Knock off wheels. The name makes them sound cheap, but if you have a set, you know that’s not the case. Here’s a quick explainer about knock off wire wheels, where they come from, and how to install them safely.

Usually the phrase “knock off” refers to a cheap imitation. And though you can find plenty of cheap, imitation wheels on the market, you don’t call them “knock offs,” because that means something entirely different in the car world. Something much more literal.

Knock off wire wheels are tightened or loosened via a single center nut. This nut has “wings,” which can be smacked with a plastic or lead hammer. Also known as a “spinner” or “center lock,” the nut can’t be moved with a traditional wrench. Thus, you must “knock” them off. 

Center lock wire wheels can be found on many classic sports cars, especially British cars that were used in the early days of sports car racing. They were also famously used on the C2 Corvette, matching its iconic styling.

Back then, racers preferred knock off wheels for a few reasons. A single center nut made it easier for manufacturers to design a spoke-type, or “wire” wheel. And wire wheels were lighter than their steel counterparts. They also allowed more cooling airflow through to the brakes, improving braking performance. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, knock off wheels made for faster tire changes in pit stops. One nut is faster than four.

Every vehicle is different, but most of the time you can add center lock wire wheels to your classic racer with relative ease. Once the wheel is removed, you can bolt an adapter to the hub. Sometimes this requires special, shorter wheel studs, but you can often use the factory lug nuts to bolt the adapter in place. You’re left with a single wide, long cylinder with splines around the outside. These correspond to splines on the wheel. 

If you already have a center lock wheel system installed, wheel replacement is relatively straightforward. 

What you’ll need:

  • A lead or sand-filled plastic hammer
  • A spinner tightening tool (optional)
  • General purpose grease
  • WD-40
  • Shop rag

Why the strange hammer choice? The spinner is usually made of stainless steel or chrome-plated steel. If you strike it with a steel hammer, you’ll scratch the finish. Lead and plastic hammers are specifically designed not to scratch, chip, or otherwise mar your spinners. 

You can also order a spinner tightening tool, or even make one yourself. This is essentially a sheet of wood with the shape of the spinner cut out. Place it around the spinner and strike the wood with the hammer (any hammer will do), rather than striking the spinner itself. This further prevents the possibility of any scratches or scuffs on your spinners. The other benefit of the spinner removal tool is that it distributes equal force around the entire piece, rather than just one “wing.” 

Cleaning your spinners

Another great tip is to clean your spinners of any dirt or grime before removing them. The lead or plastic hammer may be soft, but tiny grains of sand or stuck-on gravel can still scratch the finish.

Before you get started with spinner removal, know that many classic cars, such as the Shelby Cobra, have a safety wire running from the spinner to another point on the wheel. This simple steel wire helps keep the spinner from vibrating loose. Obviously you’ll need to remove it before you remove the wheel.

An important note: Center-lock wheel hubs have unusual threading. Normal bolts, screws, and nuts all turn the same way: clockwise to tighten, counterclockwise to loosen. You can remember this with a little mnemonic trick: “Righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.” 

But center-lock hubs are different, designed so that the forward motion of each wheel tightens the nut as it goes along. The driver’s side wheel rotates counterclockwise as it moves forward. The passenger side moves clockwise. So the driver’s side hubs use traditional threading. The passenger side hubs are reverse threaded. Tighten them by turning them to the left, loosen by turning to the right. 

Removing your Center Lock Wire Wheels

Armed with that knowledge, you’re ready to start removing your wheels. Give each spinner a couple of good loosening thwacks with the hammer. Once you see it start to turn, jack up your car safely, then remove the spinners the rest of the way. Now you can slide the wheel off. 

Before you replace the wheel, inspect and clean the hub, especially the splines and threads. WD-40 can remove any old grease from these areas. Wipe off any WD-40 and add a small amount of grease to the splines. Don’t go overboard. This is just enough to help the wheel slide back on easily, and if you use too much, it could sling out onto your brake rotors, which could yield some interesting results at the first fast corner.

Next, slide the wheel back onto the hub, careful to line up the splines on the inside barrel of the wheel with the splines on the hub. 

Center lock knock-off wheels have no torque specs. Hand-tighten the center lock down onto the hub, then strike it lightly with the hammer. Once you lower the car back down to the ground you can give it a few more firm whacks to make sure it’s nice and snug. 

Here at Zohr mobile tire service, we know all about knock off wheels. Our mobile tire replacement and mobile tire repair technicians are fully trained to handle your vintage sports car as well as you daily driver. Start shopping today!

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