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O Chrome, Thou Art Sick!

by mattjosh (writer), Albuquerque, January 22, 2007

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I just recently bought a used car. Being a conscientious, and maybe even paranoid, consumer, I thoroughly checked under the hood for dryness on the various belts and hoses, took detailed notes when the seller informed me of the repair history, and listened attentively for strange noises as I test drove it on a variety of roads. I even gave the tires a good kick, just to be sure.

There were four things I did not check. Four pillars upon which the entire car's utility rests. But what could possibly be wrong with the wheels?

My otherwise immaculate 1998 Nissan Maxima (you know, the white one with the sly spoiler slinking off the rear?) has chrome wheels, something I previously thought could only be a bonus an on already attractive auto. Apparently, though, chrome is very susceptible to corrosion, infinitely more so than alloy and steel wheels, which are clad in other, non-metallic, far more protective finishes. Given time, this blight will inevitably kill your iridescently reflective rims.

I never would have been launched into this rabbit hole had I not suffered the recurring headache of a flat tire last week. So, the next time I got around to it - four days later - I spent my lunch break at the Big-O Tires in Pasadena to get it fixed. There was a screw lodged in the tire, but that was not the cause of the leak. The leak was in the valve stem, an easy fix, but even that was not what would become my true adversary. All my wheels were leaking, just a little bit, but around the entire circumference of each tire, right at the point where it met the wheel.

He explained to me that the problem was almost certainly corrosion of the wheel, generally caused by driving on salted roads in the snow. This mixture of moisture and salt becomes more than the chrome can bear and eventually eats through it. This wouldn't be a problem if corrosion only affected aesthetics. Unfortunately, once it eats through the chrome, it can go after the metal underneath, potentially eating through the metal altogether, leaving you with a structurally weakened wheel that lead to blowouts or other such high-speed catastrophes.

But that's an exceptionally worst case scenario. It seems to be fairly uncommon for any real damage to come from it, mostly because it is a fairly well known problem in more wintry climes. The conventional workaround for most the country is to have a set of non-chrome winter wheels to change into for those wetter, saltier months, and let your chromes hibernate indoors. Here in the Land of the Scorching Sun, however, it seems it is little known and little experienced, so it would seem my case is exceptionally lucky.

"The guy who had the car before you must have taken it up to the snow a lot," suggests Henry, the clerk who was helping me at Big-O. He then goes on to inform me that it isn't just driving through wet, salty roads, but corrosion also becomes more likely depending on what kind of air you put into the tires. Car tires generally have no inner-tubes, like the ones you find in bicycle tires, so the rubber seals directly to the wheel in order to hold in all that pressure, leaving the metal exposed to the tire's air. Thus, if you fill your tire with more humid or saltier air (i.e. on a rainy day, or nearer to the coast), you expose your chrome to more of those corrosive agents.

So, that very tubeless design that relies upon the tire sealing tightly to the wheel begins to break down as the wheel's surface becomes increasingly jagged and unstable. The seal no longer holds, and your tire's air gradually leaks out more and more. Henry showed me the interior rim of my wheel after his mechanic had taken the wheel off. It looked like barnacles had chipped off the chrome plating, established a colony, and were en route to edging out my tires as well.

Big-O provided me with a quick fix. First, they repaired the valve stem that was the immediate cause of the flat tire to begin with. Next, they ground down the barnacles to regain a somewhat smooth finish on the inside which would help the tire to seal better. The mechanic made it very clear, however, that this was a temporary fix. Now that the metal underneath was unprotected, it would corrode again, and that I should look into getting new wheels before too long.

Here, the paranoid consumer crept back up, smiling shrewdly to himself. "Of course they would say that; they sell wheels!" So was there anything I could do to avoid spending hundreds of dollars on auto maintenance that shouldn't be necessary? Well, I could get the barnacles sanded off every so often, but then I run the risk of one of those more catastrophic structural failures befalling me. Ignoring the problem holds the same potential for big trouble, as well as the growing nuisance of pumping up the tires more and more frequently. So, after much consideration, research, and disappointment, I'm shopping for new wheels.

This all could have been avoided, of course. A set of winter wheels for those trips to the snow could have been employed by the car's former owners. After that, however, there isn't much that can be done to protect chrome wheels, other than not buying them to begin with. Still, if you absolutely must have that chromed look, you can always fake it with form-fitted wheel covers called wheelskins. Think of them as veneers for your aluminum wheels. Rumor has it that they look pretty authentic too, though I can't vouch personally for this.

It was remarkable how little information I could find online regarding the corrosion of chrome wheels, considering how obvious a problem it seemed to those few who actually documented it. Next time you're trying to decide between the base model's wheels and those $3000 spinners, remember these words of warning about that shiniest of metals, our beloved, but all too fragile, chrome.

Stay tuned for my upcoming exposé of the hidden societal costs behind those springy, no-tie shoelaces.


About the Writer

mattjosh is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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1 comments on O Chrome, Thou Art Sick!

Log In To Vote   Score: 2
By E Jo on January 22, 2007 at 09:37 pm
What a nightmare, but good to know...I've had chrome issues myself- it's easily dented and expensive to replace (but it's so shiny)
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