Did Someone Mention Hubcaps? Some Memories of a Childhood Collection

I think we humans are prone to collect things. All kinds of people collect all kinds of things. And many of us start that habit during childhood. My father collected postcards in his youth, and my mother had a collection of common coins kept in books.

As a child of the mid 1960’s. the possibilities for collections was almost endless. Baseball cards were always a popular collectible. Even our teachers at school got us into the act with the leaf collections each of us was assigned to assemble, identify and label over one summer. Being born car-crazy, my collections were oriented in a different direction.

There were Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars – although my collections of those were more for playing with than just for having. I also started collecting new car sales brochures at some point. But my favorite collection was the most unusual – I collected hub caps and wheelcovers.

Most people don’t distinguish between the two, but hub caps (sometimes called “dog dishes” or “poverty caps” were those small things that only covered the lug nuts while leaving a black or body-colored steel wheel open to view.

Wheelcovers, on the other hand, were almost always extra-cost options that, well, covered the whole wheel. But for brevity I will call them all hub caps here.

No, my collection did not come about from any kind of operation often called Midnight Auto Salvage or Five Finger Auto Parts. I came about my collection honestly by finding stray versions that had become dissatisfied with their cars or owners and had attempted to escape to roadsides and ditches everywhere.

Today, almost all cars sport alloy wheels, so the old experience of lost hubcaps is the thing of memories. I still recall the first piece in my collection, which came thanks to my father. He had chosen, you see, a car that was particularly prone to losing its hubcaps. I later figured out that heavy cars made steel wheels flex a bit, and really heavy wheelcovers (or those that were really flat in shape) sometimes got a mind of their own and would make a break for it. Dad’s 1972 Lincoln was such a car, and after about the first year it was almost always sporting at least one bare black wheel. With the cost of new ones, Dad would try to go find the one he had lost.

One gray early spring day we were on such a drive and he spotted a bright disc in a field – I volunteered to go after it, but when I got there I recognized that it had not come from his Lincoln, but from Chrysler’s pride and joy, the Imperial. I was too young to own a car, but I was certainly not too young to own a hubcap, so I kept it. And and thus began my collection, with a duplicate of the one on the photo featured up top.

I was at the age of heavy bike riding, and kept my eyes peeled for those chrome (or stainless steel) prizes. When I found one, I would pick it up and bring it home. My mother was actually pretty cool about my habit of cleaning them in her kitchen sink before they were placed in a big cardboard box in the garage. It was in that hands-on way that I came to appreciate the design work that went into many (though not all) of them, like the colorful plastic centers in many of them. And I soon discovered what separated the really expensive versions from their plainer bretheren – the really good ones were often assembled using multiple parts, including heavy diecastings.

My best friend Dan got into the spirit and joined me. Soon we split the collection between our parents’ garages as it outgrew the box at my house. We really prized the older ones that were rarely found, even if they were not in the best of shape.

Our most common find was from mid 1960’s Fords, both the 64 and 65 models. Each of them must have suffered from some wheel flex, and each committed what I discovered to be a cardinal sin in wheelcover design. The 64 had a large, heavy chrome-plated diecast center that concentrated all the weight in the wrong place if anything got loose or started to wobble.

The 65 went the opposite direction, a simple lightweight stamped unit that was almost perfectly flat, making it easily bent when some guy at the gas station yanked it off to change a tire. We had multiple versions of that 65 Ford cap, and even gave one or two to our math teacher whose forlorn chalky red 965 Ford was always missing at least one.

My all time prize was when I saw a substitute teacher driving an older Plymouth sedan. I knew by that time what its hubcaps should look like, and I saw right away that it had one that didn’t match – better yet, odd one was from a 1958 Edsel. The Edsel was a short-lived new car offered by the Ford Motor Company to great fanfare and ever greater failure. I approached the teacher and asked what it would take to get that Edsel hubcap from her. She promised to talk to her husband and the next day told me that if I could replace it with something suitable, I could have it. I got a few appropriate samples and my mother drove me to their house, where a deal was made and I came home with my Edsel hubcap. Not one of the cheap ones, mind you, but the best they offered, with a raised chrome spinner and painted areas that matched the car (white in this case).

It took us two or three years, but we eventually reached a milestone – I think it may have been fifty. We had promised ourselves that when we hit that number we would sell them. I called a few junkyards and when one expressed some interest, we loaded them into the back of Dan’s mother’s van and made the trek to the southwest side of Fort Wayne. The guy had, of course, large piles of hubcaps, but we had a handful that looked saleable to him – like one for a Mercedes and one for a Lincoln like my father’s. He offered us $15 for the lot. Fourteen year old me felt cheeky and replied “How ’bout $20?” He nodded and forked over the first $20 bill I had ever earned. Dan and I promptly went out to Pizza Hut and splurged on a couple of pizzas just the way we wanted them and a pitcher of Pepsi to wash them down. Our idea of a high time in 1974 did not seem as nerdy then as it does now.

The skills I picked up in caring for the collection came in handy well into adulthood. Around 1987 I bought a really nice, one-owner 1966 Plymouth sedan. It was a basic car with power steering, automatic, am radio and such, but no fancy options.

Except one – the top-level “turbine style” wheelcover usually reserved for the most expensive models – like this one.

Instead of the plainer ones seen most commonly, as on this example. I planned to drive the car and decided that these were too nice to leave to winters of salt baths and such. I took each one apart, removed the tar, cleaned and waxed it just as I had done as a teen. I then wrapped them in newspaper and plastic and put them in my garage. Where they still are. I like to think they are worth more than just a couple of pizzas now.

Photo Credits – the 1963 Chevrolet station wagon and the 1968 Mustang are by the author.

All hubcap/wheelcover photos were offered for sale on various online marketplaces

The two 1966 Plymouths were found, well, I forget. But I appreciate the owners showing off their cars!

27 thoughts on “Did Someone Mention Hubcaps? Some Memories of a Childhood Collection

  1. Hubcaps! My neighborhood is awash in hubcaps! As part of the slow “Americanization” of Toyota (read: cheapening), they’ve reduced the quality of their wheels, and the coatings on them, so that, at least on the cheaper models, the wheels rust, and the tires break the seals during the winter and lose hubcaps because of the rust. I’ve seen late model Corollas, where the people replace their missing caps, and a week or two later, they’ve spun off somewhere in the neighborhood! Sometimes you can find them, sometimes not. Crap like this is what’s changed many a Toyota driver into a Subaru driver over the last ten years!

    My adorable girlfriend when I lived in Washington D.C. was from the south. She had a Nissan that kept throwing caps, and she was always on the look-out for a replacement. She always used to say: “Nothing says ‘country come to town’ like one missing hubcap.”

    BTW, Kudos on the 1966 Plymouth Fury. My Dad had one and I learned to drive on it and my Moms 1965 Ford wagon. I always thought the ’66 Fury was a boss car, and in the convertible variation, looked like the quintessential American rag top. Raised Catholic, our “swinging” young priest at my parish had the ’66 Fury III convertible, in black, of course!

    Liked by 2 people

    • So many hubcaps today are those awful plastic ones, and then there are the generic ones from Wal Mart. Of course back then there were the generic knock-offs from J C Whitney, the catalog seller of cheap parts. Nothing left me feeling so cheated as spying a shining disc in the distance only to find it was a J C Whitney imitation. We would usually leave those where we found them.

      My wheelcover thrower was an 84 Olds 98 that had really flat, really thin discs that got bent really easily. After I lost one I tried taking the rest off, but Marianne did NOT like the look. 🙂

      I loved my 66 Fury, it may have been the most trouble-free car (of its general era, anyway) I ever owned. Mine was a Fury III sedan, in white with a gorgeous turquoise cloth interior.

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  2. I am still teased by family about my early affinity for hubcaps / wheel covers. They simply don’t realize they were closer to eye level. Anyway…

    There is also a hubcap collection in my house, the most recent being a full set of 1965 Ford covers identical to what you have pictured above. Also in the lot is an early ’70s Chrysler cap (undoubtedly from a low-end Newport), a ’71 full-size Ford cover, a few ’80s model Caprice covers, and one from a Hudson my grandfather found about 20 years ago.

    All are either for sale or have been for sale (except the Hudson) yet it seems the audience for hubcaps has shrank considerably over the years.

    Inadvertently, I have also began a collection of automotive nameplates, the pieces with make or model names that stick into the car. My current favorites were given to me by a coworker; he didn’t know what the logo and nameplate “Kaiser” meant.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Once a guy starts paying attention to hubcaps, it becomes impossible to ignore them. Few things are more grating to me than seeing an older car with hubcaps from a different year or model – the whole thing just looks wrong.

      It is really kind of incredible the number of designs it is possible to come up with for a simple metal disc, and how so few designs were re-used. I noticed right away when Ford recycled a design for the mid 70s Mercury Marquis wheelcover, a re-use of a design offered on Thunderbirds in 1970-71.

      I have one real oldie – a small 1920s cap for a Pierce Arrow, from the era when they screwed onto a the wheel hub. It is not in great shape, but I think it is cool.

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  3. I too used to collect hubcaps, but the end of my collection was not as profitable. When my Dad was scrapping his 1981 Buick Regal I thought “why am I keeping these” and put them into the trunk. Maybe I should have kept the set of 57 Plymouth hubcaps but then again I’ve never had a 57 Plymouth myself.

    I kept three. The 1938 Terraplane hubcap later got mailed to a guy who owned one, the 1946 Ford hubcap is a perfect fit as a chiminea cap in my garden. The tiny little 1928 Durant hubcap is still in a box somewhere, I should find a Durant owner and mail it to them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your tiny Durant cap is probably about the size of my Pierce Arrow cap. I should probably know what year and model it is, but I have never tried to research it.

      I have an idea for your Durant hubcap – you ought to give it to a GMC owner. That way they can make a Jimmy Duranty. Sorry. 🙂

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  4. My first 2003 Toyota Matrix was the last car I owned with wheel covers. They were cheap, made of plastic, and the car threw them all the time. Toyota charged EIGHTY DOLLARS for one. I found a place online that charged only 40. After paying to replace wheel covers five times, I finally had enough. I was due for tires anyway so I made an appointment at Tire Rack in South Bend, and had those tires mounted on inexpensive $80 five-spoke wheels. Then a couple months later I totaled the car in an accident. So it goes.

    Matrix with one missing wheel cover: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mobilene/46231276525/
    Totaled Matrix with lovely five-spoke wheels: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mobilene/3436306186/

    Liked by 1 person

    • My minivan has plastic wheelcovers that are held on by the wheel bolts. I always thought about looking for some alloy wheels in the junkyard, which were the ones fitted to the high-trim version I did not buy. My choices are limited because of Kia’s insistence on using six lug nuts to hold the wheels onto the car. I have also thought about removing the wheelcovers and spraying the wheels a good color, but have never taken the time. So far they have stayed on and still look as good as they can.

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  5. I’m not sure if my Honda has hubcaps – it must – although I can’t say I’ve ever noticed. I’ve never even heard of hubcaps falling off, but I do have a collection of old Hot Wheels and a box of rusty old license plates from my dad, some dating back to the 1940’s/50’s. They used to line the walls of the garage on the farm.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. When I bought my ’59 Chevy Biscayne in 2018, the car had the optional full wheelcovers on it. I thought they looked too fancy for a Biscayne, so I searched eBay for the correct small standard hubcaps. Turns out the ’59 fancy wheelcovers are easily found, but it was really hard to find the small ’59 Chevy hubcaps. I eventually found a set of 4, but they were quite expensive and not in the best shape.
    An advantage of the small hubcaps is that they show off the painted rims which are color-matched to the body. Interestingly, all the cars shown in the 1959 Chevrolet brochure except the Impala convertible have the small hubcaps on! I’m not sure which look you think is better . . .
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/147108383@N02/48128998323/in/album-72157689631373894/
    https://www.flickr.com/photos/147108383@N02/43751281071/in/album-72157689631373894/

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was never very impressed with the 59 Chevy wheelcover, and I think I agree that the small caps look nicer. And those are a particularly nice design to my eye.

      I have read on some Studebaker forums that modern radial tires make the old wheels flex more and small hubcaps stay on better than the wheelcovers do. Maybe that’s a thing with Chevys too.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I managed to lose one & damage another of the original wheel covers for my ’65 Chrysler. A few years ago I went from 14″ wheels up to 15″ to get a better tire size and have just gone with a set of plain ’80s M body wheel covers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • At least you didn’t do what everyone else does and use those universal 1969+ Mopar dog dish caps. I had bought a set to put on my Fury, but decided against them. It’s funny as much as that sort of thing bothers me on other cars, but I found a set of four wheelcovers from a 68 Chrysler and those were on the car until I sold it.

      I recall that Chrysler offered a standard hubcap that was not bad looking, but they were rarely seen on cars. We never found many of the dog dish styles as those tended to stay attached to their cars.

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    • The poor hubcap deserves a little attention, don’t you think? 🙂

      Hubcap variety has now been replaced by wheel variety – the difference is that I have a hard time telling today when a car has the right wheels or not. Maybe that’s not a problem for today’s 13 year old.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, and ALL cars look alike too. It used to be wonderful to see a car go by and we new it was a Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar, etc. Now, they’ve made the bodies of THOSE cars to look like a Hondo. The Tesla has a beautiful design. Otherwise, everything’s looks the same. And I’m not a big car person, but who can’t resist a beautiful car zooming by whether we are in to cars or not. WELL, soon we will have FLYING cars!! Like the Jetsons. I would never have thought that… but it’s coming.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for explaining the difference between hubcaps and wheel covers as I am positive I used those terms interchangeably over the years. Over the years I can remember seeing a hubcap leaning up against a store, telephone pole or somewhere that the person who lost it might see it and claim it. Good for you scoring that Edsel hubcap. You are right – your mom was a sport about your collection, which took up more real estate than a baseball card collection.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Love the vintage photo with your sister – looks like you’re both in pajamas. I find the “car gene” fascinating (probably because I don’t have it). Two of my brothers do and to this day their allegiance to their vehicles rivals that to their wives. Both have garages reserved for tinkering; both have eye-catching cars. The only parallel I can draw is from several teenage years when I was obsessed with my Nishiki ten-speed. My buds and I would hang out in the carport taking our bicycles down to the smallest parts. Lots of grease and paint and conversation (and purchasing new parts was a big deal). I’ll always remember rewrapping the curling handlebars with vinyl tape, the final step in bringing things back to complete. In hindsight, it seems we worked on those bicycles more than we rode them, but the memories made with good friends were priceless.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I remember that picture being taken, my father had just come home from work, though I don’t recall the occasion.

      Bikes or cars, I suspect that the attraction is about the same.

      Like

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