Hooniverse Asks: Should Smaller Wheels Make a Comeback?

I once had a Chevy Sprint. Not one like the Turbo above, but your regular run of the mill Sprint with a naturally aspirated three-pot mill and little chocolate donuts for tires on 12-inch wheels. That was small for back then. Only cars like the Mini had anything smaller. Most economy cars rolled on 13-inch tires back in the day which were plenty big enough for the cheap seats rides.
The closest you can get today in the U.S. is a 14-wheel. That comes standard on the entry level Chevy Spark, which holds down the fresh out of college first new car role that the Sprint occupied back in the ’80s. Here’s the thing, I used to pay like $25 a tire for re-shoeing my Sprint. Today, a lot of small cars carry 15- or 16-inch tires and those are a lot more expensive, even given for inflation.
I think that smaller tires and requisite wheels would mean less unsprung weight, lower rolling resistance, and would need smaller steering components again lowering the overall weight. That’s all good stuff, right? Sure cars are bigger and heavier today owing to the safety and convenience features demanded by a modern society, but all that should still be able to roll on 13-inch rubber. What do you think?
Image: Hemmings

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  1. Gee Nick Avatar
    Gee Nick

    My Mazda’s front brake rotors are 13 inch pie plates. But I did downsize the oem 18″s to 17-inchers, and saved 8lbs per corner and $50/tire while also getting a better tire.

    1. Tanshanomi Avatar

      Yeah, today’s larger brakes are what make smaller diameter wheels really impractical.

  2. kogashiwa Avatar

    You’d have to fundamentally change the design of most modern cars. The sides are so high that for the wheel arches to look proportional, the wheels pretty much have to be 18″ or so if you don’t want enormous wheel gap. Put 13″ on any modern car and it would look like a roller skate.

  3. GTXcellent Avatar

    I’ve been declaring for years that wheels are too damn big, but not for any reasons you cite – I simply prefer the look of more tire sidewall. Tell me this Pantera doesn’t look seeexxxxyyy with 70 series 15″ rubber.
    Even pickups have gotten ridiculous – and I was a guilty party with my ’05 Ram’s 20″ rims. Foolish, foolish, foolish. When I wear out the 65s on my F150 I’m stepping up to a 70 – even if that means going to a true multi-ply truck tire.

    1. Tanshanomi Avatar

      Rim diameter and tire diameter are two different things. I don’t like tiny donut wheels that make a car look like Stan Mott’s Cyclops, but I am all in favor of a smaller rim size to make room for some extra rubber around it. Certain cars are just sexier with more sidewall. http://classic-xjs-sales.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/photo1-1.jpg

      1. Rover 1 Avatar
        Rover 1

        It’s interesting that you illustrate your point with a picture of an XJS SII.
        One of Jaguars enduring design trademarks is having larger diameter wheels than everyone else. Jaguars kept 15s and 16s longer than other marques, who switched to smaller wheels after WW2. The first XJ6 had 15″ wheels when all the opposition had 13″ and 14″ wheels and they did this to introduce the first ’70 series’ lower profile tyres. Since then they’ve often led the way to bigger diameters and lower profile tyres. The X300, the last upgrade of the old XJ40 chassis introduced 18″ wheels more than two entire generations of XJ ago and the X350 introduced 20″ in 2003. The roadgoing TWR XJSs brought in 16″ wheels and 60 series tyres about halfway through the XJS model run,(30+ years ago), while the Group A racers brought in and homologated 17’s at the same time.
        Jaguars have been running big wheels longer than Audi have existed.

      2. Dabidoh_Sambone Avatar

        Another British car with oddly disproportionally sized wheels would be the Triumph TR6. To me, the 15″ rims look like very handsome washing machine tubs. Mine were bent to hell so I installed 16″ Koenig Rewinds that somehow look no larger.

  4. engineerd Avatar

    Agreed. Smaller wheels would also allow for larger sidewall tires to maintain the same tire height and, thus, gearing. Larger sidewalls mean a plusher ride. This is key in cars like the horrid Pontiac Vibe with its overly hard tires and resulting harsh ride. NVH was obviously thrifted out on the Vibe program.
    Now, if only we could change that whole Newton’s First Law thing…

    1. Fuhrman16 Avatar

      Not only do larger sidewall tires allow for a smoother ride, there’s also less risk of damaging the rims, either do to potholes or hitting the curb.

    2. Tiberiuswise Avatar

      A larger sidewall is the express lane to a smoother ride but doesn’t it also compromise high speed stability? I’d think that a modern highway speed of 75-80 would be quite a challenge for 70’s on a 14 inch rim. At least compared to what a non-event it is now.

      1. nanoop Avatar

        Interesting. Racing cars tend to have larger sidewalls, but also large spoilers, but don’t seem super twitchy at high speeds. Never minced through the physics of that – any input, anyone?

        1. Monkey10is Avatar

          Any shape or size of tyre (within reason) could be engineered to give the balance of compliance (side walls compressing) and stability (sidewall flex); where racing formulae set specific tyre sizes or types they are essentially forcing the designer’s decision of how much of the ‘suspension’ is from the tyre vs. how much from the springs/dampers/ARB and how much of the ‘stiffness’ is from the tyre vs. the suspension geometry/body stiffness etc..
          To take opposite extremes;
          A modern F1 car has almost no suspension travel and huge chassis stiffness, with almost all of the compliance (both suspension and damping) in the deep tyre side wall. Tyres visibly distort in hard corners and over the kerbs, but the car stays flat — especially at speed where the aero is pressing it down.
          A 1960’s historics saloon car race has cars typically with long suspension travel and flexible body shells, so tyre sidewalls aren’t really much of an issue. Tyre distortion is small enough that it is not usually visible, instead the cars will lean hard (even picking up a wheel) in cornering or over the bumps.

          1. Monkey10is Avatar

            (Stream of consciousness here, as I try to think this through for myself. Anyone who is an engineer should jump in now to correct me where needed…)
            So why is stiff suspension and low-profile tyres seen as the answer for any road car these days with sporting pretensions?
            As aero is of limited use at road speeds, mechanical grip is king. Wider tyres and better compounds mean that most cars have grip in abundance. This helps by; (i) allowing a heavy car to achieve the required stopping distances, and (ii) ensuring that the hp/torque on offer can be applied without unsticking the tyres …Hoons complain that it is dull to drive, but it allows cars to achieve headline making bhp/0-60 times whilst being able to be driven by Miss Daisy.
            People get used to this predictability though and forget that 200bhp or 6s 0-60 used to be the preserve only of skilled or reckless drivers.
            So chassis engineers design in neutrality. Stiff suspension, stiff bodyshell and minimal compliance in the tyres helps to prevent any wheel unloading — with the consequent sudden asymmetric loss of grip that causes. So the car will be designed to benignly understeer into the hedge with all four wheels firmly planted, rather than the much more dangerous (and harder to recover) oversteer across the other lanes.
            Whether this set-up is really the best way to make a faster car is open to debate and one for the race engineers and pit crews to answer. But it seem to be an obvious way to make fast cars (fast, HEAVY cars — and the even more freakish fast, heavy, SUVs) safer for average drivers on average roads.

      2. Alff Avatar

        I think it’s a non-issue. A modern car on tires that size would have to be at least as good as a 35 year old car that came stock with them. Most of those were driveable at those speeds.

      3. theskitter Avatar

        I’m rocking 175/70 R14s. I think the other car had 185/75 R14s. Both would happily and comfortably outrun traffic. I do run tire pressures up around the max. There’s the delay before it takes a hard set, but under light maneuvers they’re fingertip controllable.
        As for racecars, I’m a bit out of my element when it comes to tire design and construction. One thing I can point out is that (1.) tire sizes are generally mandated by the series, (2.) drivers love being able to attack the curbs. And road or track, modern sidewalls don’t just fall over under hard cornering. They’re stout.

    3. nanoop Avatar

      Newton 1: OBEY FEYNMAN.
      That being said, cars are heavier than they used to be 30 years ago, so that helps comfort but hampers agility.

    4. Rover 1 Avatar
      Rover 1

      The irony is that low profile tyre design started out as an attempt by Pirelli to provide a good ride on larger cars. With the wider tyres required for heavier cars in the seventies particularly in the US, the sidewall height went up at the same rate and to avoid handling and tyre life problems caused by the high sidewalls flexing, tyre pressures had to increase, introducing harshness to the ride. A lower profile tyre has less sidewall height and so less leverage to flex while cornering and can be inflated softer for impacts.So the first car with 70 series tyres was the Jaguar XJ saloon but the first car with 50 series tyres was the Porsche 930 Turbo and the Pirelli engineers helped Lamborghini redesign the new Countach’s suspension to suit the new technology and stretch it to 35 series.
      Obviously it can be clearly argued that an actual sidewall height of 3 to 4 cms is enough for normal use on real roads and anything less needs such high tyre pressures to avoid rim/road contact that it’s pointless.
      Incidently, another impetus for bigger wheel diameter/lower tyre profile may have come from European saloon car racing in the eighties and nineties, with the requirement that the suspension couldn’t be lowered past the point where with a flat tyre the bottom of the car would drag on the road. With a 17′ wheel the car’s ride height and roll centre can obviously be lower than for a 15″ wheel and as a bonus, as stated elsewhere, more room for bigger brakes,(or better cooling for existing brakes).
      Yes these were low profile with the shallowest sidewall once considered desirable
      930 Porsche
      Early Countach

      1. engineerd Avatar

        BTCC might also have been the inspiration for hellaflush

        1. Rover 1 Avatar
          Rover 1

          Possibly, though I’m pretty sure the blame might be more diffuse.

      2. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
        dead_elvis, inc.

        Maybe it’s due to being old enough to remember when 13″ wheels weren’t yet uncommon, but this photo is exactly what the 911 looks like in my mind’s eye. The wheels are perfect.

  5. Alff Avatar

    Yes. It would have the added benefit of ensuring a ready supply of replacement tires for my late model and older cars.

  6. Van_Sarockin Avatar

    Deeper sidewalls should make a comeback. Most people don’t spend much time driving at 10/10 on perfectly smooth roads, or have Dakkar-grade suspensions to soak up the craters. And your skinny tire is usually mounted on a very expensive rim, that can’t handle much actual impact.

  7. JayP Avatar

    I downsized from 19″ to 18″ for track wheels…. they’re big enough to clear the 14″ disks but small enough to get cheaper track tires. It’s an 10% reduction in circumference (speedo is off) and with 3.73 gears it launches like a bad ass.

    1. GTXcellent Avatar

      That’s the plan for the winter wheels/tires on the SS as well. 18″ tires are MUCH more reasonably priced than 19″ – although we’ll go up in sidewall to keep almost the same circumference.

  8. Tanshanomi Avatar

    Given the frost heaves and potholes I saw this past spring, smaller diameter wheels sound like an unpleasant option.

  9. Sjalabais Avatar

    2015 was the year with the largest amount of roadside incidents ever in Norway. Ridiculously flimsy low profile tires make up a large portion of these episodes (the rest was mostly failing electronics and empty fuel tanks). Big wheels with little rubber? Meh. Going down in tires size within the 5% rule saved me 350$ this spring – a substantial amount. So tire dealers saying that bigger tires get cheaper because they are more popular…not cheap enough.
    When it comes to aesthetics: Smaller tires, less bulbous hips, and thus bigger greenhouses go hand in hand. I welcome the whole package!

  10. dukeisduke Avatar

    Recently, just for grins, when I was looking for tires for my Tacoma on Discount Tire’s site, I decided to look to see if they still carried any tires for my ’76 Vega GT (which I sold 20 years ago). Not only did they not have tires for it, they don’t carry any 13-inch tires (unless you’re looking for trailer tires). You used to be able to get all kinds of performance rubber in the 13″ size (the best I ever ran on the Vega was the Continental SuperContact CH51, which ran about $75 apiece, back in 1985). Nowadays the selection is severely limited.

    1. JayP Avatar

      A pal with an old Ranger said 14″ tires are getting scarce. 15s next…

      1. nanoop Avatar

        There are no longer 215/60 R15Vs in this country here. Weeks of lead time, ridiculous pricing guaranteed. They look so 70ies-racing. ..

    2. Tanshanomi Avatar

      Coker Tire currently sells a couple of different 13″ radial tires, in a variety of styles.

      1. dukeisduke Avatar

        Looks like 18 different radials in 13″ size, but none I’d consider high performance tires. I remember when you could get T/A Radials in 13″ – I had some in 185/70-13, and 205/60-13.

  11. Monkey10is Avatar

    “Paging M D Harrell.
    Paging M D Harrell.
    Mr. Harrell; you are needed on the white phone…”

    1. mdharrell Avatar

      What? I can still get 4.00×8 DOT-rated tires when I need them, so I’m good.
      For now.

      1. dead_elvis, inc. Avatar
        dead_elvis, inc.

        Maybe you’ll one day need to “donk” one of your vehicles, simply out of necessity. (Oooh, 11″ wheels on what used to take 8s! or 4.00s, or however those toys work.)
        Please document the situation if it ever comes to pass.

  12. salguod Avatar

    My 1960 Thunderbird came with 14″ wheels but the tires were either 27 5/8″ or 28 1/8″ tall, depending on if you got the 8.00 or 8.50-14s. I think that works out to be an 80 or 85 series tire.
    When I put the alloys, I didn’t want rubber bands, so I went with 17s and 235/55R17s. They are still 1/2″-1″ shorter than the originals. But, there’s some meat to the sidewall, I think more fitting for cars of the era.
    1960 Thunderbird