During the planning phase of the television series Route 66, the “King of Kustomizers” George Barris, then consulting for General Motors, was asked how he could make the Corvette more interesting to the viewing public and a centerpiece of the show. He recommended that the car be equipped with authentic wire wheels, painted gray in color and centered with big, brightly chromed spinners. And so the 1960 Corvette that debuted with Tod and Buz on the night of October 7, 1960, featured a set of dental drive wire wheels manufactured by a small company in Xenia, Ohio; Dayton Wheel Products, one of only a handful of firms producing real ones.
Each weekly episode that followed showcased those wire wheels, even after the boys had unceremoniously switched to a 1961 Corvette, until the twenty-second week when the script for the April 7, 1961, episode called for Tod to sell his knock-offs to raise $300 for gambling money. Afterwards, the Corvette featured original equipment wheel covers for the rest of the season. But by then, true wire wheels had grown in popularity as an aftermarket accessory, so much so that many Chevy dealerships offered Dayton’s as optional equipment (Chevrolet did not make Kelsey-Hayes KOs available for production-line Corvettes until 1964).
I always liked the looks of those early wire wheels mounted on a C-1 and when I saw an Ebay auction for a set earlier this year I bookmarked it, thinking I’d look it over more closely later. When I did, the auction had been taken down because of an “error in the listing.” The ad showed pictures of four cadmium plated hub adaptors, four chrome 72 spoke radial laced wire wheels, and four chrome three lobe hub caps. They seemed well cared for, with only light rust, some lifting of chrome in spots, and a few hammer marks on the lobes. But what really caught my eye that I hadn’t noticed before was a reference to “original paperwork.” It took two days to reach the seller by phone.
He said he’d taken the auction down because he had titled his listing as a set of Kelsey-Hayes wire wheels for a 1962 Corvette, and then realized they were made by Dayton. And this is the story he told me.
In 1987, he was looking for a wheel cover for his ’58 Corvette and in a nearby community there was a “hubcap lady” who had a barn full...on walls, tables, shelves, everywhere. He found the hub cap he needed and as he was leaving the lady asked him if he might be interested in an old set of spoke wheels she had in another building. She said she knew they were for a Corvette because she had a letter that said so. He bought the wheels and she gave him the paperwork. And when he got home he put the envelope containing the documentation in a filing cabinet and stacked the wheels in his storage shed…never to be touched again for twenty-seven years until he couldn’t move around in the building anymore. He had decided to sell everything realizing he would never use all of the car parts he had accumulated. His shed was a absolute disaster but he thought he still had the envelope somewhere in the house.
It took him several days to call me back…with good news. He had found the envelope, and in it, a letter dated May 21, 1962, signed by the owner of Dayton Wheel Products and addressed to someone inquiring about the availability of wire wheels. It included a price list and a picture of the parts that would make up a set… and best of all, a promotional black and white photograph of wire wheels mounted on a ’60 Corvette. It didn’t take long to negotiate a deal…and to begin thinking about restoration.
With a little research, I was astonished to find that Dayton Wheel Products of Xenia, OH, that made these wheels in 1962, is still in business as Dayton Wheel Concepts, Inc. of Dayton, OH, advertising “Dayton Wire Wheels since 1916”. And yes they would welcome the chance to restore them (this was our only option since dental drive hubs and large-cap spinners have not been available for years). But the surprises didn’t stop there. The company that stamped the spinners for Dayton Wheel Products back in the day, Dayton Stencil Works, is also still in business and used their original stamps to recreate the word and symbol impressions (left side, right side, and directional arrow) for the restoration of the hub caps. Now they are as crisp and clear as they were when they were made. This would not have happened if Dayton’s regular machine shop hadn’t provided such an expensive quote to do the work. Instead, the restoration manager took the spinners to another shop he used personally…only to discover that they were the original supplier and had kept the stamps.
But that’s not the end of the story. Using Google, I searched for the addressee of the Dayton letter in Maryland where its recipient had lived then, and found a match…same first name, middle initial, and approximately my age. Then at Switchboard I found different addresses for the subject and selected the one that seemed most current. Off went a letter and a few days later I got a phone call. Bingo. I had found the original owner of my Dayton wire wheels.
When he bought the wheels in May 1962, he had them shipped directly to Hicks Chevrolet in DC (became Curtis Chevrolet in 1966 and closed in 2007) to be installed on his triple black 1962 Corvette that he had just purchased from them in November, 1961. He put the steel wheels in a wire storage area in the basement of his apartment and kept the original wheel covers in the packaging they came in. He sold the car in 1987, and when ownership was transferred the Dayton’s were still on the Corvette, having been there for twenty-five years. He never found his original wheels but the wheel covers were given to the buyer in like-new condition. And he still had the buyer’s name and office phone number.
I called the buyer, who was still employed at the same company, and left voice mail explaining that I was looking for information about the wire wheels that came with the Corvette he had bought in 1987. He returned the call the next morning.
I just assumed that the black 1962 had been kept in pristine condition given the limited information I had from the original owner. My discussion with the buyer changed all of that. When he first saw the car it was in a garage but he soon learned that it had been parked for years outside in the yard. It had unrepaired collision damage, the paint was checked and faded, it was missing some trim parts, and he hated the wire wheels which he said were dirty and rusty. After buying the car, the first thing he did was to replace them with original steel wheels. The Dayton’s were sold, along with the paperwork from the original owner, for $100 and the black Corvette was fully restored to Top Flight standards and later sold. But he still had a photograph of the ’62, taken the day he got it home.
Now you know all there is to know about the events that brought a set of authentic fifty-two year old wire wheels full circle from the beginning. And what are the odds of ever linking any of it? Preserving the original Dayton letter with a full name and address seems so unlikely. Then of finding a current address and phone number of the recipient, who never moved far from the area. And finally, he keeping the buyer’s name and business phone and the buyer still employed with the same company at the same number. Even their very existence…or the reliability of their memories…or their willingness to help could have been in question after all these years. Yet the chain was unbroken. Pretty amazing and pretty lucky I’d say.
The wire wheel restoration took three months. But nobody could have done it better or more lovingly than those guys at Dayton. They took great pride in making this surviving set of their vintage knock-offs look new again. Bitchin!
And to the original owner of the black ’62, and the buyer, who purchased the Corvette from him in 1987, and the Ebay seller who bought the wheels from the hubcap lady in 1987, and sold them to me in 2014, and the restoration manager at Dayton who put this job under his protective wing; you have my undying gratitude. We all had our memories stirred in a pleasant way. And memories are what this hobby is all about.