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!