One of the most important (and expensive!) purchases you’ll make for your ride, are a nice set of wheels. J-nostalgics just don’t look right without the right vintage wheels, and so you’re probably already a veteran of cruising Yahoo Auctions Japan, looking for that ideal set of Watanabes, in the correct size and offset to get that perfect fender-scraping fitment.
Recently, we were invited to spend a day at Barrel Bros in Sydney, Australia to check out their work in restoring and modifying vintage JDM wheels. If you want something like a custom set of 15-inch wide 80s era RAYS, then this place is your new church.
“The most popular wheels we do are SSR Star Sharks and Longchamps XR-4,” says Mark Hooker, Barrel Bros’ amiable shacho. But while used JDM wheels aren’t hard to find, desirable models in extreme, wheel-poking dished sizes are rare.
Barrel Bros’ specialty is modifying existing vintage wheels into a custom size. “The most extreme we’ve done is maybe a 15×10.0 -40 Longchamps XR-4 (pictured above), and the deepest would be a 7.5-inch lip”, says Mark. “We’ve also stepped up some BBS E26s from 17×9.0 to 18×12.0 for a Porsche 930.”
The widening process starts by machining the old lip off, since JDM wheels of the 70s and 80s era are almost always welded together as well as bolted.
The denuded wheel centre is then bolted to a special machine to clean up the surface in readiness for the new barrel.
Rather fittingly, some of the machining is done on a vintage Japanese Hamatu lathe, still going strong since 1968.
The old wheel is then prepared for the new lip, which is first polished to a high shine, and then bolted on.
Elliot then TIG welds the new lip into place.
The finished product is now ready for paint. “We prefer to paint the centre after welding, since the heat from the welding can toast the paint”. Mark also mentions that they prefer paint to powdercoating, because they have had examples in the past where the heat from the powdercoating process has annealed the wheel, making it soft. It then needs to be re-heat treated to restore its strength and hardness, which means all the powdercoating has to come back off.
After paint, the wheel is ready to go. An optional process is to convert the wheel centres from requiring a flat-faced shank lugnut (pretty common for early SSR) to a conventional tapered lugnut, by milling out the wheel centre and pressing in a steel tapered seat.
Different wheels require a different technique. “SSR MkI is the most difficult,” Mark says. SSR’s iconic brake boilers have a unique construction, where the disc-shaped face of the wheel is actually integral to the lip. The MkI is actually like two really deep pizza pans sandwiching a thick metal disc, and then the whole thing is welded together. This means that widening a MkI requires that the lip be cut off half way, and half a lip welded back on.
“We can do it,” says Mark,” but it’s expensive. SSR MkIs are plentiful in Japan in really wide sizes, so we suggest that you try to find some of the right size before committing to modifying a set, because it’s going to hurt the hip pocket fairly drastically.”
The lips used at Barrel Bros are made in Australia, specifically to mirror the shape of the lips on vintage SSRs. “We found that most old JDM wheels use a lip that is very close to the SSR shape, and we found that lips that were available commercially simply didn’t look right.”
The wheel diameter can also be increased, by installing a stepped lip, but then the back of the wheel has to be changed, too. I ask if they have many customers who just want vintage wheels restored, rather than widened, and Mark’s face lights up. “The quality of the alloy in the 70s and 80s JDM wheels is much better than what they use today.”
Most vintage JDM wheels have an anodised, rather than a polished finish, and over time the anodising goes cloudy. Before it can be polished back to health (like the SSR MkI on the right above) the wheel has to go through quite an involved process.
The first step is to strip off the anodising with an aggressive chemical bath…which leaves the wheel with an odd, yellow matte finish that is now ready for sanding and polishing.
To illustrate the process, a lip from an 80s RAYS mesh wheel is retrieved from the recycling pile. It’s a polished finish, so there isn’t any need to strip off the anodising, but rubbing one section by hand with a conventional polish doesn’t really do it.
The process is to machine-sand the lip with progressively finer grit wheels, and then a few rounds with a polishing wheel and compound.
The result from polishing up the three-decades-old JDM alloy is a more mellow lustre compared to a new barrel. “Depending on the wheel, it can take up to 90 minutes per wheel to polish the finish to where we want it,” says Elliot.
For other applications that require a diamond-cut finish, like the classic look of the spokes on Longchamps XR-4 or the face of a Impul Hoshino (pictured above), the work is done on a CNC lathe.
In addition to the hardware, Barrel Bros also has remade the decals to get the wheels looking correct.
“We do ship wheels overseas,” says Mark. “What we suggest is that you take a vertical spirit level and put it against the fender lip, and then measure the horizontal distance from that to the hub. That way we can make the wheels to a precise fitment, whether you want the wheels to be flush, or have a bit of poke. ”
In the end, a set of custom vintage JDM wheels runs between AUD$2,200 (US$1,600) and AUD$2,700 (USD$2,000) a set, depending on the rarity and cost of the donor wheels.
The big green thing gracing this article is Barrel Bros’ demo car, a mint 330-series Datsun 260C (Cedric) coupe. Rolling low on rebarreled SSR Star Sharks with a 4-inch lip, it’s a ride that any JNC fan would be pleased to cruise around in. In the background is their shop van, a 1300cc Suzuki with fender flares and widened Black Racing wheels.
So if you have a hole in your soul that only a set of perfect-fitment vintage JDM wheels can fill, then hit these guys up. They have a page on Facebook, and can be found at:
Address: 10 Works Place, Milperra NSW 2214, Australia
Phone: +61 2 9792 3777