Spoiled for Choice
Here in the UK buying a new set of alloys for your car is a much different experience than in many countries. A trip to the local tyre shop won’t usually result in a satisfied customer rolling home on the wheels of their dreams – very few tyre specialists also deal in alloy wheels, and those that do mostly have a limited range on offer. This means that the bulk of alloy wheel purchases in the UK are made through dedicated wheel suppliers, and these days that equates to two options – in person shopping or ordering online.
Larger stores, such as the deceptively named South West Tyres (they do sell tyres, but the company’s specialty is definitely their large range of alloy wheels), offer the advantage of having a wide selection of both leading brands and budget alloys on hand, so little is left to the customer’s imagination. And with in-store fitting bays, such as at South West Tyres’ 10,000 sq. ft. premises, wheels can be selected, purchased and fitted all in a single convenient procedure.
But despite its apparent drawbacks – the need to select a wheel based solely upon photographs, the lack of opportunity to see a particular wheel alongside the vehicle, and no fitting service – online ordering is taking an ever-larger slice of the alloy wheel market. Tosche Trading Ltd, trading under the web name performancealloys.com, has grown phenomenally in recent years. Although operating in cyberspace for less than a decade, Tosche today claim to be the UK and Ireland’s largest online retailer of alloy wheels. And the company, who boasts a range of more than 10,000 wheels and tyres sources from around the world, is but one of a number of options available to UK customers.
And what type of wheels are UK customers ordering? According to the opinion of a number of UK-based retailers, most customers have relatively conservative states. While there are a minority wanting to “pimp their ride” with the largest and widest option available, 17 and 18-inch alloys are by far the best sellers. So it seems that, while there is an upward trend in wheel diameter, the bulk of alloys purchased have only an inch or two over those from a decade ago. And opinion differs on how much larger than standard a customer can go – Tyres & Accessories was quoted several figures between two and four inches.
Style-wise, spoked wheels are still the top selling alloy, be it conventional five spoke or a multi-spoke variation. As far as finishes go, light semi-matte styles such as bright silver remain popular, although high gloss and chrome silver finishes appear to be a reoccurring theme throughout this year’s new releases, and some are even tipping white centres to be the next big think in wheel fashion.
While customers are spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting an alloy wheel supplier, and whether one decides upon the in-store or online option is primarily a matter of personal taste, Image Wheels are an increasing rarity – a UK alloy wheel specialist that actually manufactures their products here in the UK. The company was established in 1987 and operates as a bespoke manufacturer, building wheels especially to order. And while only about 30 per cent of their work is for road cars – most of Image Wheels’ customers are involved in motorsport – the company has plenty to offer those wanting something a cut above the average wheel.
“Our customers are not people with day-to-day cars, looking for one-piece wheels or tyre and wheel packages,” explains Image Wheels owner and managing director Harry Nicklin, a man with 30 years experience in the wheel industry. “Our wheels are custom made 3-piece units, that can be ordered in as wide profile as the customer likes – up to 18-inches. And while our wheels cost more than the average, we are able to give our customers something that suits their car, something they actually want.”
Many Image Wheels’ customers are the proud owners of classic or retro car models. Mr. Nicklin confirms that retro vehicles, such as older Escorts and Capris, are becoming increasingly popular with young drivers who appreciate their styling but wish to bring their mechanicals and handling more up to date. And while some retro vehicle owners prefer a more subtle approach, restricting the width of their new wheels to what will fit the car’s bodywork, others treat such obstacles as a challenge to overcome, and choose to rebuild the area around the wheel arch to accommodate a larger wheel. But no matter what approach they take, Image Wheels can provide alloys that meet their requirements.
And while some of the vehicles riding on the company’s products may be timeless classics, Image Wheels offers its customers some very state-of-the art technology. A notable example is the ceramic lacquers available as an option on all wheels. These lacquers contain nanoparticles that significantly reduce the maintenance a wheel needs to keep it looking pristine, thereby all but eliminating a time consuming and tedious jobs for vehicle owners.
“Regular lacquers are next to useless on a polished surface,” comments Mr. Nicklin. In order to find a better solution Image Wheels trialled the new ceramic lacquer for two years, and report they are impressed with the results. The wheels remain clean in situations that would see dirt accumulate on regular wheels, and to date the company has received a high level of positive feedback from customers. The sole case of discolouration to a wheel covered with the ceramic lacquer occurred on a vehicle fitted with competition brake pads, and Mr. Nicklin adds that the discolouration was not permanent – a good waxing was sufficient to restore the wheel’s appearance.
As for how long such a lacquer will last, Image Wheels prefer to err on the side of caution. While the supplier of the lacquer stated a lifespan of up to 10 years, Image Wheels have only two years of first-hand experience with the substance, and are not making claims they can’t stand behind. “You can’t take into account how people look after their wheels,” says Mr. Nicklin. “You might get some person who turns a jet blaster on them every week.” So Image Wheels plan to take things year-by-year, and while the ceramic lacquer appears to hold much potential, in the end maintaining the confidence of their customers is the company’s foremost priority.