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What Are Car Wheels Made Of?

A close-up photo of a tuning car's wheel taken at the event.

The wheels on the wheelbarrow, the kids’ bikes, the shopping cart at the grocery store, the moving van, the school bus, and your car are only a few of the types of conveyances using wheels. There are lots more, but we don’t have room here to talk about them. Have you ever wondered of what the wheels are made?

We’ve come a long way as a species from cavemen crafting stone into wheels like they do in the cartoon series BC (one of my two favorite cartoons.) We’ve come a long way since wood was used to craft wheels on work wagons on farms and plantations (download North and South with Patrick Swayze and you’ll see one.) So what comprises today’s wheels?

We Know Wheels Are Made With Metal. What Types Of Metal Are Used?

Let’s Start With Steel Wheels. Since Most Cars Are Made With Steel, Why Not The Wheels?

White background with steel wheels from an automobile.

I’ve always looked at wheels as a continuation of the car itself. They support all those tons of weight and move the vehicle, so they’re an intrinsic part of the car. Since the car is made of steel, it just makes common sense that the wheels are, too. 

Now, that’s not to say that steel wheels don’t get crunched up just like a car when it’s in an accident. They are the strongest of metals for wheels, though. Since they’re heavier than other wheel metals, it also takes a car or bus, or moving van longer to speed up and stop, so keep that in mind when you’re choosing wheels for your car. 

On the other hand – and it’s a major hand – the cost of steel wheels is within almost everyone’s reach. You’ll notice more steel wheels on the roads than otherwise.

Aluminum Wheels Are Pretty Popular With Drivers. What Are The Pros And Cons Of Aluminum Wheels?

Isolated on a white background are aluminum wheels.

When I think of aluminum, I don’t see metal. I see those little ashtrays that used to be in restaurants 30 years ago. I see pans used to bake and roast things at Thanksgiving and Christmas. I simply can’t see those things made into the wheels of a car, but they are.

Aluminum is lighter in weight than other metals, so a car will take off like a bolt of lightning with aluminum wheels. Performance cars are seen using aluminum wheels. If you’re driving on roads with potholes a Sherman tank could disappear into, then you won’t want aluminum wheels.

They’re not going to crumple if you sneeze, but they won’t hold up to a lot of punishment, either.

Alternatively, many of the best-looking patterns on wheels are aluminum. The metal is good for molding, so you can get some pretty amazing looks from aluminum wheels. They’re not that expensive, either.

Tell Me About Carbon Fiber Wheels. I’ve Seen Them On Performance Cars. What Are They And How Do They Perform?

Close up photo of Carbon Fiber Wheels isolated on white background.

I don’t get to see a lot of Porsche 911s, Ford Shelbys, or Ferraris running around, but they all come with carbon fiber wheels as standard or an option. They go around a track with little trouble with obstacles and with a lot of resilience. They’re light but not made for your typical road, just a track (you don’t want to know how they react to potholes.) 

Carbon fiber wheels are brittle. They don’t give like aluminum wheels. That’s why they aren’t good for a regular road. They’ll shatter if they hit the usual debris you and I run right over or a pothole of any size.

One of the major drawbacks of carbon fiber wheels is the expense. Their rarity makes them expensive, but add that to the material’s weakness, and you have a wheel that will run you into the thousands. All four carbon fiber wheels would bankrupt most people. 

You Usually Hear The Word Titanium Used In Conjunction With Other Products. How Do Titanium Wheels Work?

A titanum wheel isolated on white.

Titanium isn’t a word used in everyday conversation. The metal is used in our cell phones, jewelry, surgical instruments, bike frames, and lots of other things. That it’s used in car wheels isn’t everyday knowledge, but for those that can afford them, it’s good news.

We say that because titanium wheels are rarely made outside 3D machining and then finished by hand. Only one company, to our knowledge, produces titanium wheels using 3D printing. Other manufacturers don’t agree that titanium produces good enough wheels.

They’re strong as steel but lightweight like aluminum. The barrel of the wheel is made of carbon fiber, with the spokes and hub made of titanium. The snag to all this is that 3D printing and hand finishing are going to be prohibitively expensive.

Most People Consider Magnesium Something In Their Multi-Vitamin They Have To Take. No One Remembers It’s A Metal, Too. How Does It Relate To Wheels?

A photo of Magnesium Wheel on white background.

If you’re as old as I am, you remember the muscle cars of the late 60s and 70s having “mag” wheels. Aside from front scoops and spoilers, they were the ultimate in cool. The snag to that is that “mag” wheels were made of magnesium, and this metal is particularly flammable.

In order to keep selling them, they started mixing the magnesium with other things to curb the flammability.

Another snag to magnesium wheels is that they have a shelf life, so to speak. They corrode easily, so you don’t want to keep them on your car for a number of years. Best to remember them fondly than to use them.

When The Words Cast Or Forged Are Spoken, Lots Of People Visualize Blacksmiths And Metal Wagon Or Carriage Wheels. What Do These Words Have To Do With Cars?

Isolated on a white background are aluminum wheels.

When you see a car with wheels of an interesting pattern, the pattern has been “cast.” Molten aluminum is poured into a mold, cools, and is then finished in the style of the pattern. The aluminum is not tempered for strength. It just looks cool.

Forged aluminum is a different matter. A solid block of aluminum is shaped into a wheel without being melted. The grains of the metal are aligned, allowing for the best integrity of the structure. You’ll find these wheels on vehicles or conveyances getting heavy use. The process is involved, though, which means an expensive end product.

Rotary forged wheels combine both casting and forging. When the molten aluminum is cast, the resulting wheel is then put on a rotary machine. The force and heat of the machine harden the materials and shape the wheel. This isn’t an expensive process, so you won’t pay much for rotary forged wheels.

What Are Wheels Made Of FAQs

What Are Alloy Wheels?

Alloy wheels are made of metal combined with other elements. Most alloy wheels are aluminum and mixed with magnesium, bronze, or nickel. The additives provide more strength to the base metal. Alloy wheels are cast and are lightweight but strong.

Are Steel Wheels Stronger Than Alloy Wheels?

Yes. Even if steel wheels rust, they’re still harder than alloy wheels. Aluminum dents and gets scratched, but steel wheels don’t cave in so quickly, nor do they warp.

Will Alloy Wheels Rust?

Rusted steel wheel with a black hubcap on a VW Transporter van.

No, but they will become corroded. Corrosion happens when a metal is reduced to its lowest common denominator by oxidation, which deteriorates the metal. When you notice white spots on the metal of your wheels, get them changed out pronto, before the metal becomes decayed.

Why Do Alloy Wheels Crack?

Those potholes we’ve been talking about do more damage than other obstacles on the road. They scratch and dent metal wheels, but they crack alloy wheels. Now, you might not see the cracks through the grime and dust on the wheels, but take a good look when you wash the car.

Cracks in alloy wheels can be fixed by a professional, so don’t worry you’ll have to replace the wheels. Other things that crack alloy wheels are rubbing up against the curb too hard, along with road debris.

Driving on cracked alloy wheels is highly dangerous to the driver and any passengers in the car. When you see the crack, get it fixed immediately for the safety of yourself and your family.

Are My Wheels Chrome Or Aluminum?

Hold a mirror to the wheel. If the reflection is clear, the wheels are chrome. If there’s a blurry reflection, the wheels are aluminum.