How wheel covers have been portrayed and used has changed a lot throughout the years, and opinions on them have ebbed and flowed along with the trends of the time. Back in the ‘60s we got some pretty stylish options on old Pontiacs and Oldsmobiles. Wheel covers, commonly called hubcaps, were seen as an upgrade, often made of color-matched metals and plastics. Now, though? Wheel covers are seen as something only for cheap cars and they signal an owner who didn’t spend the coin for a nicer car. As we all know, however, reputations are not always indicative of reality.
Let’s go back a few decades and take a few brief looks into what wheel culture was like. In the ‘80s, the baroque conservatively styled box sedans from the Big Three meant that geriatric-ass wire-wheels needed to come as an upgrade. Do you think the Big Three had time to make real wire wheels on whatever mass-produced boxy sedan they sold at the time? Hah, no. Those were wheel covers.
In the ‘90s, we still had some cool designs on hubcaps like the Plymouth/Dodge Neon Highline’s “bubble” hubcaps. From the factory, however, the car market had started to favor styled alloy wheels, which started to eat into the number of cars with hubcaps. Wheel covers never went completely out of style though. In fact, they’re hiding in plain sight! Because of aero, cost, weight, and other reasons, hubcaps are still being used on modern cars.
Back in 2004, a lot of Prius owners were shocked to realize that underneath their “alloy wheel,” AKA the wheel cover, was actually another superlight steel wheel. This thread on the PriusChat forum chronicles speculation over why Toyota insisted on putting a cheap-looking plastic wheel cover on top of a kind of stylish alloy wheel, with many assuming aerodynamic or simple aesthetic reasons.
This design and method is used on some modern Prius vehicles to this day, and it’s not just a Toyota thing. Both GM and Ford during the late 2000’s, and early 2010’s used wheel covers on top of a five-spoke or multi-spoke steel wheel.
Even the forward-thinking technology-focused automaker Tesla does this on the Model 3 and Model Y as a means to improve aerodynamics and range. Underneath a plastic wheel cover, there’s a really good-looking alloy wheel. Why style the rim underneath, if the aero covers are supposed to remain on? Car and Driver tested a Model 3 both with and without the aero wheel covers, and the aero covers surprisingly added a pretty respectable 10 miles of added range.
Hubcaps, like the ones on the Tesla Model 3 and Y are pretty sharp-looking and would fool a lot of people into thinking they’re actual alloy wheels. If that’s the case, and the covers are used to add legitimate range to our vehicles, does that change the perception cast upon them? A lot of people think wheel covers are trash, but I don’t think it’s that big of a deal. Whatever you think, they’re probably in a car you wanted, just hiding in plain sight.