The modern automobile has gone through more than one hundred years of innovation, but one thing's remained constant: it's rolled on rubber tires mounted on solid rims. Along the way a few geniuses broke from the crowd, though, and re-invented the wheel.
In-wheel hub-mounted motors
"Resilient" spring wheels
"No-slip" tread tires
Whel-mounted radial engines
Rotoped "walking wheel"
The "Roto-Static" hubcap
"Tri-star" trinary wheels
Caterpillar track tires
In-wheel suspension (IWS)
Split twin-tube tires
Colourful rubber tires
Organic 3D-printed biodegradable tweels
Wooden wagon wheels
- "No-slip" tread...
- Rotoped "walking...
- The "Roto-Static"...
- Illuminated tires
- Lattice wheels
- Clear wheels
- Caterpillar track...
- Hubless wheels
- Split twin-tube...
- Colourful rubber...
- LED rims
- The "tweel"
- Wooden wagon wheels
1900 Porsche-Lohner Mixte Hybrid
Forget chains, axles or whatever other sort of drivetrain early automobile pioneers were using at the time: right out of the gate, an 18-year-old Ferdinand Porsche mixed it up with his Mixte Hybrid car with electric motors mounted right in the wheel hub. Working with Vienna-based Jacob Lohner, Porsche came up with several two- and four-wheel-drive examples of his petrol-and-battery-powered horseless carriage; the technology apparently even influenced NASA’s lunar rover designs more than sixty years later.
1912 Isaac Jay design pictured
At the turn of the century there were literally dozens of patents taken out on wheels with springs (for suspension) instead of spokes. The variety in these designs was almost endless – check out this one, and this one, and this one, and, oh yeah, this one – but not a one ever caught on for, we’re assuming, either practical or financial reasons. These sorts of wheels themselves are especially hard to come by nowadays, but even information on them is scarce. A “Resilient” wheel design by an Isaac Jay is pictured. (via Hemmings)
1908 Firestone tires pictured
Early car tires were essentially bald rubber tubes, largely because the idea of improving traction using treads was still being tinkered with. Firestone was one of the first companies to work an angular tread into their tires, in 1908, to reduce skidding. Not knowing exactly what a tread should look like, they just repeated the phrase “non-skid” on the tire around its circumference. In 1917, the Pennsylvania Rubber Company took a slightly different tact and ran “vacuum cups” all along the tire. (photo by Jil McIntosh)
1921 Megola Touring Motorcycle
Fritz Cockerell’s Megola motorcycle concept, born 1920, features a 640-cc radial engine fitted right to the front wheel hub, for maximum energy efficiency. Unfortunately, the placement of the engine there made it impossible to fit a clutch or transmission—stopping required actually turning the engine off. (via Silodrome)
1964 Rotoped by Julius Mackerle
After working on engines for Škoda and Tatra, Czech inventor Julius Mackerle toyed with his own experimental car with a “walking wheel” design meant to cover rough terrain. The “Rotoped” wheels used “gravity rather than friction for traction” and were self-propelled by compressed air. Other bonuses? The Rotoped could crawl sideways or spin on its own axis. Take that, Jeep Hurricane. (image from Popular Science, January 1970)
1953 Buick Wildcat I concept
“Spinners” and/or wheel centers that stay level while the car (and tires) are in motion are pretty cool. But even cooler? The Roto-Static caps on the ’53 Buick Wildcat I concept that stayed stationary and incorporated a vent in the front of them to funnel air to the brakes tucked behind the rims. (Get it now? They’re literally cooler.) (via Hemmings)
1961 Goodyear tires
Goodyear started experimenting with these light-up tires back in 1961, making the tire itself out of a single piece of (sometimes coloured) synthetic rubber and fitting the inside of the rim with light bulbs. It sure made for an eerie glowing effect, as you’ll see in old stock photos from LIFE magazine. Speaking of, LIFE put the tires on its list of 30 dumb inventions. (image via Retronaut)
1971 Boeing-GM lunar rover
Polish engineer Mieczyslaw Gregory Bekker and Hungarian engineer Ferenc Pavlics were working for General Motors’ research department in Santa Barbara, California, in the 1960s when approached by their employer with a literally out-of-this-world assignment: design an air-less tire for the lunar rover vehicle to be sent to the moon. The pair developed the mesh-lattice woven-steel wheels, though Goodyear was subcontracted to actually build the things. (NASA called them “resilient wheels,” if that sounds familiar.) That’s Bekker sitting in the middle of the rover in the photo. (image from the collection of Jean Rémus)
1977 Landmaster by Dean Jeffries
When the producers of 1977’s Damnation Alley needed a star all-terrain vehicle for their post-apocalyptic nuclear holocaust film, they turned to legendary California customizer Dean Jeffries. Jeffries threw together the massive twelve-wheeled Landmaster for them, at a cost of $350,000 (or about $1.5 million today). Even though only eight of the Landmaster’s 12 wheels touch the road at any time, all of them were powered, making it an extremely off-road capable machine unaffected by flat tires.
2006 MHT clear wheel
These aren’t really so much a reinvention of the wheel as they are a particularly interesting example of it. MHT debuted their clear wheels in 2006 and hoped to shortly after offer a line ranging from 18 to 32 inches (and from $7,000 to $30,000). The trend never really took off, though, and now you won’t even find a mention of clear wheels on their website. (image via Autoblog)
2010 Track’n‘Go by AD Boivin
Caterpillar tracks have been around for the longest time, and their use in place of tires on vehicles that are more typically wheeled also stretches back a while. It’s only been in the past ten or 15 years, though, that they’ve really taken off in the mainstream 4×4 aftermarket. We’re highlighting the Track’n‘Go system by Quebéc-based AD Boivin because it represents an even further evolution of the tracks-for-wheels concept: ski-tracks-for-wheels. A 4×4 truck with all of the capability of a snowmobile? Awesome.
2009 Sbarro Orbital Hybrid
You tend to see hubless wheels – literally, wheels without a center hub – more on motorcycles than four-wheeled cars, which makes the almost-a-trike Orbital Hybrid from Sbarro a unicorn. Franco Sbarro had apparently been working on (or fighting over the patent for) hubless wheels for 20 years when this vehicle made its 2009 debut at Geneva. A motor hooked up to the rim of the wheel is what drives the thing; the front hubless wheels are fixed to a front spoiler. (image via drive-line.com)
2007 Multimatic ’32 Ford
In 2007, Toronto, Canada-based Multimatic revived the century-old concept of a “sliding pillar suspension” and stuffed it all inside a 20-inch rim to create one of the first examples of in-wheel suspension. For maximum effect, they affixed those dubs to a ’32 Ford hot rod (which sure pissed off some hot rod purists). They’re hoping that eventually this sort of suspension will allow for things like low, flat rear loading floors in mainstream automakers’ vans.
2014 Goodyear SUV concept tires
Goodyear unveiled this new tire concept early 2014, announcing it might just be the secret to bettering the fuel efficiency of large SUVs and similar vehicles. The one-piece tire acts as two interconnected tires for reduced rolling resistance—sort of like a miniature dually rim, we guess.
2010 Kumho Coloured Smoke tires
This is another “re-invention” that’s more just a nifty take on regular rubber. About five years ago, tire company Kumho started making a big deal out of a new product that’d allow your hot rod to perform red-, green- and blue-smoke burnouts. Ink impregnated into the rubber did the trick, and the colourful tire trend has yet to die off completely. (image via FFcars.com)
2014 DUB LED wheels
Around 2010 or so, some aftermarket wheel manufacturers started experimenting with modern LED technology and its possible applications. DUB has just about perfected the tech now, with an LED wheel capable of displaying a little animated light show on its face. (Seriously, you’ve got to see them in action.) The LEDs are self-powered by the wheels’ motion and be changed on the go. Whether they turn out to be a fad – or the next frontier of advertising, perhaps? – remains to be seen.
Bridgestone airless tire
The above image of a Michelin “tweel” – tire-wheel – has been around for at least a decade, but we’re still not rolling on these non-pneumatic tires. What gives? Bridgestone has stolen the hype more recently, with a similar airless tire concept they showed off through 2013. That tire still has several limitations, like a 65 km/h (40 mph) top speed, but they’re now fitting it to golf carts at least, so maybe cars are next. Kind of reminds me of that “resilient” wheel concept from the beginning of the gallery, eh?
2016 Liddiard wheels
This one comes from London, Ontario’s William Liddiard, who thought up the idea of a tire that could roll sideways, in on itself, while watching someone having difficulty backing up a trailer. Liddiard wheels are just in prototype stages now, but could be used by all sorts of vehicles to aid parking or for other purposes.
2017 Michelin Vision tire concept
Combination wheel-tires – or “tweels” – are old news at this point. But the new Michelin Vision concept – an organic, bio-degradable tweel with a tread that can be “recharged “ via 3D-printing – now that’s the future!
Hummer by Matthew Harrison
And so tire technology has now come full circle—wooden wagon wheels are back.
No, we’re just kidding. This is actually an art installation in London from 2008, some sort of representation of “being and afterlife” or another. Though it’s displayed statically, the press release does mention it’s “built for action,” so we’re presuming it can actually drive. Probably not a good idea to take it off-roading, though.