1941 Willys Pickup - Kit Car Magazine

1941 Willys Pickup - California Hauler Part XIII: Wheels 'N' Caps
0807kc 01 Z+1941 Willys Pickup California Hauler+hydraulic Press Quality control is the name of the game at WheelSmith, and this begins at the start of each wheel's assembly. Using a hydraulic press, the steel wheel center is pressed into the hoop to the correct offset. Then a dial indicator checks the trueness of the wheel.

This is the 13th installment in the series of build-up articles on the California Hauler-the '41 Willys pickup kit from Auto Classics that utilizes a stock S-10 chassis as a base. Past articles have included sandblasting the chassis, mounting the bed and cab, fabricating a custom tailgate, adding lowered coils and springs, and more. In this month's article, we cover wheels and hubcaps.

Although there may be some who might argue this fact, the wheel-and-tire combination you choose for your ride will either make or break the look of the vehicle. It's that simple. Yes, color choice and paint scheme are very important (you don't want to paint your ride a turquoise with a cream-colored heartbeat graphic running down the beltline when that layout went out of style back in the mid '90s). However, the biggest mistakes you can make on your car are, 1) picking a wheel that will be out of date when you finally get around to debuting it at the local burger stand and, 2) having lousy wheel-to-fender proportions (something many kit owners are victim of).

The out-of-style wheel choice can be solved two different ways. One is to wait and buy the wheels for your vehicle only after the upholstery is done and the light at the end of the assembly tunnel can clearly be seen. The other way is to go with a design that is always a safe bet: the traditional look. Five years from now you will look at the swoopy billet wheel you just bolted to your Cobra kit and everybody will automatically peg your ride to this era, but bolt up a traditional-looking Trigo Cobra wheel and your car's look will transcend time. If you want a hot rod look, the five-spoke American wheel is something that will look good (in most applications) no matter what you bolt it to, as the design makes a simple, but long-lasting statement.

The same can be said of the standard steelie setup with caps 'n' rings. Used by hot rodders for more than six decades, the basic steel rim (sometimes color-coded to the car, but also looking good in basic black) with a small chrome hubcap and beauty ring looks period perfect in every time frame because it's timeless.

0807kc 03 Z+1941 Willys Pickup California Hauler+welding Wheel Once satisfied the wheel is round, Chris Sage tack welds the center in place. The wheel is then again checked for trueness-only then does the final welding take place. It is then checked a third time for trueness.

In looking for a set of wheels for our California Hauler Willys project truck, we wanted something that was custom, but not too far off from the classic smooth steelie. The original wheel used on a '40s-era Willys (looking much like what's known as an artillery wheel) must have been made from unobtainium, as they are practically non-existent in this universe. But even if we did find a set, then you'd have the problem of mating them to the California Hauler's newer S-10 chassis. What to do?

Enter The WheelSmith, based in Santa Ana, California. Run by Bob Sage and his son, Chris, the wheel company has been around for more than 15 years. But Bob's history with the circle goes back to the Rosetta stone of aftermarket wheel manufacturers: Western Wheel in Fresno, California. Bob started working for Western in 1971, then moved to Southern California to pursue other wheel-based opportunities (including wheel manufacturing and selling wheel equipment).

In 1992 he started WheelSmith and, with a specialty in supplying steelies and wire wheels for the street rod market, he hasn't had time to look back. Offering steel rims in 14-, 15-, and 16-inch configurations and wire wheels in 14 through 18 inches, Bob still manages to come up with new designs when he gets the chance, including a new artillery wheel. Based on a design that Chevrolet used in the mid '30s, you can safely say the wheel caters to a specific crowd. But for those who look to do something different than what everybody else is doing, they're just what the doctor ordered. And since we wanted something a little flashier than a standard steelie for the California Hauler, the WheelSmith artillery fit the bill without going overboard.

We visited WheelSmith when they were making up the set of wheels that were to be used on the Hauler. We watched as they went through several levels of quality checks to make sure the wheel is not only round (unbelievably some companies don't do that) but that the backside of the wheel center is machined so it is truly flat. They also polished the butt-weld seam on the hoop in case we were going to have the wheel powdercoated (the same work is done if the wheel will be chromed).

0807kc 04 Z+1941 Willys Pickup California Hauler+backside Of Wheel Something you don't see on too many other manufacturer's wheels is the machining WheelSmith does to the backside of the wheel center. This insures it will sit flat against the brake drum or the rotor hat.

After we decided on the look of the wheel, the next item on the list was the hubcap. After some research on the Net, we found what an original Willys hubcap looked like, but no one we could find makes a reproduction of it, so we made our own. To copy the look of an original Willys hubcap from the '40s, we needed a smooth, baby-Moon-type chrome cap. The WheelSmith offers a Moon-type cap, but they had to customize ours to fit these particular wheels by expertly removing the lip of each cap and attaching another type of lip so they'd work for us. Their going the extra mile is why we like going to WheelSmith.

Next, to make the cap look like a vintage Willys cap, logo and all, we used a simple computer program and created a logo strikingly similar in look and size to the original. We took the design to a local vinyl sticker company who created a set of die-cut vinyl stickers color-matched to the red wheels. All we had to do was peel off the backing and stick 'em on. Another option would have been to have a pinstriper copy the logo with One Shot paint, but this way we were able to order up some spare stickers in case these caps ever get scratched.

All said and done, the WheelSmith artillery wheels and custom chrome caps look great on the truck-their simple, traditional design won't age like some trendy billet wheel.