Hard times cut demand for big chrome custom car wheels

LAS VEGAS -- The bling-bling is going out of the fancy custom wheels business.

After a decade in which shiny chrome rims ruled the streets — the bigger and more outrageous the better — consumers appear to be passing up automotive cosmetics in order to buy gas and groceries.

"It might come back, but it's going to be a while," says Jim Fisher, sales manager for wheel maker Konig, at the big automotive accessory trade show sponsored by the industry's Specialty Equipment Market Association. "We're selling something that people don't need."

Athletes, actors and music stars who drive the plushest cars and trucks aren't scrimping on big chrome wheels now that the economy has soured, says Danny Ward, vice president of sales for Modular Society wheels. But many of the younger buyers who like to emulate them may have overstretched their budgets. The "easy come, easy go" crowd is disappearing.

Great wheels aren't cheap. A top-quality set of rims for a sporty model like a Dodge Charger can run $8,000 — more than many enthusiasts spent to buy the used car they want to mount them on.

For years, flashy wheels have marked the epitome of the pimp-my-ride urban lifestyle. Makers competed for the nuttiest touches, like spinners that made the wheels appear to keep turning even when the car came to a halt. Every year, they vied to outdo each other on size.

Though maker Lexani Wheels was showing off a set of 42-inch (!) rims at its booth at the annual show — wheels more than twice the size of a typical car wheel and so big that there are no tires yet to fit them — Ward says the size wars are largely over. With fewer Hummers and luxury SUVs, such as the Cadillac Escalade, being sold, there isn't as much demand for wheels the size of a tractor's.

But the reps say that although business may be off, they are finding ways to make sure their big wheels keep on turning.

"Maybe sizes and pricing will go down a little," says Ryan Friedlinghaus, founder of West Coast Customs, a Corona, Calif., customizing operation. But "wheels is always the first question" for customers looking to personalize vehicles, even if they lack the cash for a complete rebuild.

Friedlinghaus collaborates with big-name makers on his own line of rims, his shop having been made famous for turning automotive ugly ducklings into swans during the initial seasons of the Pimp My Ride TV show.

As costly as they are, he adds, custom wheels are still a quick way to have a big impact on the look of a car — and won't go away anytime soon.

Fisher says his business is holding up because it has focused on segments less susceptible to the turndown. Konig has targeted "tuners," a dedicated segment of the hot-rodding crowd. "They are not worried about feeding their families. They are worried about fixing up their cars," he says.

Konig also has focused on smaller wheels that aren't being hit as hard in this economy.

Ward, too, says his company has replaced some of the lost business in the U.S. by exporting custom wheels to affluent places that appreciate American car culture, such as Russia and the Middle East.

Another plus for the industry is that as with rising and falling hemlines, the hot look is always changing and car buffs want to stay up with the latest.

"This business is as trendy as the fashion business," Ward says.

Also helping to keep business rolling: For people opting for smaller cars these days, personalization can be more affordable.

Gabriel Rodriguez, sales manager for Velocity Wheels, says the company is outfitting smaller cars, such as Honda Civics, with sets of custom wheels for as little as $500.

"The bling-bling is going to be here for a long time," he insists. "There's nothing to stop it."