Wheel Finishes: Chrome

Chrome is a supermodel: Beautiful, but high-maintenance.

Front End of Classic Black Car
Lewis Wright / Getty Images

Quite a few auto makers offer chrome plated rims as stock choices on their cars, and most of the 20-inch or larger aftermarket wheels out there are chrome plated. Chrome is a beautiful finish, but it also a very delicate finish, and one that is incredibly expensive to repair.

To chromeplate a wheel, it is usually polished and acid-etched. It is then plated with layers of nickel, then bronze and finally chromium. The layers adhere to each other to increase the strength of the finish. The wheel is then done - there is no protective clear coat applied to chrome. Because chrome wheels do not have a clearcoat, they should be cleaned carefully with soap and water, and a polished with an impregnated-batting type of metal polish such as Nevr-Dull or Cape Cod Polishing Cloths.

Something about the electroplating process really seems to impart a brittleness to the alloy of the wheel, and this makes most chrome wheels I have seen more likely to crack under impact. This comes even more into play with those gigantic 22” or 24” aftermarket wheels. The larger rim circle is less resistant to impact anyway, and is less protected by extremely low-profile tires.

However, the brittleness of the metal does not compare to the brittleness of the finish. Even under an impact that only bends the wheel, chromeplating acts like the candy coating over an M&M. Being unable to move at all with the metal, it cracks everywhere the underlying metal has moved. If the wheel can be straightened, the process of bending the metal back will only open the cracks wider. Once the finish is cracked it will begin to flake off and then continue to flake off as more air and water get in under the edges. Once the finish is cracked and flaking the only way to repair it is to entirely rechrome the wheel.

Liquid chromium is incredibly toxic to both people and the environment, and may yet be banned entirely in Europe and the U.S. The EPA has set a high bar for new chromeplating companies to earn licenses, keeping the industry very limited. Rechroming wheels is consequently expensive and time-consuming, and in general the quality of the work is frankly declining. Additionally, most wheels that are chromeplated have had the face of the wheel acid-etched by the process, such that painting or other refinishing will not stick very well.

Informed drivers with chrome wheels keep an extra set of steel or alloy wheels with snow tires mounted, because chrome wheels should really never be on your car during road salt season. Road salt is chrome's worst enemy. When chrome is exposed to wet salt, the salt crystals which form on the surface leech chromium right out of the finish. This causes the chrome to eventually flake off, allowing corrosion to pit the metal surface of the wheel. Salt corrosion will destroy a chrome finish within just a few years. If your rims are flaking, be very careful when handling them, as the edges are razor-sharp.

Salt water will also slide via osmosis between the rim and the tire where even regular washing can't reach, causing a condition in which the tires leak because the chrome is in pieces, and the surface of the wheel is pitted. This can be corrected for a while by removing the flaking chrome and underlying corrosion and using a kind of unvulcanized rubber goo called bead seal to protect the wheel and tire against water entry. Eventually, however, the sealing material will wear off and corrosion will begin all over again. Some enthusiasts I know have their pristine "chromies" bead-sealed before they go on the car every summer as a preemptive water barrier. I tend to think that's a pretty good idea.

This all combines to make for some formidable obstacles to owning chrome wheels. My recommendation is always to choose chrome wheels only if you are willing to take on the risks and sacrifices involved. Major sports figures can afford to replace the 24” beauties on their Hummer H2's every year or so. Enthusiasts will generally do what it takes to care for their chromies. But many daily drivers can't afford the hidden costs of choosing stock chrome wheels without knowing the facts. I have spent quite a bit of time helping a parade of PT Cruiser owners who come to my shop just a few years after choosing that jazzy 16” chrome 5-spoke option at the dealership, only to find that New England and road salt had simply killed their rims. No one had ever told them to take them off in the winter. So don't get seduced by the beauty and only find out about the nasty personality later.