Market Snapshot


As two of the more visible and instantly gratifying specialty-equipment products that consumers install on their vehicles, custom wheels and performance tires are rapidly expanding beyond the hot rod and racing market and into the mainstream aftermarket population.

"During my tenure in the wheel business, I've seen wheels go from a niche mostly for extreme performance markets all the way to where it is now,” said Kelly Austin, chairman of SEMA’s Wheel & Tire Council (WTC) and vice president MKW Alloy Inc. “Currently, custom wheels are almost as popular as iPods or cell phones. It's transcended to people we would not normally consider as enthusiasts. House moms, nannies and grandparents are all cruising the town on custom wheels to look cool.”

Retail sales for custom wheels have increased from $1.265 billion in 1991 to more than $4.5 billion last year, a jump of 257%. The rise in the production and sale of custom wheels can partly be attributed to the increasing variety of wheel types and specifications, as well as the expansion of available distribution channels.

Custom wheel manufacturers, sellers and installers have to contend with at least five specifications: wheel diameter, bolt circle (pattern), rim width, backspacing and offset.  In addition, custom wheels can be produced in various combinations of types and/or materials: one-piece, two-piece, three-piece, cast, forged, billet, steel, wire, aluminum, alloy and composite. Surface treatments range from polished metal to gold plating.

The custom wheel industry has expressed some concerns regarding a current trend of new vehicles that come with styled wheels. The percentage of cars produced with custom wheels has grown from 40.3% in 1996 to 66.5% in 2006, and light trucks have gone from 70.9% to 72.2% during the same timeframe.

Despite this trend, the custom wheel market is growing. In fact, the vehicle manufacturers have in some ways fueled the acceptance and growth of custom wheels; The sight of styled wheels on new vehicles can lend acceptability to aftermarket custom wheels.  Also, OEMs work with limitations that prevent them from offering the most current and leading designs.

“The reason you buy custom wheels is to make your vehicle different from everyone else’s,” said Paul Moritz, SEMA’s WTC council relations. “Even when people buy vehicles that come with aluminum or styled wheels, there are still those who want something different from the person down the street with the same vehicle.” 

Even with all the custom wheels being offered on production vehicles, a study performed by AutoPacific determined that approximately a third of all new-vehicle buyers intend to modify their vehicle by adding custom wheels. The percentage changes based on the type of vehicle being purchased.

“Even though the economy may look hard at the moment, the custom wheels market share with the American culture still grows and it offers opportunities for those that do it right," said Austin.

Specialty/performance tires often follow the custom-wheel market. When consumers upgrade the wheels on a vehicle, there is an inclination to do the same for the tires.  With the addition of consumers who look for specific performance tires separate from the wheels on their vehicle, the market for performance tires is slightly larger than the custom wheel market.

Performance tires were first introduced into the U.S. marketplace around 1977. Since then, they have had substantial increases up until 2006 when performance tires still generated an impressive $4.4 billion in retail sales.

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