Remembering the cars — and hubcap collections — of 1950s Brooklyn
Other than sports, was there anything that occupied our minds more than cars? They were like sports teams.
There were more models than there are now. Poor American Motors and Studebaker and their lines of cars. Gone is the Oldsmobile and Pontiac and Packard along with the subsets of each. And they were something to look at — 57 Chevy, Cadillac Eldorado, Lincoln Town Car, Jaguar XKE — WOWZER! If style made a car a queen or princess, horsepower made for kingship.
Remember when, on the Jewish High Holy Days, the guys would leave services to catch the new models being rolled into the showrooms?
No long car trip with two boys in the car was completed with a game of “can you spot this?” A make, model, even color of a car was chosen and like hawks hunting mice our eyes would scan the lanes of cars until we found our target.
Some guys would collect hubcaps. Sometimes one would just be lying there by the curb like it was waiting for a ride. Everyone knew where the worst potholes were. The worse the hole the more likely the street was to produce a hubcap.
You could buy them at junk yards; some stores sold them new. But then there was the “Brooklyn way” of collecting hubcaps: You stole them. It only took a knife or flat-blade screwdriver and about 3 seconds.
Some were ordinary; some were iconic like the Pontiac cap, which was shiny as a mirror, or the one that had the American Indian logo on it; and, some were spectacular, like the ones with wire spokes, spokes in many patterns, or the ones with free-floating pieces to them so when the car was going forward the hubcaps looked like they were turning in the opposite direction. You stole one of those and someone was gonna come after you.
For those whose interest doesn’t extend below the steering wheel, a hubcap is a decorative disk on the car’s wheel that covers at least a central portion of it, called the hub. Hence the name. An automobile hubcap is used to cover the wheel hub and the wheel fasteners (lug nuts to us) to reduce the accumulation of dirt and moisture. It also has the function of decorating the car.
There was also the wheel cover. So wait a minute … are they called hubcaps or wheel covers? Is there a difference between the two? And while we’re at it, why did they start using hubcaps to begin with? These and similar questions have baffled the great minds of the world for many years. To get to the bottom of these questions, it’s best to examine the long, tortuous and yes, actually interesting history of the automobile hubcap.
Car enthusiasts have had a running love affair with hubcaps for decades. Some say that the art deco styling of the famous Chrysler Building in New York is a tribute to the hubcap. (At the very top of the building there is a series of giant overlapping wheel covers. And at the 61st floor below the ornamental eagles, there are bands of ornamental automobiles that have shiny hubcaps.)
But how did hubcaps come about in the first place? Well, originally there was a functional necessity for the cap. At first, autos were made with wooden spokes like a buggy or wagon wheel. The wooden spokes connected the outer steel rim to the center hub which contained the wheel bearing. The wheel bearing was packed with grease. Something was needed to cover the center hub that could keep the dust out and the grease in.
What was needed was a “hub” “cap.” Some people today actually spell it “hub cap” rather than the technically correct spelling of “hubcap.” So this hub cap (which could have also been called a dust cover) came into existence strictly for functional reasons. It was a small center cap designed to go over the center hub leaving the wooden spokes exposed.
Unfortunately, the wooden spoke wheels were not long for this world. Although they were varnished and sometimes even decorated with pin-striping when new, they would soon begin to age and crack and look pretty lousy. You could always hear from a distance a car with aging wooden spoke wheels creaking down the road. (This info thanks to, believe it or not, “Hubcap Mike,” the go-to guy for information like this).
The bottom line is that some of you reading this had your bedroom walls decorated with hupcaps. Some of you had one or two that were centerpieces to whatever else you had hung — movie posters, pictures of ballplayers from Sport Magazine, maybe even a favorite bat, yours or one nabbed at the ballpark.
There were those of you with more chutzpah and nimbler fingers than I who had enough caps on your wall that you could have gone into business. Walking into your bedroom was like walking into the hall of mirrors.
The fascination with hubcaps seems to have faded but for pockets here and there.
Columnist and author Bill Gralnick was born and raised in Brooklyn. His latest book, titled “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales from Brooklyn,” offers more memories. His writings can be found at https://www.williamgralnickauthor.com/.
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