They can fall off on the freeway, bouncing into oblivion. Or they might mysteriously disappear into the night, sometimes two or four at a time. In an awkward driving moment, you can scuff them up by parking too close to the curb.
Whether your hubcaps are abused or absent, many motorists find it embarrassing to drive a car without a full set of decent-looking wheel covers.
Sure, the car will still go just like it always has. But driving around sans hubcaps makes your car--and you, by extension--look sloppy. Sort of half-dressed. Like the kind of person who would leave home without a belt or earrings.
Originally created to keep dirt out of a vehicle's wheel workings, hubcaps also help keep up appearances by covering unglamorous steel wheels and hiding the lug nuts and the grease cap at the end of the axle.
Replacing even one can be expensive--some large, fancy wheel covers can run $100 or more. One local shop quoted a price of $254 for a new factory hubcap for a 1989 Buick LeSabre, or $1,016 for a set of four.
But wheel covers, or the lack of them, can make or break a car's appeal. And breaking up a set, through loss, theft or damage, can cut hundreds of dollars from its resale value.
Fortunately, replacements have become relatively easy to find from a variety of sources willing to assuage your pain--for a price.
Dealerships can order new ones from the factory for late-model vehicles. And you can save money, and often locate hard-to-find wheel covers for older vehicles, by shopping at used hubcap shops, on the Internet or at auto recycling yards.
Before shopping, however, it helps to know some terminology--and to know that those in the industry don't totally agree on it.
Generally, a hubcap is for older vehicles and covers only the center of the steel wheel, hiding the lug nuts and axle cap, or hub; a center cap is part of a newer vehicle's decorative alloy or styled wheel, but like an older steel wheel's hub cap, covers the lug nuts and axle cap. A wheel cover is a large decorative piece that covers the entire wheel.
But for our purposes, we'll call them all hubcaps. These days, they can be made of metal or plastic.
Usually, the most expensive option when seeking a replacement is to buy a new one from a dealership, Less expensive is to shop at a hubcap store, many of which sell both new and used. The least expensive option--but often the most time-consuming--is to shop a junkyard.
Suppose you need to replace a 16-inch hubcap on a 1995 Chrysler Sebring:
* A Chrysler dealer in the San Fernando Valley quoted a price of $67 for a new replacement from the factory.
* At Van Nuys Hub Caps & Wheels, manager Robert Lopez quoted a price of $20.50 for a used one, or $54 for a new one from the factory.
* The same hubcap, used, would be about $20 at Kilroy's Auto Dismantling in Wilmington, which keeps an up-to-date inventory of stock on hand and can tell a shopper right away whether the desired piece is available.
* And at Pick Your Part in Sun Valley, a self-service recycler, the same hubcap would cost just $9 plus tax and the yard's standard $2 admission. But first you'd have to find it--Pick Your Part yards don't maintain inventory lists. So you might visit several times before you find a 1995 Sebring with wheel covers matching yours. And you need to take your own tools and remove it yourself.
Some hubcaps are harder to track down than others. Among the most difficult to find are those for 1950s Chevrolets and old Cadillacs, says Rick Mefferd, owner of Hubcaps Only in Ontario. He estimates his inventory at more than a million pieces. Mefferd also sells online at http://www.hubcapsonly.com.
If you buy from a retail store instead of through an Internet dealer, ask the seller to install your newly acquired replacement hubcaps, Mefferd says.
And inspect them before buying, whether new or used.
If you notice that some of the clips on the back of the hubcap are missing, ask for a different one, with all of the clips intact. These are what secure the hubcap to the wheel.
After work has been done on your car, check to see that the hubcaps have been fitted evenly on the wheel, Mefferd advises. If they aren't--a gap between the wheel and the inside edge of the cap is the telltale sign--even a small bump in the road can send you hubcap shopping again.
Here's how to examine for a tight fit:
Tap lightly around the outside of the hubcap with your fist. It should sound solid, not hollow. If the cap sounds like it is moving or if it is vibrating, you can remove the cover with the flat end of the tire iron in your tool kit, and then reinstall it properly.
To do that, center the cover over the wheel and note the position of the clips. If the hubcap has a notch or hole on one side, it is for the tire inflation valve to poke through and should be fitted over the valve stem. Tap one set of clips at a time with the palm of your hand to seat it firmly in the wheel.
If you think a hubcap is loose, don't pound on it. That will just break the clips that secure it, Mefferd advises.
And don't kick the wheel covers to seat them, Lopez warns. That can also break the clips.
And a broken clip almost always leads to a lost hubcap.
Good Carma is a guide to automotive-related health and consumer issues. Kathleen Doheny can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.