patterns are by far the most common. Back spacing affects how far in or out the wheel itself is when mounted to the hub. Width and diameter are also important numbers to know when picking out new wheels. The eBay Motors Wheel Center has a tool for selecting the correct fit for your vehicle.
A word of advice: If you’re going to drive your car for any amount of appreciable time, functionality needs to trump appearance. Those 22-inch wheels might look great with your car just sitting there, but when they rub against your car’s quarter panels and fenders every time you make a turn, it’s time to make a change to something smaller.
Next time we’ll look at the historical development of tires, and how to decipher that alpha-numeric code on the sidewalls.
Click the link to read the 2nd part of this series: Wheels and Tires, Part 2