Auto News: Mr. Green Car: More car care tips: Fixing up neglected aluminum wheels

All four wheels on the red Civic look like this. They’ll be sand-blasted and painted with the tires in place. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

In my last car care tip column, I wrote about stopping body rust. This week, I’ll tell you about fixing up neglected aluminum wheels.

Time was that all cars came with steel wheels. Then, in the 1960s and 1970s, all aluminum wheels first appeared as aftermarket upgrades. We called them “mag wheels” back then, because some were very light racing wheels made of magnesium. As time went on, they appeared on more new cars from the dealer, then as factory options. Now, big chrome hubcaps are mostly only found on classic cars — but the hubcap lives on with the modern version (wheel cover) designed to resemble an aluminum wheel.

Steel wheels are very strong and reliable. They don’t break and rarely bend enough to cause trouble. Even very rusty, they don’t leak air and can be easily cleaned up. For those of you with wheel covers over steel wheels — those do break and get lost. Replacing one from the factory can be expensive. Instead of buying one from the dealer, consider replacing all four with

Subaru tire shows corrosion (white stuff) from a wheel that was causing air leaks. This would need to be cleaned off, as well as the wheel, if the tire is to be reused. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

inexpensive aftermarket wheel covers found at any auto parts store. If your wheel covers are a bit ratty, it’s an easy improvement in the look and value of your car to replace them.

Aluminum wheels, on the other hand, can be a bit fragile in the war with our potholes. They don’t fare well with curbs, either. Winter’s salty roads have a way of causing problems with aluminum wheels, too. Aluminum wheels are usually painted silver or clear coated — or both to protect them. Otherwise, you’d have to polish them quite often to stop corrosion and dullness. There are two basic problems that arise from corrosion: one, the outside begins to corrode under the clear coat, leaving a messy white look, or two, corrosion forms where the tire seals against the wheel and the coating has worn off. Road salt sneaks in there and does its dirty work unseen — allowing air to leak out of the tires.

If your wheels look nasty but are not leaking, you can have them sand blasted (I’ve found as low as $10 each). Then, you can either clear coat them with spray paint for a natural aluminum look, or you can paint them. There is no reason you can’t change the color if you are so inclined. You can have a professional paint them (and some will do the sand blasting, too) — this will run about $40 per wheel. This is much cheaper than new wheels.

Subaru wheel after sandblasting and painting. Rim edge was formerly very milky white from corrosion under clear coat. Wheel was painted inside and out to prevent further corrosion. (Photo by Allen Penticoff)

If the wheels leak air, you can do two things. One, you can have a tire shop remove the tire, clean up the area where corrosion is causing the problem, and reinstall the tires. If you are having new tires installed, they often do this without bothering to tell you it was done. They don’t want your new tires to leak air and have to come back.

Option two is to have the tires removed, sand blast the entire wheel, and repaint it completely. I recently did just this on our Subaru Outback, and the result was very pleasing with not too much expense. I have the tires removed and reinstalled by the least expensive tire shop I can find. I used canned spray paint for the job. It improved the appearance of the car tremendously over the previous ugly wheels it had. It also cured chronic leaking in two of the wheels.

Next up will be the wheels of our red 1992 Honda Civic VX. They are an aluminum-magnesium alloy and are very corroded on the surface — but they don’t leak (since the remove, clean and reinstall job was done). So, I plan to have them sand blasted with the tires in place. Then, I plan to change the color from silver to white when I paint them — first with an aluminum primer, then the white top coat.

These are all easy-to-do, money-saving projects that can extend the life of your vehicle and preserve its value.

From the July 11-17, 2012, issue

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