EDITOR’S NOTE: What are the top high performance automotive parts of all time? Or in this case, what are the Top 20 most iconic parts that changed hot rodding? We’re talking total game-changers in the annals of our hobby.
We asked a panel of OnAllCylinders staffers, longtime automotive journalists, and veteran members of the Summit Racing technical and marketing departments for their input. The countdown continues with number 2 (you can see numbers 20 through 3 here).
Wheels are often the first thing we notice.
The right set makes average cars look awesome, and gorgeous cars like art.
The aftermarket wheels business exploded over the past 50 years following the advent of the “mag” wheel, but no wheel in our estimation has had as much impact and influence on the automotive aftermarket as the legendary Cragar S/S chrome five-spoke wheel (technically named Cragar 08/61 S/S Super Sport).
Cragar was founded in California in 1930, and got its start selling speed parts, said Howard Cook, sales manager for Cragar’s parent company, The Carlstar Group.
The owners combined the first three letters of co-owner Crane Gartz’ name with the first three letters of his last name to form racing and hotrodding’s most famous wheel company name.
In 1955, Roy Richter, owner of Bell, CA-based Bell Auto Parts (creator of Bell helmets and safety equipment) acquired the Cragar brand. A decade later, the chrome Cragar S/S changed the game forever.
“When they first appeared, it seemed as if everyone wanted a set. Aside from Sox & Martin, just about every important door car racer had a set on their respective cars. They sold like hotcakes at speed shops worldwide,” said OnAllCylinders contributor Wayne Scraba.
We asked Cook: Is the Cragar S/S the most influential aftermarket wheel in history?
“It is certainly one of the most popular, iconic wheel designs in our industry. I’d word it like that,” he said. “You can’t knock the Torq-Thrust.”
Cook was respectfully referring to another iconic aftermarket wheel—American Racing’s Torq-Thrust, which were released a year prior to the Cragar S/S and can be argued were just as influential.
Still, Cragar is a brand that transcends a typical relationship between consumers and businesses.
“The people who are really into Cragar, are really into Cragar,” Cook said. Cragar fans sometimes tattoo the iconic S/S wheel on their bodies, they name their children “Cragar.”
“We hear it all the time,” he said. “‘It’s my favorite wheel,’ they say.”
Cook shared a story about a high school student from the Pacific Northwest who was tasked with conducting a model business project in 1969. The student chose Cragar as his business model and because he was 20 years away from internet access, sent the company a typewritten letter to begin his research efforts. On Oct. 3, 1969, Cragar’s sales manager, replied.
Cook had copies of that correspondence and shared them with us—snapshots from inside Cragar during the height of the drag racing and muscle car eras—and a testament to the company’s sense of history.
And here’s a second piece of the letter identifying the then-growing popularity of upgrading factory performance with aftermarket parts, including achieving a custom look with shiny, new wheels.
The story of the Cragar S/S is one of robust craftsmanship combined with a shiny chrome finish previously unavailable to most racing and hot rodding enthusiasts.
It forever changed the way people customized the look of their vehicles and paved the way for entry-level aftermarket upgrades enjoyed by hot rodders of all skill levels.
Today, we see so many different wheels, it’s nearly impossible to know them all.
But from 1965 through today, there’s absolutely no mistaking one of them.
“Maybe not the first five-spoke wheel ever made, but the Cragar S/S is certainly the most famous and the one that jumpstarted the aftermarket wheel industry,” said Alan Rebescher, PR/Media Relations for Summit Racing. “You weren’t nothin’ if you didn’t sport a set.”