Hubcaps, also known as wheel covers, are round metallic disks designed to fit snugly over the center space of a car's tires. Their main function is to protect the lug nuts from exposure to the elements, but they are also seen as aesthetic elements which add to the car's overall style. Car designers often have natural limits when it comes to style elements, but hubcaps provide a creative outlet.
Early hubcaps were routinely forged from heavy steel and were seen as functional, not decorative elements. Eventually the major automobile companies realized that the hubcap area was an ideal place to promote their corporate identities. Those from the 1920s and 1930s took advantage of the sleek Art Deco design craze, with an emphasis on streamlining and speed. Company names were featured prominently on hubcaps, but the overall look was still rather straightforward.
The war effort in the 1940s caused automobile designers to reduce the use of steel and chromium in decorative elements such as hubcaps. Aluminum and other alloys became the new raw material. After the war years, a booming economy lead to a new emphasis on bigger and flashier automobiles. Cars in the 1950s often featured over-sized hubcaps with dramatic extensions and an abundance of chrome. Car owners equated the size and style of a car with success, so even the most inexpensive models featured attention-getting hubcaps and other style elements.
As the economy cooled and smaller cars became popular, hubcaps returned to their functional but streamlined roots. Older ones became popular collectors' items, with some of the more elaborate examples getting top dollar at auctions. The trend today is a wheel cover which features a free-spinning center element. These "spinner" hubcaps and wheel covers are either silver, chrome or gold-plated and are popular with the youth market. Taxi companies in Canada have actually begun to sell advertising space on the hubcaps of their fleet cars. The ad itself is attached to a weighted spinner, which remains steady as the car moves through traffic.
Some people think of hubcaps in the same way as armadillos or possums — they're all born dead at the side of the highway. Maintaining a complete set can indeed be a challenge. The main reason for this phenomenon is the process of changing tires. The hubcaps must be pried out with a screwdriver or other tool, which will eventually cause the cap to warp. The cover itself makes a wonderful holder for the removed lug nuts, but becomes an afterthought after the new tire is attached. Few drivers carry a rubber mallet with them, so they are often reattached loosely. A few miles at highway speed can lead to the loss of one or more hubcaps. Conscientious car owners should take the time to periodically secure them by tapping the rim in a circular pattern with a rubber mallet.