Don’t Believe The Hype: The Wheel Debate Isn’t Black And White

21

The ‘fake’ wheel v. ‘real’ wheel debate is a conversation that knows no end. It has been going on long before this site started, and is likely to continue long after I stop updating.

Over the years I’ve been asked my position several times, and aside from a few ‘off the record’ comments I’ve offered little in the way of an opinion. However the more condescending, accusatory, and judgemental, the collective voice campaigning for ‘real’ wheels becomes, the more I feel the need to voice some inconsistencies I’ve noticed in the stalemate as a whole.

First even just breaking the discussion down into ‘fake’ vs ‘real’ is an oversimplification because within the ‘fake’ definition exist two unique subsets; counterfeits and replicas. While the dictionary definition of those words is nearly identical, in this context the two words can describe significantly different things.

Counterfeit wheels leverage an established brand aesthetic in order to sell what is more often than not a wildly inferior product. Using deceptively similar stamping, coloring, stickering, and badging these brands fraudulently try to pass themselves off as the real deal hoping no one will be the wiser. In short these brands are faking the funk and I won’t argue that they don’t deserve all the criticisms they receive.

bbsbb5

Replica wheels on the other hand are a different, more complicated, breed because while it’s clear these wheels are modeled after existing designs, they actually don’t attempt to represent their offerings as any brand other than their own.

Take for example the largely criticized brand XXR and their 521 wheel. Yes perhaps a more passive enthusiast might be fooled, but for the most part anyone who knows what an authentic LM looks like isn’t going to mistake an XXR for one.

bbs-xxr
Photos courtesy of BBS and Next Level Motoring

While it’s blatantly obvious that without the BBS LM the 521 wouldn’t exist, side by side the two wheels are actually disgustingly different. The spokes are similar to one another, but the XXRs appear to have a thinner profile over all and extend further into the lip. Additionally the lug holes are slightly offset from the spokes on the XXR, and the faux rivets are in completely different locations (in relation to the spokes) when compared to the assembly bolts of the BBS.

Likely these changes were made by XXR to avoid a trip to the court room but, to play devil’s advocate; what if the designer of the 521 was genuinely inspired by the BBS LM?

No design today is done in a vacuum, and a few designers I have spoken to have confessed that it is very hard to produce a truly original wheel design. I mean look at the BBS LM when compared to the CCW LM20, the name alone practically implies where CCW got the inspiration for their different, yet familiar design.

lm-v-lm20
Images courtesy of BBS and CCW

Consider an entirely different example below, in the top left we have the original Speedline produced Ferrari F40 wheel while through the rest of the image we have similar wheels produced by a variety of brands.

pleasereallydontsue
Photos courtesy of Google Images

 

Moving through the examples each wheel gets further away from the original in terms of design, but it’s not a stretch by any means to trace them back to the shoes of everyone’s favorite poster car. Like many replica companies these wheels –none of which are made by companies people identify as ‘fake’ manufacturers– come in sizing, configurations, and finishes the original Speedline wheel never did making them much more accessible and versatile. They are also sold at a significantly cheaper price than you could find a used Ferrari wheel for.

Where do the lines between homage, inspiration, and copy exist?

It seems that the brand on the center cap wildly changes people’s opinion of right and wrong. XXR, Rota, Konig, or Fast yield an immediate response of fake, while seemingly blind eyes are turned towards any brand currently accepted as ‘real’.

A bit of a double standard no? Why in some cases are these similarities are considered intellectual theft and in others it is simply the nature of the business?  Pushing aside marketing, social standing and other intangible qualities the most significant dividing factor seems to be build quality. If the company in question is putting out a product that is on par, or better than the original than people view design similarities as tolerable.

The thing is more affordable alternatives of popular products exist in every market, not just the wheel industry, and the exact purpose of these replica products is to appeal to customers who can’t afford, or simply can’t justify the cost, of the more expensive alternative. The easiest way for a manufacturer to bring down the final retail price is to use a different manufacturing process than the real deal.

Arguing that the manufacturing methods used by some of these lower priced companies is on par with that of the more prestigious brands would be silly but, it could reasonably be argued that their production methods are perhaps good enough.

Most people, especially those whose cars don’t see Motorsports competition, would be perfectly fine on a well constructed cast wheel. A big reason that forged modular wheels are so popular today is because, as vain as it may sound, they often just look a lot better than their single piece alternatives.

importfest-2014-honda-ef-petey-3

The fact that these same wheels come with a significantly decreased risk of failure due to rigorous testing is a huge inarguable advantage, but assuming that replica (not counterfeit remember) brands don’t do any testing is quite the reach. At the end of the day no brand wants to be on the hook for a liability lawsuit, especially considering how hard they are to cover up in today’s internet age.

Despite any brands best efforts however failures are still something that can happen.

Several years ago a friend of mine custom ordered a set of authentic Work Emotion CR Kai wheels. About a year after purchase a pothole put a small dent and split in the lip of the wheel that prevented it from holding air. After Work informed him that they no longer warranty or repair cast wheels he bought a full set of Rotas for the cost of one replacement.


To some people this might seem like a monumental step backwards but in this individual’s case the switch made perfect financial sense and to this day the Rota wheel has survived the same roads that sidelined the Work wheel.

Does that make Rota wheels of higher quality than Work? Of course not but situations like this are the exact reason why many people can’t justify running ‘real’ wheels on the street.

This circumstance also calls into question the notion that all ‘fake’ wheels are running on borrowed time and guaranteed to fail.

rota6
Photos courtesy of Google Images

The broken Rota image above is perhaps the go to for people looking to illustrate the potential horrors of replica wheels on and off the track. The problem with this example is that it is completely out of context.

If we applied the same out of context argument, using of a handful of documented failures, to every company producing wheels today few would come out unscathed.

wheresyourgodnow
Photos courtesy of Google Images

In the world of Motorsports where wheel quality and structural integrity is paramount, there are actually a number of successful participants running replica wheels.

Notable local time attack driver James Houghton (pictured below) raced exclusively on a single set of Rota Slipstream wheels from 2011 to 2014 and these wheels took him to Button Willow and back again without fail. Even tackling famed –and extremely fast– ‘Riverside’ corner that claimed an SSR wheel the same weekend he was there.

teknotik_type_r_2_up

Looking locally once again NV Auto’s entire race program is sponsored by Wheel Dude, one of the largest Rota distributors in the USA.

Five years and three different race cars  –one Canadian Sport Compact Series Ultimate AWD Championship car, one CSCS  Street Class Championship car, and a third place CSCS  over all drift car– Dov reports zero failures.

cscs-2014-drifting-riley-sexsmith-2up

The experiences of two race teams isn’t really enough to base an entire argument around, but poking my head in and out of a few forums I found that by in large, many Motorsports competitors can’t afford to care about the moral stigmas attached running replica wheels.

Racing is an expensive sport, and money trees are thus far fictional, so if a wheel is wide enough to hold decent rubber, light enough not to be a significant detriment, and stout enough to make it through a seasons worth of events than any other considerations are largely irrelevant.

As for the argument that fake wheel manufacturers only steal from the industry and give nothing back to the community, in the first round of the 2015 Formula Drift competition I noticed more than a few drivers received support from these same brands that are chastised everyday.

In fact Long Beach second place finisher Aurimas Bakchis’s 2015 race program is sponsored by STR, a company that walks a line closer to counterfeit than they honestly should.

Photo courtesy of Super Street
Photo courtesy of Super Street

Yes you can say that these companies are only doing it to further push their product, but how does that make them any different from any other wheel company that offers sponsorship? At the end of the day they are putting their marketing dollars out just like everyone else.

This begs the question why don’t more of the ‘real’ companies put their money toward the subset of the automotive market constantly embroiled in the wheel debate? Yes Rotiform and HRE sponsor FD cars but BBS, Rays and Work (as far as I know) are absent.

The replica companies have realized that a lot of their target audience is watching Formula Drift, so if they can prove their wheels can take the abuse of someone in the pro circuit, it speaks volumes about the durability of their affordable alternatives.

If other brands are advocating against replicas, but not justifying themselves at the events these individuals attend, then do they really deserve a piece of that audiences hard-earned pay cheque?

An additional, equally rhetorical, question would be why more brands on either side of the debate don’t follow Enkei’s lead and release affordable original design cast wheels. For companies that have already paid for their tooling an about-face shouldn’t be too difficult. For the companies making modular wheels, outsourcing their cast line to someone who knows what they are doing should be equally achievable to help boost their bottom line and get more people running their product.

At the end of day every time I try to examine this debate critically I’m just left with more questions than answers and that is really my whole point to this entire post.

While it would be incredibly simple to live by a black and white philosophy of ‘real’ wheels good ‘fake’ wheels bad there exists a lot of middle ground. Simply ignoring the double standards, exceptions, and endless variables involved in the discussion just because the kool-aid being served is particularly flavorful is completely ludicrous.

Make your own choices, do your research, look used (which has always been my method of choice), consider new upstart brands, and ultimately make your wheel choices based on what best serves you, not the judgemental keyboard warrior miles away.

21 COMMENTS

  1. I think the real issue is with people these days wanting everything for free while, expecting to have the image of a multimillionaire and the other traits that make up the modern day “car enthusiast” ie. built not bought,drive a manual or your’e not an enthusiast. These kids/so called “enthusiast” who just follow the cool trends in their area (not even relating to cars, just trends in their city who very well may move on to pogo sticks once they are cooler than cars) buying BBS LM knock offs at the price for $300 a set for nothing more than the image. The issue here is, they pay no attention past the perceived reaction from the scene/game/what ever its called this week. Back in my day when I was working on the part time job budget, we didn’t have eBay companies shooting $20 wheels from China. Our cheap wheels were from companies that still had to pass DOT standards in any market they were sold in. These wheels people buy now, have no signs of meeting any requirements which, really makes me wonder if they are safe to use. This ties into the built not bought mind set of these same people. The thought of safety for themselves or people around them on the roads is clearly not there, sacrificed for the Instagram and Facebook fame.

    I think Dave nailed it on the head though, do your research. Yes, for every broken fake wheel story there is another one for a real wheel. Look for wheels that are certified to meet the DOT requirements. Take safety of you and who ever else may be in or around the car in to thought. Is that $300 set of wheels you got really worth what may happen when they fail under basic usage?

    Some times, simply saving up for better gives a better feeling to you than going for the instant gratification which, seems like is the only thing that matters in this world of kids who got a trophy for simply showing up to a game.

    • @Bacon you are right buying fake wheels that look like other wheels is an instant gratification and image thing. Personally I’ve had real wheels my past few sets but I buy new wheels on average ever 3-4 years. I don’t need a new set every year to feel good about myself. I spend the time to find something I will like for awhile and I keep them on my car.

      The instant gratification bit another topic I might address.

  2. I run a set of XXR 522s right now, but they were just a means to an end as I found the set I really wanted on my car. I am replacing them with a set of Gram Lights.
    Yes “real” wheels will incur damage, but did you notice the wheels pictured retained their structural integrity keeping the rubber of the tire still contacting the ground albeit in a rather polygonal form vs. a fake wheel that will absolutely shatter? Causing not only further damage to other components on the car, but possibly causing an accident or making a bad accident a worse accident?
    This debate is the same with tires in my opinion. There are CHEAP CHEAP tires that have the same tread pattern appearance as other tire manufacturers that have actually put the R&D and invested the money into developing solid performing tires.
    The same reason I wouldn’t trust $50/tire motorcycle or car tires on my toys vs. the $200/tire. These things keep my car on the road and safe. In the case of my bike… the tires and wheels are largely what keeps a rider alive. You wouldn’t catch me trying to drop a knee on a set of “fake” tires.

  3. I agree with this article to an extent.

    It bothers me when people start screaming “fake wheels” at everything when they can’t even say what the wheels are supposed to be a “replica” of. (Klutch is an example of this. Their SL1 wheels are styled after older Enkei 92’s, but the other wheels on their line up seem relatively original. Yet, Klutch gets bashed as a “replica” brand regularly.)

    At the same time though, I am bothered by the blatant plagiarism from certain wheel companies.

    I don’t mind XXR as much since you can easily distinguish between those and the wheels that they are “inspired” by as they have their own twists in their lineup, but companies like Rota and Varrstoen really peeve me.

    You can tell that they’re trying to make their products look almost identical to the real thing; Varrstoen even went as far as making the lug holes on their ES2 sit in the same place as the real TE37. (This was a method for distinguishing between real and knock off TE37’s.) And look at Rota GK-R’s and compare those with Enkei NT03+M’s. Those are pretty much identical in regards to aesthetics. It’s one thing to have the style of a wheel. It’s another to borderline knock it off.

    And don’t even get me started with the people that try to present their knock off wheels as legitimate (especially for selling/scamming purposes). Because at the end of the day, only the wheel enthusiasts, people that have been in the industry for a while, and people that have done a lot of research on that particular wheel style will be able to distinguish the replicas from the authentic.

    There are definitely quality differences between authentic and replica wheels, but I feel that the issue is more of a moral/ethical one.

  4. just some quick comments –

    – fake / rep manufacturers make wheels with designs that are stolen or “inspired” by real makers – this means that from design, production and testing they are made at a lower standard. They did not design the wheel, they have no idea of the performance and they are passing any tests at a marginal standard. They are producing wheels without any preknowledge of how the original designs were conceived or run through simulation software. The consumer is paying less for a less thought out product. In countries where wheels must be registered in order to sell to the public – which includes testing certification, it’s hard to find as many reps / fakes on the market like Japan and Germany. The USA has DOT but it is not enforced so there are many mfgs or brand mfgs that are selling in the U.S. Everyone should get what they want or believe in, but there IS a difference to how real wheel manufacturers design, test, and produce their wheels.

    Also in response to a few comments in this article – Rays does support FD as a series sponsor and you can see these wheel on Scion Racing (Ken Gushi), Coffman Racing, Charles Ng, Spike Chen – and more.

    Another note would be that you will see Reps in a lot of Grassroots racing where budget is Key – but in professional racing – there is absolutely no Rep / Fake mfgs out there – like F1, WEC, DTM, Super GT because they do not have suffficient knowledge, data, ability to support teams.

    Thanks!

  5. Edward. Thank you for your reply. It is nice to see that my article has reached people directly in the industry.

    Your replies all come for a quality of manufacture stand point which I appreciate. I also like that you noted that there is a difference between the way your brand test their wheels but you were very careful not to say that replica brands to not.

    Your point to F1 teams is 100% correct. I don’t imagine we will ever get to a point where a ‘rota’ or equivalent will ever enter the F1 series.

    Would you be interested in a Q and A of sorts?

  6. @Thaifight- R I agree. I forgot about Klutch put people seem to have classified them as rep purley from a price point stand point when really they copy designs no more/less than other brands

    @Ian G I have heard some track competitors say they would much rather have a wheel shatter than hold up and take out their entire suspension. I thought about investigating that avenue but this post was already close to reaching critical length.

  7. There is another thing you did not mention, availability. Some of us do not drive a car that is extremely common. Our fitment is not on the shelf with BBS, Work, or Volk. When I ordered a set of ‘real’ wheels, it took 5 months for them to arrive. Now, just for the sake of reality, when one of these gets bent, am I expected to park the car for 5 months while I wait for a replacement? I am not sure that makes sense. In my case, since the wheels I bought were a limited production run, it won’t be an option; there is no replacement. Now, don’t get me wrong. I could not believe how beautiful and light the ‘real’ wheels were when they were unboxed. There is a level of fit and finish that is not present on cheaper wheels. But it’s going to suck when something goes wrong..

    • Mike your situation sounds like what happened to my friend Tim. Ordered Works for his Subaru in fitment he wanted, they got bend and he was stuck with a big bill so he went with the more available solution.

      I actually bent my last wheels (Work Equips) and while I got them straightened I was none too happy about it. What chassis do you drive out of curiosity?

  8. I’ll limit my comment to one issue:

    The XXR 521 is a direct replica of the STICH GULF mesh, a discontinued, Japan made multi-piece wheel available in both step (XXR’s rendition) or reverse lips.

    • Jacbo, thanks for showing me a wheel I had never seen before. However there are (slight) differences, should I choose to split hairs. That wheel makes me think VS-XX actually. Which kind of loops us back around to the inspiration vs copy.

  9. Like most Japanese wheels there are a few iterations of Stich mesh with subtle changes.

    Regardless, there is no argument to be made about mesh wheels. Every mesh wheel is inspired my previous mesh designs, (here you can cite BBS as an early example of the incorporation of mesh design into a modular wheel with their E series mag race wheels, but Compomotive was also a player) all of which were inspired by wire wheels.

    • @DaveT rare platform indeed. I’ve only seen one in person.

      @Jacbo When I was doing this I noticed that Compmotive had a few designs that have been imitated today. But it seems they may have also licensed some designs.

      As an aside thanks to everyone who has commented for keeping a level head. People are often pretty hot under the collar when it comes to this topic.

  10. “Most people, especially those whose cars don’t see Motorsports competition, would be perfectly fine on a well constructed cast wheel. A big reason that forged modular wheels are so popular today is because, as vain as it may sound, they often just look a lot better than their single piece alternatives.”

    This is actually laughable.

    On the photo’s of damaged wheels, some of those are fake of Volk and Advan. There are no facts to back those pictures up.

    Just out of curiosity, what is DOT Standard for wheels in North America? As it’s non-existent, which is why we’re in the land of cheaply made wheels.

    Let’s not call them “fake” or “replica.” The “mesh” wheel design is called the Tuning Fork design. It is originally a BBS design and most other companies have copied it. The Japanese copies of this aren’t called replicas but real, so that’s already a mis-identity. But the difference is that the Japanese manufacturers improve the original design through material and additional features, over time consumers have identified it as a “real wheel.”

    The cheap wheel guys (XXR, Rota, Fast, Avid, etc) simply copy the design to the teeth, but using cheap materials and manufacturing processes. They also make alterations in certain areas of the wheel which make them in most cases weaker and unsafe. For instance concave is naturally a weak design and requires quite a bit more framework on the wheel to meet certain manufacturer standards for strength and rigidity. At the price these cheap wheel companies are selling the wheels for, do you really think that the proper engineering and research and development has been done? Do they have these same standards. Simply, no.

    Lets also talk about forging. Forging is a process, not all forgings are created equal. The tensile strength, elongation, and competence of yield is still dictated by materials used and design. What I’m saying, is there are also a lot of wheel companies, producing poor quality forged wheels. I won’t name any names, but some of these 10k+ sets of “big baller” forged wheels

    The debate isn’t black or white, but in my opinion the pursuance for quality is definitely what separates a true enthusiast from someone just there for the trend or image.

    • Jimmy how is it laughable? Are you telling me that cars that spend most of their time sitting in the garage on weekends, then driving to a show where they sit more actually need forged wheels?

      The damaged wheels having no facts was my point. In the case of replica wheels failing it is generally accepted to not provide facts, but do the same with ‘real’ wheels and people demand facts. See the rub there?

      The DOT standard should be adjust then no?

      Agreed, cheap wheels use cheaper manufacturing process and undergo less testing. That is the risk you take with a cheaper wheel, the fact it COULD fail sooner. Does that mean it will for your application? Who knows.

      I’m familiar with the process high level. There are ‘high end’ companies producing sub par product (based on price point) of all types of manufactuer. Not to name names but some of these baller cast wheel companies have no right charging what they do.

      I’m glad you agree that it isn’t black and white and I appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  11. “And don’t even get me started with the people that try to present their knock off wheels as legitimate (especially for selling/scamming purposes). ”

    This one cracks me up, because I have people who claim to know wheels pretty often think my real wheels are the Rota. Because Volk does not make a spoke sticker for the TE37V-SL in any color than red. And the red was just way too wrong of a color against the red/orange color of my car. So I had spoke stickers made in black. And people tell me fake stickers=fake wheels…

    Bottom line for me? Buy the wheel that makes you happy.

  12. “Real wheels” are manufactured by companies that design and engineer new wheels and styles. They embody form and function and all have a rich history in the racing world. The “fake wheel” companies have built a business on copying other brand’s designs and making money off iT. I see it as comparing a real Gucci vs fake Gucci. If you’re rocking a fake one it might serve its purpose but doubt anybody would be defending it. Doesn’t matter if it was handmade and stitched together with better leather and hardware, it’s still a knock off.

    • Leonard not all real companies go that far with their design though. There are lots of design out there done by “real” companies that are awfully close to existing designs, flown under the guise of ‘inspired by’ or ‘homages’. If Rota were to say that everyone would lose their mind.

      Now from an engineering standpoint yes many replica (and pretty well all counterfeit) wheels are poorly constructed, but their are some replica wheels that are as durable as you can expect a cast wheel to be.

LEAVE A REPLY