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Hubcaps

By Jeff Zurschmeide


In auto restoration, you have to sweat the small stuff. The challenge and reward of restoration is in the details. One of the areas that perennially challenges the restorer is the location and restoration of hubcaps. After the automakers moved away from wooden wheels, most vintage cars used some kind of decorative cover over the basic steel wheel. Alloy wheels started to become popular in the 1960s, but hubcaps of some kind are still in use on most cars in the modern era.

There are several restoration challenges related to hubcaps. The most basic is locating and obtaining the correct hubcaps for your year, make, and model. Reproduction caps are made for popular restoration models such as 1957 Chevrolets, but owners of rare or less-collectible models will have to find original parts, and originals present their own restoration challenge.

Most hubcaps are polished stainless steel and some are steel, plated with chrome. They are stamped into shape and then may or may not be painted. Often, a central crest or logo is screwed, riveted, or otherwise fastened to the center. Getting the correct center crest is often as much of a challenge as obtaining the hubcap body.

The best way to find hubcaps for your car is through enthusiast groups for your make and model. Your clubmates and other are the most likely to have a supply of clean caps squirreled away somewhere. Specialty junkyards for your car are likely to advertise in club publications. Next in line are online sources such as eBay. With the rise in popularity of online auctions, many of the parts that used to change hands at swap meets now find a national or even international market online. Finally, there are hubcap shops in every major city in America. Prices at these shops may be higher or lower than those commanded online, but you also get the advantage of giving the hubcap a thorough inspection before you buy.

But once youíve laid hands on a complete set of hubcaps, your work isnít over. Chances are, the hubcaps youíve purchased still need some work to look their best.

Restoring a hubcap takes many of the same skills used in body and paint work. First, you must hammer out or straighten any dents, check for cracks and rust damage, and repair it. Because most hubcaps are made of thin metal, this is delicate work, and you may choose to hire a professional.

HINT Hint...
Take time to make sure that the springtabs or other parts that hold the hubcap to the wheel are in good shape. These will be much harder to repair after youíve prepped the visible side of the hubcap. Make sure that they hold the cap securely to the wheel, because if you lose one while driving, youíre likely to have to find a replacement. At best, youíll be restoring your formerly pretty hubcap again.

If the hubcaps are chrome-plated, they are likely to need replating. Make sure you have all the dents and other imperfections completely fixed, because youíll have to replate if you missed something.

Hubcaps often have raised or recessed areas that are painted. Find the correct shade and if possible, the original type of paint, but auto lettering paint will usually do in a pinch. Get a small brush and do this work by hand. Take your time and be careful in your application. If necessary, mask off unpainted areas.

Finally, if your hubcap has an attached crest, make sure it is held firmly in place. Often, this means using a small amount of epoxy or other fixative in addition to the nuts or press-fit retainers in the original design.

Dos and Don'ts
Thumb up  DO
  • Replate chrome hubcaps if needed -nothing else will look right
  • Use a little epoxy to hold a fastened crest into place -you donít want to lose those
  • Make sure the springtabs are completely functional and hold the wheel firmly

Thumb down  DON’T
  • Donít spray paint over chrome, especially flaking chrome. It just wonít stick.
  • Donít paint or plate until all the metalwork is finished
The Popular Restorations Project Car
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1946 Packard: Restoring the hubcaps

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In 1946, Packard hubcaps were made of a steel shell, covered with a chromed brass skin. These hubcaps dented easily and the chrome was thin, so most have been replaced by all-steel equivalents. The all-steel hubcaps are mostly aftermarket, but some are Packard original. Over the years Packard used more than one hubcap vendor, so some were brass-skinned and some all-steel, sometimes with the same part number.

When I took the Popular Restorations project car hubcaps to the chrome shop they started by dipping them in chemicals to remove the old chrome. I soon got a phone call telling me that one of my hubcaps was the original brass over steel. The chrome guy said the brass hubcaps are more difficult to re-chrome and suggested I find another steel hubcap, which I did, at Max Merritt Auto.

The 1946 Custom Super Eight has a red cloisonne medallion fastened to the center of the hubcap, which covers the stamped and (otherwise) painted name and the hexagon logo.

Three of the four medallions were in good shape but I had to replace the fourth. There are aftermarket medallions available but a restoration mechanic told me you can tell the difference ten feet away. I started keeping an eye on eBay and was lucky to find an original that was in good shape, although I wasnít too happy about the price.

When I got the hubcaps back from the chrome shop I noticed the plating did not cover every bit of the inside. They have an internal seam and there was a little rust already starting to develop. I painted the seam with POR-15 and expect that with care, theyíll outlast me and the next owner too.

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Interview
 

Hubcap World

By Jeff Zurschmeide

Kim Gallagher, Owner
8827 SE Division St.
Portland Oregon
503-777-1038

PR: How do you find all these vintage hubcaps?

KG: Most of the older stuff has been around for years and years. Whatever I have is what has come into the shop. They get brought in from tire shops, mostly, and I donít seek out older hubcaps. To tell the truth, thereís not a lot of older hubcaps trading around any more. Most of that business has gone to eBay.

PR: Do you do any restoration work on your hubcaps?

KG: I can repair and recondition plastic hubcaps, but not metal. We send that out and it comes back brand new.

PR: What does a vintage hubcap cost?

KG: It starts at $5 and can go up to $100 for a vintage hubcap. These old Ford V8 hubcaps from the 1930s are $15 each. Some of them, such as certain vintage Oldsmobile hubcaps with a spinner bar on them, are a lot more. Something like that is about $100 per hubcap. I had a Cadillac hubcap for years that was $150, but someone bought it.

PR: Do you have resources you can search for rare hubcaps?

KG: Yes. I have an arrangement with other businesses and we share information when someone is looking for something specific.

PR: How should someone evaluate a vintage hubcap?

KG: The older metal hubcaps are usually stainless steel, so they donít rust much, but they can be dented or break. Some hubcaps have plain steel clips. You have to make sure they havenít rusted away or been damaged. With plastic hubcaps, the tabs get broken off.

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Automotive Detailing: A Complete Car Guide for Auto Enthusiasts and Detailing Professionals
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This book covers all aspects of restoration in detail, with a focus on the special issues found in 1960s and 70s muscle cars. From car selection through engine and interior restoration, this book is full of photos, illustrations, and step by step procedures. Examples are given from all domestic automakers. Reviews have been generally positive, for example (from AutoWeek): ďWith clean vintage muscle cars skyrocketing in price, this second edition has good timing, providing updates on parts sources and restoration techniques. We didnít use the book to restore a muscle car, but we found it clear and concise, with user-friendly disassembly diagrams and 1,300-plus step-by-step photos, from choosing tools and which muscle car to restore, to completing the restoration.Ē

External Links

Here are some links for hubcaps:

Hubcap House: Thousands of new and used hubcaps and wheel covers in stock from the 1950ís on up.

Hubcaps.com: Used hubcaps from 1949 on.

HubcapMike.com: Vintage reproduction hubcaps.

Hotrod Hubcaps: Reproduction hubcaps, beauty rings, and wheel covers.

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