Many of us were in the internet room when “because race car” happened—you should be humming “The Room Where It Happens”—and that original Craigslist post for a Mazda MX-3 joyfully spurred lots of fun memes over the years. It has also gone on to explain a whole lot of bad decisions in the name of speed. You know who you are, I see you out there. [Looks in the mirror: “Oh no.”]
Many modifications are inspired directly from motorsports, but few things scream “race car” more than center-locking wheels. The simple, clean wheel designs the setup allows definitely stand out, even amongst the supercar crowd. Compare center-locks to the multi-lug design found on most more pedestrian vehicles. See the difference?
But just what are center-lock wheels? How are they different from the wheels on your Elantra? Can you convert your current setup to center-locking, and more importantly, should you? We’re here to walk you through the technical aspects of what a center-lock wheel is, and whether it should make your mod short-list. Impact wrenches at the ready!
What’s the Point of Center-Lock Wheels?
Part of the idea behind center-lock wheels is that one center-mounted lug nut has less rotational mass than numerous lug nuts spinning around the center of the wheel. However, with only one nut keeping the wheel on, the setup often has to be bolstered to provide the same amount of security. Thus, any additional weight added to make it secure might be balancing out the positive effects the center-lock wheel touted in the first place.
Thus, a center-lock wheel primarily exists for quick swaps on a race track. You’ve seen pit crew teams change four tires in just a few seconds—they do that through the magic of the center lock.
While its origins aren’t in racing, it’s clear that race technology over the years has evolved the use of center-locking wheels. They are used in F1, sports car racing, and finally, as of 2022, even in NASCAR.
Some road cars use them as well, but it’s typically more for show than go. It’s easy for companies to add a motorsport tie-in to a special edition car as part of an upgrade package, even if it doesn’t provide any major advantage for the person driving a 911 on a 75-mph highway. Some people also claim center-lock wheels allow for bigger brake fitment, but that’s rare and most often not a real concern.
Where Did Center-Lock Wheels Come From?
The origin of the center-lock isn’t technically with race cars—they date back to the early 1900s when a British company called Rudge-Whitworth (not to be confused with the positively lovely human Rutledge Wood) developed a quick release for wire automobile wheels. They were called by a variety of names including “QD” which means “quickly disconnectable”, as well as “knock-off”, which referred to the manner in which you spun the single winged nut with a brute force whack to release a center-lock hub.
Naturally, this trend caught on in racing and, by 1913, they were the go-to quick-release wheel method for Grand Prix racing cars. For road-going cars, the original creator licensed the design, and Borrani wire wheels became standard on a bunch of Italian and German cars of the day. That early version gave way to more modern center-lock wheels that are fastened to the hub by one large single hex nut.
Eventually, safety regulations meant the end of the O.G. version of the center-locking wheel. In 1968 Ralph Nader-influenced laws from the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards outlawed any wheels with “winged projections” for 1968. The new, more modern hexagonal nut center-lock wheels began to see popularity by the mid-1980s on pricey supercars like the Ferrari F40 and Porsche 959.
How Do You Remove Center-Lock Wheels?
Very quickly, and with significant force. Early versions of center-lock wheels were just hit with a soft-blow hammer to tighten or loosen them, hence their colloquial name, “knock-offs.”
Newer hex-shaped versions are mounted, or removed, via an impact wrench, also known as a “wheel gun” in racing. Basically, they make cool zip-zip sounds and the nut is tightened or loosened with a specified amount of repeatable force. You can do that yourself with an impact wrench or in a less dramatic fashion by using a very long-handled torque wrench.
What Factory-Built Cars Use Center-Lock Wheels?
It’s pretty much guaranteed that you’ll find center-locking wheels as standard or optional on a number of high-end sports and supercars. This is definitely not an exhaustive list, but just the highlights.
Ferrari has used them on its fastest models, including the F40, F50, Enzo, LaFerrari, and LaFerrari Aperta. And you’ll find them on basically all top-spec Porsches, including the Carrera GT, the 918 Spyder, 911 GT2, and GT3, etc, etc, etc, insert new-fangled GT Porsche Here.
Lamborghini has used them at times, too, but mostly as optional extras on the Huracán and Aventador. Interesting trivia, the Porsche red and blue nuts are like that for a reason. The red nuts are right-hand threads while the blue nuts have left-hand threads.
And while there are countless others around the globe, one of our favorite folks in the industry, Mr. Christian Von Koenigsegg, is a big center-lock fan, using them on just about every one of his super-hyper-mega-cars.
So Should I Convert My Car to Center-Lock?
Probably not. Unless your name is “Toto” and you run a race team, it’s unlikely that you have a real need for speedy wheel and tire swaps. And as noted earlier, only real track warriors who are out every weekend (and aren’t showing up with their car already prepped on a trailer) might have some utility for a center-lock.
The average center-lock wheel uses the existing hub but can cost several times what a conventional wheel costs. That’s not even including the wrenches (impact or torque) and associated equipment that you’ll need to lug along with you (see what I did there) to an event.
However, if you are set on one-upping that jerk who usually parks next to you at cars and coffee, there are several center-lock conversion kits on the market. They basically bolt on over the conventional five-lug (or whatever your wheel spec) stud setup. Kits will run you a couple of grand depending on fitment.
Center-Lock Wheel Terms You Should Know
Get smart on the center-lock, all the kids are doing it.
4/5/6-Lug Wheels: Likely part of the wheels your car has now, it will feature a traditional four, five, or six lug pattern. It features a stud and lug nut attachment which you have experienced if you have ever changed a tire.
Center-lock Adapter: A kit that is used to convert hubs currently using a traditional lug nut fastening system to accept center-lock wheels. The adapter is behind the wheel and mounted to the car’s factory lugs.
Hex Nut: The single, usually large, retaining nut that fastens a center-lock wheel to the hub.
Hub: The key element where all your wheels attach to the car. Sometimes it’s referred to as a “hub assembly” or “wheel bearing hub” and modern hubs consist of bearings, sensors, seals, and bolts/studs.
Impact/Torque Wrench: The primary tools used for quickly removing or mounting a center-lock wheel, but they can be used for any wheel really. The impact wrench, not to be confused with an impact driver, is a powerful tool that can exert a high, but measured impact force. Meanwhile, the torque wrench uses leverage and human power to loosen or tighten things to a specific level.
Knock-Off: The old school center-lockers typically used a winged bolt in the center of the wheel that you smacked with a soft-blow hammer to loosen or tighten. They are the forefathers of the modern center-lock wheel and found on many wire-wheel classic cars.
Lug: It’s basically the fastener, typically a nut used to secure a wheel to a vehicle. Most cars have around five lug nuts.
FAQs About Center-Lock Wheels
You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!
Q: How expensive is a center-lock adapter kit?
A: It depends on your car, but most kits are in the north of $2,000 not including the center-lock wheels. The wheels themselves start at around $1,500 each and will easily jump into the five-digit range. For one wheel…
Q: Is a center-lock conversion safe?
A: Likely, but you should always do your homework and buy the adapters from a reliable source or reliable shop. The spot where your wheels attached to your vehicle is critical, to say the least, so shoddy work is a bad idea.
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