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Design of the times: It's all about the look in the custom wheel aftermarket

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Design of the times: It's all about the look in the custom wheel aftermarket

Claus Ettensberger and Tom Langton were celebrities in their own right at the recent Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) Show in Las Vegas.

They are not public figures like wrestler Hulk Hogan or actress Carmen Electra -- both of whom were seen on the trade show floor. But they nonetheless transcend the custom wheel aftermarket.

Their designs were among the thousands of wheels on display at the SEMA Show. Ettensberger's signature edition alloy wheels, designed for European sports and luxury vehicles, included a number of 20-, 22- and 24-inch sizes for the domestic SUV market.

It is Langton, however, who has closer ties to the tire industry. As owner of Rumble Customs, he is known as a one-off motorcycle builder. In his spare time, he designs wheels for Tireco Inc.

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His Forte

Custom wheel aftermarket sales were close to $1 billion in North America in 2005. According to Modern Tire Dealer's 2005 Custom Wheel Survey, 64% of the independent tire dealers in the United States get a piece of that action.

Dealers say they select a wheel brand based on quality and styling (with price a close third); they say customers buy a brand based on styling and price.

"The (wheel) industry's pretty much like the fashion business -- new styles, new markets, new trends, new ideas," says Rick Papelian, Tireco's director of wheel sales.

Tireco showcased a dozen new styles at the show in its Forte, Sendel and NS Racing lines. Langton has designed Forte wheels for the last few years.

Papelian says for every 12 wheels introduced, nine will do well. "If they are popular, we don't kill them. A lot of our wheels are going on their fourth year.

"If a wheel has a weak sales history, you bite the bullet and cut and run."

Almost 100% of Tireco's wheels are "tire pressure monitor sensor friendly," he says. "That's probably the biggest reason for a lot of the changes."

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Only $1 million a set

If a dealer could sell a set of the new Asanti three-piece forged luxury wheels on display at the show, he or she could take the rest of the year off. Featuring more than 12,000 diamonds and 800 sapphires, the set retails for $1 million -- which Asanti Wheel Corp. says includes a 2006 Bentley GT on which to mount them.

Most of the other new wheels were a little more marketable, even the prototypes. In the Hankook Tire America Corp. booth, a 22-inch tire was made to look like a 26-inch tire thanks to a new Asanti wheel flange design that "stretches" the face of the wheel.

"I think it's a great idea because it keeps the cost low and the customer retains his ride quality," says Joe Salafia, owner of Action Tire in Lodi, N.J. He first saw the style with a Nitto/Lexani package a year ago.

Stamford Sport Wheels Co. Ltd. (SSW), a subsidiary of Stamford Tyres International Pte Ltd., showcased two new five-spoke wheels, the Cinco S040 and Hulk S041. They were created by a domestic designer, according to CEO Roger Chang.

SSW manufactures light alloy wheels at its almost two-year-old factory in Bangkok, Thailand. They feature special colors and distinctive, non-chrome finishes. Chang says his sales goal is 10,000 tuner and sport truck wheels a month in the U.S.

Enkei International Inc. is introducing seven new designs in 2006, with a variety of finishes. They include:

* the five-spoke RZ-5 with gunmetal finish in 15- through 18-inch sizes.

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* the five-spoke Tarmac in chrome and hyper black finishes in 18- and 19-inch sizes.

* the SC03 in silver. It features Enkei's SBC (special brilliant coating) technology, which gives the wheel a chrome-looking metal finish. It is available in 15- through 17-inch sizes.

* NK-5P luxury wheels with chrome finish in 18- and 20-inch sizes.

* Ikei-6, YA-8 and NK-5S light truck and SUV wheels, all with chrome finish. They are available in various 20- through 24-inch sizes.

One wheel distributor, Wholesale Tire and Wheel Corp. (WTW), took the tire-wheel relationship to a new level. WTW, exclusive distributors of Giovanna, GFG and Gianelle wheels, partnered with Continental Tire North America Inc. to create a limited edition Continental Giovanna tire.

The ContiSportContact2 Giovanna edition is available in two sizes: 265/30ZR22 and 295/25ZR22.

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