Hubcaps vs. Rims: a Lesson in Semantics

The wheel is by far the most important invention of humankind when it comes to mobility. Without wheels, we wouldn’t have had cars today, or any land vehicle, for that matter. Wheels enabled us to transport goods and people at much higher speeds and much more efficiently than ever before.

Wheels, or rims as they like to call them, are also the most discussed item in automotive circles. Furthermore, they are almost always the first upgrade enthusiasts put on their vehicles, and buyers don’t mind spending exorbitant sums on getting the largest wheels possible when buying a new car.

However, it wasn’t always like this. In the past, hubcaps and wheel covers were all the rage, and large alloy wheels were nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, the automotive landscape is so advanced today that we have a choice of any style we want on our car – from hubcaps and covers to large alloy wheels.

There is one problem, though. Since wheels are so talked about, and mostly on the street, slang is the go-to language for describing them. As a result, people confuse wheels, rims, hubcaps, and wheel covers and sometimes use them interchangeably.

But worry not, as I’ll clear things out for you and tell you everything you need to know about hubcaps vs. rims and all similar products. Enjoy!

Wheels or Rims?

Wheels or Rims

Rim is actually only the outer part of the wheel

What is wheel, and why did it take humanity so long to invent it? The answer is not as simple as you might think. For of all, a wheel is not a circle – people knew about these geometrical forms long before that. It’s actually a circle attached to an axle, which lets it spin freely and provides a vehicle with motion.

In ancient times, more precisely in Mesopotamia (according to our current findings), the wheel was a circular wood with an axle in the middle. Today, though, we refer to the wheel as a combination of a center rigid part and the tire. Yup, the tire is also part of the wheel.

Then, the inside part of the wheel (minus the tire) consists of a center bore and bolt circle, spokes, and a rim. Wait, did I say rim? Yup, although today we refer to wheels as rims because it sounds cooler, a rim is actually only the outer part of the wheel (minus the tire). Because that’s what the word means – a rim is the outer edge of a circular object.

I know this all sounds confusing, but if you are an engineer and you have the task of designing a new wheel, this is the semantics you will use. This doesn’t mean you can’t continue using saying “rims” when referring to “wheels,” but it’s good to know to avoid confusion when talking to someone.

And, yeah, although a wheel would be the whole unit, it’s okay to refer only to the metal part without the tires with that word. In fact, I’ll continue using “wheel” to only describe the metal part.

What are Hubcaps, and are They Different to Wheel Covers?

Now that we clarified what a wheel is let’s have a look at hubcaps, which people tend to mix even more nowadays. See, during the automotive era, when only steel wheels were a thing, manufacturers used hubcaps to protect them from corrosion. Steel is quite susceptible to rust, especially when constantly hit with debris from the road and salt in the winter.



But hubcaps weren’t covering the whole wheel assembly. As their name suggests, they were only used to cover the center part – the area that attaches to the wheel hub. The hub contains the bolts that your wheel attaches to, and the hubcaps only cover that center area. Hubcaps in the past were very simple and looked almost like a plate.

Still with me? Okay, because I’ll also introduce you to center caps. These are similar to hubcaps but mostly smaller. They also follow the design of the rest of the wheel, i.e., the spokes. The center caps are also used to protect the hub and bolts, but also to serve a cosmetic function. They are still used in modern alloy wheels to cover the bolts and give a clean look.


Center caps

And then you have wheel covers, which cover the whole wheel. These are mainly used for steel wheels and only serve a cosmetic purpose. Although they cover the wheel, they don’t necessarily protect it from external factors – in fact, they collect quite a lot of dirt inside.

So, why do people say hubcaps today when they refer to wheel covers? Because language is an organic and evolving thing! You can’t just forbid people from using certain words – it’s not how language works. People probably found it easier to continue using hubcaps when wheel covers were introduced, and the term caught on.


Wheel covers

Difference Between Hubcaps and Rims

After clearing things out semantically, it’s now easy to differentiate between hubcaps and rims – at least their popular meaning today. Therefore, when you search for hubcaps online, you’ll be offered wheel covers for your steel wheels. Meanwhile, if you search for rims, the results will show you alloy wheels.

Pros and Cons of Hubcaps and Rims

Now you know what’s the difference between hubcaps and rims, but which solution is better?

Honestly, in today’s world, I strongly recommend going for alloy wheels (rims), as they are lighter, more resistant to corrosion, and look much better. Rims are also more durable than hubcaps and not easily removed, meaning that thieves usually avoid them. However, alloy wheels are also much more expensive than hubcaps.

Meanwhile, hubcaps are very cheap and easy to replace, meaning you can change the style each season. Still, they are usually made from plastic and look cheap, and will quickly deteriorate.

There is still a use case for hubcaps (wheel covers), though. If you want to keep your shiny alloy wheels pristine for longer, it’s strongly recommended to put your winter tires on a set of cheaper steel wheels and then use hubcaps for decoration.

Final Words

So, what’s the main takeaway? The first thing is that automotive terms have evolved in recent years, hence why all the confusion between hubcaps, rims, wheels, and wheel covers.

But regardless of that, the wheel also continues to evolve. From its wooden origins, it today grew into a shiny alloy object that people admire, wrapped around with tires that offer stunning performance.

The future brings even better wheels. Featherlight carbon fiber rims are on the horizon and could dramatically improve the performance of future vehicles while also eliminating corrosion. Meanwhile, we’ll see puncture-resistant tires in the near future, which use rubber inserts instead of compressed air for support.

Indeed, the future of the wheel is bright and shiny!

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