Ford Wire Wheels
Follow along as Speedway Motors employee Tim M. explains his decision to run Ford wire wheels on his '29 hot rod project. He goes in depth, like always, on some of the various differences you could encounter if you dive into the wide world of wire wheels for your project as well!
When I originally pictured what my early 50’s style hot rod Roadster would look like I always imagined it with solid steel '40 Ford style wheels. As so many of you know once a car building endeavor begins it doesn’t take long for one to deviate from the plan for one reason or another! My hot rod build is no different and it turns out one of the first things to be changed was my plan to go with solid steel wheels and use original Ford wire wheels instead.
The decision to abandon my vision of solid steel wheels and go with wires was spurred by my sentimental connection to an old grain wagon. My wife had wonderful grandparents. They were the type of people you respect from that previous generation who knew hard work and hard knocks in the Heartland of America. They were the type of people you look up to and try to emulate. When I first met my wife’s grandparents I had an immense respect for them immediately. I spent time at their farm and spotted one of their old wagons sitting in the weeds. It was assembled from old Ford parts probably before my parents were born. Up front was a 37 wide 5 complete axle and in the back a stock 1934 axle complete right down to the hub caps. Most of the parts were destroyed having been crudely gas welded to the angle iron frame of the wagon. The wheels looked good so when I had a chance to obtain the wagon I snatched it up and harvested everything I could save. The best parts were a nice pair of 34 wire spoke wheels. After removal they sat in the corner of my garage until I got rolling on my little 29’ roadster this year. I had to include them and can’t wait to tell my kids how the wheels on the front of our hot rod once belonged to their great grandparents!
For a long time wire spoke wheels all looked the same to me until I learned a few of the distinguishing features. Here is a quick guide that helped me understand some of the differences :
Below is a 1928-1929 Ford Model “A” wheel. It is a 21” x 3” with welded spokes. Top spokes are a straight lace and the bottoms are single-cross. The center hubs are very prone to cracking on these wheels from pressure from the spokes pressing inward.
The green wheels below are 1930-1931 Ford Model “A” wheel. The diameter was reduced to 19” x 3”. These wheels also feature welded spokes and suffer the same weakness as the earlier wheels (hub prone to cracking) Lacing pattern is also the same with straight spokes on top and single cross on the bottom.
1932 wheels look different, and are 18” x 3 ¼”. They feature welded spokes and are single cross pattern top and bottom. The hubcap hole is 5 ¾”. This is the first wheel to feature lug nuts that are completely covered by the hubcap.
1933-1934 Ford wheels like the ones I found on the old grain wagon also have welded spokes and are similar to the 32 wheels stylistically. They are 17” x 3 ¼”, feature welded spokes, and have a 5 ¾” hubcap opening.
1935 Wheels are 16” x 4”. These are very plentiful because they were cheaper to buy with tires during the war years. A great way to tell these wheels apart from earlier wheels without measuring is by looking at the location of the valve stem hole. 17” and 18” wheels have the hole located in the raised hump of the rim, while 35’ wheels have it in a flat area of the wheel.
You may also come across aftermarket wheels produced by Kelsey-Hays, or Motor Wheel. These look relatively similar with their bent spokes being a give-away. Here are a few examples with their distinguishing features:
- 16” Bent Spoke Kelsey available in 4” and 4 ½” widths
- 16” Adjustable Spoke Kelsey 4” width
- 18” Adjustable Spoke Motor Wheel , 4” width
- 17” Bent Spoke Motor Wheel – 4” width
While it would have been great to find a grain wagon sporting Kelsey Hays bent spoke wheels, I’m not that lucky and will have to work with some 1933 wheels for my hot rod. The first thing you should check before investing time into a wheel is its over-all condition. Rust is what kills most of these wheels and when you consider they have seen all four seasons nearly 100 times over you can begin to understand so many wheels are found unusable. Most times these rust from the inside out when moisture forms inside a torn or dilapidated tire. Moisture can also enter through the valve stem hole so you should check that too and ensure you do not have deterioration to the point it will cause weak spots in the rim itself. You should also check the spokes carefully to ensure none are badly bent. These can be tapped carefully back into shape if the bend isn’t dramatic.
There are some important considerations when running wire wheels.
- They are not as strong as steel wheels, and if you were a hot rodder back in the day you would have ditched your wire wheels in favor of solid wheels as soon as they became readily available.
- Tires can be difficult to source and are expensive in the larger sizes.
- They don’t really look correct on a mid-late 50’s build, and they don’t look right with Buick Finned Brake drums because they come out of two different eras.
- If you are running these on anything other than stock brakes/hubs you will need to run a wire wheel support from Speedway Motors, part 910-65470. (Details on this to come)
- All vintage Ford wire wheels are 5 on 5 ½” bolt pattern.
I gave my wheels a good coat of paint after a light media blasting and had tires mounted and balanced. I have been hoarding a set of 45 fin aluminum Buick drums forever, but they just don’t look quite right when you are running spoke wheels. Instead I switched over to steel drum front brake from Speedway Motors that allowed me to run stock 40 Ford Backing plates. If you need a good set of early style brakes for your hot rod check out the drum I am running (part 910-65400), and if you need a complete backing plate assembly have a look at (part 910-65420).
If you are using anything but stock drums that were originally built for wire wheels, it is very important to run special Wire Wheel supports. Speedway sells them at a great price if you just order up a 910-65470 you will need one for each wheel. These supports do not center the wheel as some people expect. The center hole in the adapter is much larger than the center hole of the wheel. Instead they provide support to the rear surface of the wheel once the lug nuts are all tightened down. If you do not run this support it is possible that you will deform the wheel when it is tightened against your drum. This commonly causes the wheels to crack and become unusable!
The original Ford drums were designed with a raised area for the wire wheel to press against that modern drums do not have. In the picture below of the Speedway support you can see the raised center lip.
Some people claim that they do not run the wire wheel supports with some success, but if you want to keep your wheels healthy I would not suggest it.
Wire wheels hearken back to an earlier time and make for a handsome appearance for any old Ford! When it comes to accessories for these wheels Speedway Motors is a great source for goodies. To finish off your wheels nothing looks better than a polished stock hubcap such as a 32 style 911-39601 or 1935 cap, 751-481130SS!
If you have modern hubs with a smaller bolt circle Speedway even sells new wheel adapters which allow you to adapt up to the 5 on 5 ½” pattern. Check out these wheel adapters here P/N 910-28354. The adapters even have the wire wheel support ring machined into the adapter making it ready for vintage wheels right out of the box!
Before obtaining an old grain wagon with family history I didn’t know anything about original Ford wire wheels but through some research, elbow grease, and help from Speedway Motors, I have a great set up for my hot rod. I also hope this guide might help you as you wander through the next swap meet. You might just find an old set of wheels that begs to be put back on the street again!
Products Featured in this Article
Speedway 1928-35 Ford Wire Wheel Center SupportView$19.99Compare