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The Muscle Staple: American Racing wheels

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An early catalog cover for San Francisco, California-based American Racing Equipment.

One of the many benefits of the Hemmings West desk here in San Francisco, is the city’s somewhat obscure role in the development of automotive high performance and the absolutely enormous aftermarket industry. Most people think of Southern California when it comes to the early speed merchants–and they wouldn’t be wrong–but there are more recognizable names that hail from the “Paris of the West” than most realize. That’s what was running through our heads when we posted a piece of an old print ad for a custom wheel in our ‘stance’ feature last week.

And so it is, with American Racing Equipment. As one of the most ubiquitous names in the muscle car scene, it’s hard to swing a dead cat without hitting a car running a set of “Americans.” The wheels on the “Bullitt” Mustang as McQueen tried to run them off the car over the streets of San Francisco? American Racing’s Torq-Thrusts. Boom. But as popular as this legacy brand is, most folks don’t know its history. And, full disclosure; even though we drive past the original shop address of American Racing a few times a week, we had to turn to our own Editor-in-Chief, Terry McGean, for its full history. So, we’ll dial the hot tub time machine back to 2006 and let Terry take the wheel…

American Ingenuity
Hemmings Motor News, October 2006
Terry McGean

Hot rodding owes much of its R&D to the aerospace industry, though during the period when this crossover first began occurring, it was the aviation industry. Developing high-tech parts for a largely amateur hobby, as hot rodding and much of auto racing was back in the ’40s and ’50s, would not be a cost effective venture for most companies. However, borrowing technology from the mega-dollar, cutting-edge aircraft field and adapting it for automotive use was a much more practical way of bringing hero parts to market.

Witness American Racing Equipment, founded by Romeo Palamides and partner Jim Ellison in San Francisco in 1956. By using then-current techniques for casting magnesium, A.R.E. was able to create wheels for drag race cars that were lighter, and in some cases, stronger than what serious drag racers had been using to that point.

Initially, the intent of American Racing was to produce lightweight, durable wheels for race cars; wheels for street cars were not even on the founder’s radar when the company was launched. Early offerings included wide rear wheels to accommodate the steadily growing availability of drag-dedicated tires for traction along with narrow, extra-light spindle-mount wheels for the front; a spindle-mount wheel carries its own bearing hub and is fastened directly to the spindle.

Not surprisingly, the desire for magnesium wheels, or “mags” as they became known, ramped up quickly, and by 1963, American Racing released its first street-targeted wheel, the Torq-Thrust. Not long after, A.R.E. came out with an aluminum version, providing a lower cost alternative to consumers who were more interested in the look than the weight savings.

Spoke design of the Torq-Thrust varied over its production, even within the classic straight-spokes, some of which were rounded at their peaks while others had subtle creases. Then, in 1965, when Chevrolet introduced four-wheel disc brakes for the Corvette–one of the Torq-Thrust’s most popular moorings–a new wheel design had to be developed to provide the necessary additional clearance for the brake calipers. The result was the Torq-Thrust D.

The D stood for disc brake, and the major difference in this new variation was the curved spoke. While there are design variations among the D wheels as well, this is the style many today consider a Torq-Thrust, no doubt in large part due to American Racing’s re-issue of the Torq-Thrust D in the mid-’90s. On the other hand, veteran hot-rodders–who generally regard the straight-spoked wheels as the true Americans–are quick to point out that the current Torq-Thrust D is a completely different design from the 1965 release. A further departure was seen in the Torq-Thrust II, introduced a couple of years after the new D, again a completely new design, this time with a fully polished finish. The TTII also brought the Torq-Thrust line up to date by offering modern diameters, which today stretch to 20 inches.

More than forty years after the first Torq-Thrust wheels made such an impact on the automotive aftermarket, the design genre is once again one of the most popular and imitated in the auto industry. As was common in the ’60s, numerous other wheel vendors pay homage to the Thrust by producing their own versions; even Ford Motor Company offers a wheel on its Mustang that was obviously inspired by the classic Torq-Thrust style. But at American Racing, the beat goes on, bringing Torq-Thrust evolution nearly full circle with the introduction of the TTO–Torq-Thrust Original, a straight-spoke design with a vintage vibe and contemporary features, proving again that some things never go out of style.