Bent Wheels And Bad Tires, Ad Infinitum

You’d think that after my epic six-part online series a few years back on refinishing a set of Style 42 wheels for my E39 530i Sport, and then two recent Roundel magazine columns describing my winter-wheel-and-tire travails, I couldn’t get any more mileage out of bent wheels and bad tires.

You would, of course, be wrong.

However, at least this time the subject matter, instead of being about making the same mistake a third time, is about trying to do it right. Sort of.

To recap: Two years ago, Hack Mechanic buys 2003 530i Sport. Car comes with hork-inducing Pep Boys wheels. Hack Mechanic becomes surprisingly attached to car and craves the correct set of Style 42s, but doesn’t want to pay market rate for them. Hack finds a set of Style 42s in Maine with completely failed clear coat and horrible corrosion for $125. Hack’s internal monologue asks, “Refinishing… how hard could it be?” thinking it’s actually a legitimate question and not a cosmic joke waiting to swat him in the face.

Hack spends way too many evenings sanding and polishing rims, gets them presentable, doesn’t clear-coat them because Hack is a fundamentally brain-damaged human being, and corrosion quickly starts to regenerate itself. Further, all four wheels are bent to some degree, and have mismatched garbage tires, a situation Hack tries to live with by buying more garbage tires on Craigslist—until reality again swats him in the face in the form of a sidewall blowout at speed on Route 95 on a tire that a tire shop had warned him not to mount (he overruled them).

Does Hack see the light? No, of course not! What are you, nuts? Hack doubles down and buys a second set of even more corroded Style 42s and equally garbage tires on CL—but hey, this set is only $100. Hack takes all eight Style 42s, mounts them each on the car with its butt in the air, spins them to check for straightness, finds that only a single one of the eight is straight, and labels the rest with cryptic runes: B (bent), SB (slightly bent), VSB (very slightly bent), and VVSB (very very slightly bent—no, I’m not making this up).

Hack tries to down-select four of his garbage tires that are, collectively, unlikely to kill him, but throws in the towel and resolves that in the spring he will buy a real set of new tires, have them mounted on the straightest four wheels in the lot, and cease referring to himself in the third person, because, really, it’s damned annoying.

So, with winter finally behind me—ah, that’s better!—I kept the deal with myself and began shopping for a set of new tires. Now, I am unapologetic about my cost-containment efforts; I work from home, and thus don’t have any commute, and when I am on the road, my driving habits are far more sedate than they once were. So my needs simply aren’t the same as those of people who track their cars or commute a hundred miles a day. Thus I looked for the least-expensive set of new 235/45-17 tires I could find; I bought a set of Achilles ATR Sports from a tire dealer on eBay for $245 shipped.

I am well aware of the potential hazards of buying bottom-dollar off-brand tires—these are made in Indonesia—but a web search did not reveal any clear Danger Will Robinson-like warning signs that buying these and driving on them would result in sidewall failure and consign me to a fiery death. (Note to self: If I have a fiery death due to sidewall failure in the next five days, have Maire Anne contact Satch and rescind this article.)

The new tires arrived. I rolled the four Style 42s I’d culled last fall—one labeled S, two VVSB, and one VSB—out from the wheel-and-tire graveyard at the end of the driveway, looked at the wildly-mismatched levels of corrosion on the wheels owing to the fact that they were culled from one set that had been partially refinished and another that looked like the surface of the moon, and was about to load them all into the car and haul them with the tires to a tire shop when I paused. Here was the best-looking of the four straightest wheels:

One of the first set of wheels: I’d refinished but never clear-coated them.

And here was the worst:

A badly-corroded wheel from the $100 set: Fairly straight it was. Pretty it wasn’t.

Was I really going to do this—take a brand-new set of tires and pay $120 to have them mounted and balanced on wheels which, although they were fairly straight, were practically schizophrenic in their appearance? Or would it bug me every time I looked at them? I wasn’t sure.

And then I remembered something: One of the advantages of being me—and there had better be some advantages, because honestly, most days it’s exhausting—is that I am sometimes blessed to be showered with offers of generosity. When I bought the corroded Style 42s and wrote about starting to refinish them, someone e-mailed me offering a set of intact wheels from the E39 he no longer owned; they had been sitting in his basement. Other offers came in this past winter when I was struggling to find a straight set of winter wheels.

At the time, I thanked all senders for their generosity and said I was all set. Now I wasn’t so sure; where any of those offers for Style 42s? And if so, were they from someone local? I couldn’t remember.

I dug through my e-mails and Facebook messages, found four (!) in which folks had offered me free wheels, and sure enough, one was for a set of Style 42s! CCA member Toby Delbridge in Florida said, in a year-old e-mail, that he had three bare straight wheels boxed up and ready to go for the cost of shipping, and a fourth disassembled one as well if I wanted it.

I sent Toby a friendly, “So… you still have those Style 42s?” e-mail. He quickly responded, saying that they were still in his basement, and still mine for the price of shipping. He reiterated that they were straight and pretty, but not perfect, with a little corrosion and curb rash here and there. He sent me the dimensions and weights of the boxes, I got a shipping quote from Fedex Ground, and found that the cost was about $30 each. I figured that I could use my mint spare to round out the three from Toby and give me a set of four.

I submitted the shipping order, made PDFs of the labels, e-mailed them to Toby, and thanked him profusely for his generosity.

About five days later, the three boxes arrived. As I’ve written before, the only way to way to really know that wheels are straight is to spin them. You can mount them on the front of a car and spin them by hand, but I’ve found that it’s much more effective if you jack up the back of the car, set it down on stands, mount a wheel (or a pair of wheels) on the back, start the car, and let the engine spin them. (Keep in mind, however, that running the wheels while the car is up in the air is an inherently dangerous activity. If you have any doubt whether you can safely do it, don’t do it. All the expected cautions apply: Don’t do it in an enclosed garage for fear of asphyxiation, double-jack the car—jack it up, set it down on jacks tands, and leave the floor jack in place as a backup—and exercise extreme caution with hair and loose clothing when coming anywhere close to a rotating wheel.)

I unearthed the mint spare from the trunk so that I could spin it, and was instantly surprised to find it far from mint. It in fact had a decent-sized ugly area where the clear coat was peeling and corrosion had gotten under it, and a bit of curb rash. I really would’ve laid money on the notion that it was absolutely dead mint (in fact, someone had offered me money for it at one point).

Then I recalled that after I had the sidewall blow-out, I’d had the spare on the car for a couple of weeks before I bought Corroded Set Of Wheels #2. Perhaps that’s where the corrosion and curb rash had crept it.

I’m not really a guy who cares about mint wheels; I was just surprised that my memory was incorrect. If I could come out of this with four new tires on straight wheels that looked no worse than the overall exterior condition of the rest of the car, for reasonable money, I’d be thrilled.

The E39’s spare, which I recalled as being mint, in fact had non-trivial corrosion damage.

Then I thought, What if Toby’s wheels were all dead mint? In that case, I’d feel obliged to refinish the corrosion on the spare. I opened up all three boxes and found to my relief that they were just as Toby had described them: in very good to excellent condition, but not mint, with a little curb rash here, a discolored rash under the clear coat there. They were nicer than my spare, and head and shoulders above the other ones I had, but not so mint that I felt obliged to clean up the spare. Whew!

I spun all four wheels and nearly gasped when I found them all to be dead-nuts straight. No set of used wheels is dead-nuts straight.

Exercise extreme caution using the engine to spin a wheel: flat surface, double-jack the car, garage door open, no loose clothing or hair, and don’t do it if you have any doubts.

So, off everything went to the tire shop. The economics of this worked out well: $245 for the new Achilles ATR Sport tires, $90 to ship the three wheels, and $120 for mounting and balancing, for a total of $455. Although I consider $455 to be a fair chunk of change, the odds of finding a set of dead-straight, pretty, shiny Style 42s with brand-spanking-new tires on them are asymptotically close to zero.

And, most important, for the first time since I bought it, the E39 no longer has bent wheels and bad tires. Instead, it has a set of straight, attractive wheels, with brand-new matching tires that are unlikely to put me in the breakdown lane.

I couldn’t wait to get the new wheels and rubber on and experience, for the first time in the E39, vibration-free driving. And then, as I was mounting the rears, I noticed that the rear rotors were badly scored. I checked the rear pads; they were worn down nearly to the metal. I checked the front rotors, and they weren’t much better.

Sigh.

Maybe I’ll just start using Uber.–Rob Siegel

 

Rob’s new recent book, Just Needs a Recharge: The Hack MechanicTM Guide to Vintage Air Conditioning, is available here on Amazon. Or you can order personally inscribed copies through Rob’s website: www.robsiegel.com.

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