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Fortune's Wheels
Sleek, Sparkling Rims Power A $3.1 Billion Aftermarket Industry

By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 2, 2005

We write today in honor of chrome. We write of the lowly car tire elevated to art form. Of P. Diddy and designer wheels, of Shaq and the $40,000, 24-inch Superman set of spokes on which his la fabulousness glides.

We write today of rims.

We write of the formerly unremarkable steel or aluminum cylinders which, when bolted onto a grimy axle, support your tires. A hundred years, they make cars in Detroit and everywhere else and most people didn't think too much about rims, which usually were plain old utilitarian wheels -- so ugly that you hid them with hubcaps.

What idiots.

Today rims are a $3.1 billion industry that stands at the revolving heart of two American obsessions: automobiles and finding ever more expensive ways to buy things you already have and don't need. Turning a 50-cent cup of coffee into a $4.25 triple latte: That's what makes this country great, and don't you forget it, sister.

Hamid Ahmadi understands this and he wasn't even born in this country. Ahmadi, 42, fled his home town of Kabul to escape the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Today he runs Big Boys Toys in Oxon Hill, a flat-out fabulous red, yellow and black testament to the terminally automotive hip. Every week somebody comes in and drops $4,475 for a set of 24-inch Omega spinners.

And people say this country is going to hell in a handbasket.

"We have 400 different models in stock," Ahmadi is saying in the back storeroom, where tires and rims are stacked in long, profit-rich rows. "I want my customers to be able to feel, touch, smell the product before they buy it. We don't make you wait, either. You buy it, we mount them on the car in an hour, hour and a half if we're busy."

Bling. Instant gratification. Chrome on your car for no damn reason. This place is more American than Hooters.

The rims explosion is not, we stress, anything like your gearhead Uncle Kevin working on the GTO out back. Nor is it your Springsteen '69 Chevy with a 396, Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor. Gearheads are into performance, speed and technology.

People who drop money for rims -- let's say Patrick Williams, right here in Big Boys, picking up a $2,000 set of Vision 20-inchers on his new Yukon -- are not gearheads. They do not get their fingernails dirty. They watch the big, flat-screen up front and take calls while Abdul Basir and the fellas in the back put on the rims, polish them and the tires and pull it back out front for you to admire, sitting there on the leather couch.

"We're a full-service shop," Ahmadi says.

"Rims are the big thing now," says Williams, an engineer for the federal government.

"Rims are more of a fashion statement rather than an automotive one," says Peter MacGillivray of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, the California-based agency that promotes and tracks the $31 billion after-market car modification industry. "People have really bought into the idea that their car is a reflection of themselves, their personality."

There is no precise genesis for rims trade, but there is certainly precedent. Americans have a long history of turning the ordinary into the stylish and perhaps outrageously expensive -- dungarees become designer jeans, sneakers become Air Jordans, prescription sunglasses morph into Oakleys, sweaty track suits evolve into DKNY loungewear, a cuppa joe turns into the Starbucks franchise.

For rims, the beginning was about five or six years ago among members of the West Coast-based "tuning" culture. These are guys who gear out their cars with performance engines, fins, new grills, and then somebody came up with some custom rims. Their chrome-laden extravagances began popping up in rap videos and in movies like "The Fast and the Furious," and then there was MTV's "Pimp My Ride," and suddenly Sly Stallone and Adrien Brody and Ozzy Osbourne were rolling with them. Glossy magazines like Dub, Lowrider and Top Tuners are now filled with dozens of pages of rim ads. Diablo, D'Vinci, Hipnotic, Lexani, Polo, Player, Zenetti -- the list of manufacturers grows by the day.

"It started out as a hip-hop thing, but now I get calls from everyone from rappers to movie producers to some lawyer's secretary, setting up an appointment for him," says Ernie Boehm, who designed Shaq's wheels for Blingz of Beverly Hills. Boehm, who also designs for the less expensive sister company Blingz Wheels, makes limited series of each design, say 350, like etchings.

There are fads, of course within a $3 billion trade. Spinners, the insets within the wheel that keep turning after you stop, have peaked. Floaters, insets that remain still while you drive -- giving the appearance the wheel isn't turning at all -- are the new hottie.

Kitmani Rollins, president of Silver Spring-based Automotiverhythms.com, says rims only recently caught on in Washington. "In D.C. you didn't get a lot of bling, compared to New York, Atlanta, L.A., Texas." One problem, he says, might be the poor condition of the streets. "D.C. streets are so jacked up, I think it scared some people off here."

Now P. Diddy is coming out with his "Sean John" limited-edition rims -- going for $700 to $3,000 each. General Motors is planning to offer rims right in the showroom.

Ahmadi isn't worried.

Rims are a personal item, he says, and people want the experience of picking them out themselves, from a ton of options, not just four or five at the dealership.

He bought this place, a rundown former auto-parts store on a busy street in Oxon Hill, in early 2003. He ripped out the insides and turned it into a primary colors playroom.

The side walls in the front half of the store are bright yellow, the floor red. Dozens of spit-shined rims float in black or chrome racks, stacked eight or nine feet tall. High overhead, bright fluorescent lights are suspended from a black ceiling. Track lighting spills onto the rims lining the walls. The back half of the store, where the walls switch to red, is stocked with stereos, grills, alarms and the like.

Business was slow when he opened in late 2003, he says, but with advertising and word of mouth, things boomed. He estimates he moves 60 to 80 sets of rims per week, accounting for 60 percent of the store's gross profits.

Selecting a set of rims in this candy-store atmosphere isn't easy.

Anthony Michaels pulls into the parking lot in a 2000 BMW 323-I. It's a nice black car with 15-inch rims. He walks around the shop for half an hour or so, bending over and checking this set of rims against that one, then goes with the 18-inch Zenetti Deuces, at $2,299.

"It really brings the look of the car out," he says of the rims. "The 18s are fine with me. You can't go any bigger on this car safely."

And that's the issue -- as rims go to 18, 20, 22, now 24 and 26 inches -- the depth of the tires decreases. These tires wear out quicker, and are mostly higher-cost performance tires. One European design company, Claus Ettensberger, reminds buyers that tires on something going 70 mph on the interstate are not playthings.

"There are a lot of knockoff tire companies that have sprung up in the past couple years, and these are not like fake Nikes or Louis Vuitton handbags -- they're a critical safety feature," says Victor Carrillo, a company spokesman. "They're performance tires, so they wear quickly. There is a greater risk of blowouts, so you have to carefully monitor the tire pressure. You have to understand when you get these that they are not going to last like ordinary tires."

Ordinary?

Who said anything about ordinary?

Rims, Oakleys, the latte, the hot stone massage, the 57-inch plasma high-definition -- Americans want ordinary right up until they can afford something else.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company