Do Cars Need Hub Caps?

Cars do not need hub caps. For less expensive vehicles using steel wheels, the hub caps are for decorative purposes. It is, essentially, a covering for a less attractive wheel.

More expensive vehicles have aluminum rims, which provide a more desirable look and, as such, do not require any sort of additional coverings over the wheel.

The hub cap does provide some basic protection to the steel wheel, which may prove helpful, especially when living (and driving) the vehicle in colder climates where road salt is used to melt ice and snow. In these instances, the hub cap does help reduce the amount of road salt steel wheels come in contact with.

The salt, when combined with oxygen and water, will rust away at metals. Regular washings render the need for a hub cap for protective purposes unnecessary, but for individuals who do not wash their car on a regular basis during the winter, it can help prolong the life of the wheel.

However, in terms of whether or not a vehicle requires hub caps, the answer is no. 

The Humble Wheel

Vehicles have come a long way in recent years. From improvements in fuel economy to the tech and self-driving features found in modern releases, the last decade alone has brought some impressive upgrades. One such upgrade I often overlook is the wheel.

Yes, luxury vehicles have often come with impressive aluminum rims or polished steel cut out in an intricate design, but for the most part, less expensive vehicles were automatically fitted with bland steel wheels and hub caps over the steel.

Now though, just about every single vehicle that rolls off the assembly line and is sold at a dealership now has some kind of nice-looking rim on it. It’s actually difficult to find models with ugly steel wheels covered by hub cabs.

Trust me; I’ve tried!

They don’t put those cars at the front of the lot, and even in the back, the dealer doesn’t like to sell vehicles like that. Why? Well, I’ll get into not only that but whether or not the ugly steel wheel cars actually need hub cabs and what purpose the cap fulfills right here. 

What Is A Hub Cap?

Okay, before we go any further, let’s first go over what a hub cap actually is. A hub cap is a disc, now usually made of durable plastic, but not long ago, they were made from metal. It snaps right over the wheel of your vehicle. The history of the hub cap far outdates the car.

These kinds of caps first started to appear back in the 1600s. During the time of horse and cart, just about anything could get lodged into the wheel. A single tree branch, weapon, animal, or who knows what could slip into the wheel and cause all kinds of damage.

When I was a kid, I remember riding my bicycle and having a stick lodge itself into the front wheel. Not fun! I ended up flipping over the top of my bike. Well, guess what? A hub cap would have prevented that from happening. 

Flash forward to the present day. When wheels were first made for vehicles, there really wasn’t anything to them. They were steel wheels, similar to the wheels of other vehicles made during that time.

At first, that wasn’t much of a big deal, but as vehicles became more decorative, the wheel stood out. It also was a magnet for twigs, rocks, and other debris. To help protect the wheel, auto manufacturers started placing hub cabs over the wheels. This not only protected the wheels from debris but it also protected the bolts that secured the wheel to the vehicle. 

These hub caps were, at first, just slightly rounded discs that were placed over the wheel. The caps could be popped off in order to access the bolts of the wheel, but it both protected the wheel and helped smooth out the otherwise ugly looking wheel.

The plain hub cap didn’t remain, though. First, manufacturers started to add a chrome design to the caps. If you look at photographs of vehicles between the 1930s and 1950s, you’ll see a large number of polished chrome-domed hub caps over the wheels. These were easier to make, and many manufacturers made the same hub cap for all of their vehicles. 

However, manufacturers started to see ways to help their vehicles stand out with more elaborate caps. Luxury vehicles began using impressively designed caps that would have weaved together metal coming together in the center, similar to what a chariot would have used hundreds of years earlier.

Hub caps, in many ways, became big business. It allowed the manufacturers to use the same wheels while upgrading the look of the vehicles with a simple cap, and it made it possible for those buying vehicles to tweak and add some personality to their own vehicle. 

Now, flash forward to today. Most manufacturers have moved past the use of a hub cap. Instead, the wheels themselves are now designed with polish, chrome, and special paint jobs to stand out. For a while, this was only used on luxury cars, but now many basic vehicles are sold with rims.

When I was trying to find a vehicle that came with the older steel wheels and hub caps, I had to try and track down base trim models for the least expensive vehicles sold by the manufacturers. Many of these didn’t even come with the hub caps either.

They simply sold the vehicle as-is with the ugly steel wheel. If I wanted to upgrade the look of my vehicle, I would have had to go to the store and purchase hub caps for the car. 

Modern Vehicles

So why do car manufacturers no longer sell many vehicles with steel wheels and hub caps but instead offer the special rims? There’s one simple answer: money. Manufacturers can charge more for vehicles with special rims.

Steel rims are especially cheap to make and can be mass-produced easily. The specially designed rims are more expensive, and because your vehicle needs four (five if purchasing a full-size spare tire and wheel), it can quickly add another thousand dollars, if not more, to the price of the vehicle. Additionally, because the rims have spaces within the wheel, some owners like to spring for colorful calipers to hold the brake pads.

Originally this started as a hobby for owners who liked to bring in after-market features to their vehicles. Now, manufactures are charging premiums for this as well (even though it is the exact same caliper, it just has a touch of paint on it. I can actually do this exact same paint job for a few bucks), all because they are selling designer rims. 

That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for hub caps, though. When buying a base trim package and the vehicle comes with the steel, ugly rims, it is a good idea to spring for the hub cap. It can also provide some added protection, although, with modern vehicles, that isn’t really necessary any longer.

This isn’t the time of a chariot where a stick could derail the cart and send the driver flying over the top. Now a stick would just be shredded inside of the wheel, and little to nothing will happen to the vehicle (unless something hard is intentionally inserted into the wheel. Only then will something bad likely happen).

Even though it is difficult to find a modern vehicle that requires a hub cap, there are still plenty of older vehicles that require a hub cap. Some of these hub caps are actually collector’s items now. The rims are so beautifully crafted.

There are people who collect these kinds of hub caps. And for those who are looking to breathe new life into an old classic, the need to try and hunt down original hub caps is also big business as well.

I remember watching a 60 Minutes special years ago about a guy who owned a hub cap shop. The shop had thousands of different hub caps.

His only employee was a dog that could fetch a specific make and model hub cap when requested. It was a remarkable segment on the show. While this kind of service likely isn’t required any longer, especially with most vehicles no longer using (or needing) hub caps, for any kind of vehicle that does still use steel, ugly wheel, the hub caps are beneficial. 

And who knows, maybe hub caps will come back in style. What’s old is often new again. Manufacturers often like to take design elements from older vehicles and put them into modern releases. I wouldn’t be shocked if, in a few years, vehicles started to showcase hub caps once again.

However, there likely wouldn’t be any benefit from the hub cap. It would just be a way of connecting with past designs while offering car buyers like myself something to remind me of the good old days.