Big Wheel

Jimmy MagahernNovember 3, 2022
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Rick Salcido in his West Phoenix shop; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer
Rick Salcido in his West Phoenix shop; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer

He’s the go-to guy in Phoenix for the unique style of wire wheels treasured by lowriders. But Rick Salcido is the first to admit it’s not a “normal” business.

In a Corner of a West Phoenix industrial park, Mario Varela greets a customer at the entrance of Wire Wheel Specialties: a warehouse door fronted by a glass case with colorful “knock-off” accessories for the wire wheels inside.

The customer surveys a gold-plated rim Varela assures him would fit his 1994 Cadillac. “34, out the door?” the man asks. “If you pay cash, yeah,” says wheel craftsman Rick Salcido, the shop’s owner. That’s $3,400 for a set of four wheels. The customer nods. “I’ve also got an ’80 Cutlass I may want a set for.”

Together with Varela and Brenda Chavira, Salcido runs Phoenix’s go-to shop for the rims treasured by lowriders: ornate wire ones, appropriated from the classic wire spokes that once festooned luxury performance cars like the Alfa Romeo and Jaguar, but centered in a deep barrel. Though he only returned to the industry two and a half years ago, after a prolonged detour into civil engineering and the livery industry, Salcido says his shop is netting about $800,000 annually and has a waiting list of almost 500 customers.

“It’s a crazy world that a lot of people are not even aware of,” says Salcido, the brother of a certain high-profile Valley chef he’d rather not name-drop. (Hint: The green 1950 Chevy Deluxe lowrider he rebuilt for her bears the license plate MEXCHEF.)

“I sell some wheels for $10,000,” he says. “And it’s worldwide. I got people calling me from Australia, Canada, Japan. It’s a hot market. It’s not just Mexicans anymore!”

Rick Salcido; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer
Rick Salcido; Photo by Kyle Ledeboer

Salcido can’t pinpoint what’s driving the demand, although the resurgence of lowrider culture, now a multi-generational and global movement, comes into play. COVID-19 lockdowns gave enthusiasts more time in their garages, and the lifting of restrictions boosted an eagerness for the car shows and caravans that have always defined the scene.

The pandemic also fractured the supply chain, creating a steel shortage in the U.S. that put many manufacturers out of business and left the rest relying on China for material. Today Dayton Wire Wheel in Ohio (which also now gets its steel from China), rules the off-the-shelf rim market, with a handful of independent craftsmen fighting over the custom market.

Salcido insists he’s one of them. “There’s only three of us doing this in the whole world,” he says, adding the other two are in the Los Angeles area. Joe Ray, editor of Lowrider magazine, guesses he’s talking about Galaxy Wire Wheels and Luxor Wire Wheels. Ray is familiar with Salcido and considered featuring him in the magazine. “His history goes back to working the early days with Roadster Wheels, and he knew everybody in the industry.” But Ray questioned whether Salcido could handle mass quantities.

“Making wire wheels is a difficult art,” he says. “There’s just a lot of things that can go wrong.” The holes must be precisely drilled, each spoke has to be “trued” (tightened) and the seals must be airtight. “Not a lot of people can do it well, especially on a large scale.”

That’s where Salcido believes he has his biggest edge. He studied civil engineering and worked jobs using computer-aided drafting (CAD) software. He applies these skills in his shop. “My dies are so precise, we don’t make any mistakes,” he says. “I know things like structural deflection, so if a car brakes quickly, I know how to make the spokes hold so that the seal doesn’t break off. I’m like the Versace of the wire wheel business!”

Ray grants him the benefit of the doubt. “If he is building a Dayton-type wheel to their specs – and if he’s charging that much, he’d better be – then good for him,” Ray says. “He just might be the guy.”

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