What car part is an essential part of a car’s performance, safety, and style? The wheel. Nothing else is so easy to change yet so fundamental to a car’s character. Enthusiasts often change out original equipment wheels for something more suited to their aesthetic taste or particular use case, but sometimes a factory wheel design is so beloved that it transcends one vehicle or model generation. By the same token, there are some aftermarket wheels that became so popular and widely used that they’ve become practically household names (if you live in a gearhead home, anyway).
To honor the miraculous symbols of human achievement that got us from wagons, to horse-drawn carriages, and eventually, cars, here are our picks for the 11 best wheels. This list is not scientific, nor definitive, but definitely top to bottom full of sweet wheels. Disagree with our picks or think we missed one? Weigh in on the Hagerty Forums below.
Gold Subaru BBS wheels
Subaru performance models and Gold BBS wheels go together like peanut butter and jelly. A memorable element of Subaru’s Colin McRae-era World Rally Championship Impreza from the late 1990s, as well as the spectacular limited-run 1998 STI 22B, the gold wheels would later become a staple visual component of WRX STI models. Along with Subaru’s trademark World Rally Blue paint, gold BBS wheels are pure rally-spec stylin’.
Alpina turbine-style wheels
Since 1978, Alpina has been taking BMWs and cranking them up with next-level performance kit, as well as improved kicks. The look has evolved in the four decades since the original Alpina B7, but that familiar turbine design is a clear indicator of Alpina’s guiding hand. And on the modern B7, the lugnuts and valve stem are hidden behind the center hub, which requires its own special key to pop off.
No, these didn’t catch on. But nothing will get you quite as much 1990s Radwood street-cred as three-spoke wheels, worn particularly well on the Saab 900, Range Rover Classic, and Gen 1 Dodge Viper.
Porsche Fuchs wheels
When Porsche came looking for a lighter wheel for the 1967 911S, aluminum was the obvious choice to reduce unsprung mass. Porsche didn’t go the cast-aluminum route common at the time, and instead commissioned Otto Fuchs to build the Fuchsfelge—the first forged aluminum wheel for series production. These windmill-shaped rims became forever associated with Porsche and the 911, and even though they became exclusively an aftermarket option in 1989, Porsche Classic still sells them for vintage customers.
Wire wheels are elegant and classic, and they look good on everything from a Concours-quality Ferrari or Maserati to a 289 Cobra or a Jaguar E-type. Whether your taste leans toward Borranis, Daytons, Dunlops, or whatever else, two- or three-eared spinners absolutely complete this ensemble.
In 1962, John Ford and Derek Power sought to create a lightweight racing wheel that would make the aforementioned Dunlop-style wire wheels old hat. The eight-spoke design was engineered to help keep brakes cool, and the simple styling meant they looked good on just about everything. While the original Minilites were made of magnesium, by 1973 an aluminum variant arrived. As Hemmings points out, Minilites were immensely popular among racers in the ’60s and ’70s, and their influence on wheel design is evident in the original 1990s Miata wheels, as well as the mid-2000s-era Mini Cooper, among many others.
Pontiac Trans Am honeycomb wheels
If you love Pontiac’s Honeycomb wheels, you have GM designer Bill Porter to thank. Arriving in 1971, the idea behind the Honeycomb wheel was that it would be a cast-aluminum high-performance element befitting the sporting ambitions of the second-generation Firebird. Sadly, alloy wheels were expensive, and the final product was a “Polycast” steel wheel styled with an injection-molded rubber-like material, albeit with a textured and painted surface meant to mimic the real thing. Pontiac really kicked up the style for the final year of the Honeycomb in 1976, with a golden-hued version for the 50th Anniversary Trans Am—a style that Burt Reynolds’ Bandit T/A would soon popularize just as Pontiac starting offering real cast-aluminum wheels for 1977.
Volk TE37 wheels
Rays took the late 1990s by storm with the Volk TE37, a one-piece forged aluminum wheel that was both extremely strong and light, weighing in at 3.7 kilograms (8 pounds) per 15-inch wheel. These wheels became huge in import tuner circles, particularly because of their great looks, but also because they’re stone-cold reliable on the track, where they very effectively dissipate heat. A testament to their legacy, they look just as good on an R32 Skyline GT-R that predates their introduction as they do on a modern R35 GT-R Nismo.
Shelby aluminum 10-spoke mag wheels
They might not as popular as the ’65 Shelby’s Cragar mags, but these Shelby 10-spoke aluminum mag wheels that became optional on the 1966 Shelby GT350 (and the 1967 GT500) give the pony car an absolutely killer attitude. You can identify originals apart from aftermarket copies by their tapered spokes at the edges.
Ford Model T wood wheels
Need a reminder of how far we’ve come? Don’t forget that Ford’s smash-hit Model T came with wood-spoked wheels. You can get crazy and paint them fun colors to jazz them up, but there’s no getting around the fact that wooden wheels represent a clear connection to the days of horse-drawn carriages. And the fact that plenty of Model Ts around today still use them is pretty fantastic.
Motorsport is often the source of engineering innovation, and after turbofan wheels gained some traction in racing from the late 1970s into the 1980s, several production cars benefited from the trickle-down of this technology. “Turbofan wheels work to passively pump air inside the wheel toward the brakes,” says Blake Z. Rong, in his ode to the turbofan we published earlier this year. “The outside covers direct fresh cooler air inward. Perpendicular louvers underneath the cover guide the air directly at the brake rotors. Ambient air moves faster over the outside cover than the hot air inside, and the low pressure generated by the outside air draws the hot air out.”
Cars like the C4 Corvette, E34-generation BMW M5, and Porsche 959 used them to great effect, and their lasting style is enjoying a resurgence in popularity as ’80s cars build their collector audience going forward.