The first thing you spot upon entering HRE Performance Wheels’ cavernous, 60,000-square-foot plant in the San Diego suburb of Vista, is a giant stack of dull aluminum discs. Picture Godzilla-size hockey pucks, only pewter in color and roughly the diameter of a drummer’s tom-tom skin.
“That’s what we start with,” HRE president Alan Peltier says. “Each one weighs 100 pounds. Not much to look at. But when our machines are done, these discs will be trimmed down to 22 pounds and be sculpted into wheels.”
Technically speaking, he’s correct. Emotionally speaking, there’s more going on here.
What Peltier and his staff of 40 engineers, designers and shop workers really create is automotive jewelry prized by car fanatics for personalizing vehicles that otherwise would be indistinguishable from the next one off the assembly line.
Categorize these pricey tire caddies -- four HREs can run from $5,000 to ten times as much for one-off sets -- however you’d like: custom, bespoke, tailor-made. By any name, wheels represent a growing part of the nation’s $27 billion automotive aftermarket: retail sales have increased from $1.2 billion in 1991 to more than $4.5 billion a year, according to SEMA, the Specialty Equipment Market Association.
The Web brims with aftermarket wheel options, whether through rim-and-rubber bundlers such as Tire Rack or individual companies like Enkei, BBS, O.Z., Kinesis, Fikse and Forgeline. HRE Wheels deals in the upper end of this market, meeting the needs of car guys and gals for whom perfectly attractive factory wheels on their Porsches and BMWs -- and to some degree Ferraris and Lamborghinis) are simply not dashing enough.
“Wheels are special things to car enthusiasts, and ours are not cheap,” says Peltier. “But what we find is that when people come and see what goes into making each wheel, they tend to say, ‘Oh, now I get it.’”
So why aren’t many stock wheels up to enthusiast standards? Peltier laughs: “One of our designers is a graduate of (Pasadena’s) Art Center (College of Design), and he says that for many car designers wheels are like door handles. They have to be there, but they can’t upstage the lines of the car. And frankly, that’s great for us.”
HRE was the creation of Gene Howell, who back in the ‘70s gave his Howell Racing Enterprises products a vaguely European feel by using a logo that features a shield emblazoned with a white-on-red Swiss cross. (Today, because so many customers use manufacturers’ logo caps, HRE etches its name into each wheel.)
After initially importing rims from Japan, Howell went on to manufacturer his own cast and then forged products for the street. Howell sold the company a decade back, and, for a range of reasons, Peltier says the current owners prefer to minimize the founder’s connection and focus instead on the future.
Peltier, a mechanical engineer who joined the company in 1999 after working on aircraft for Northrop Grumman, says that about half of the company’s 50 wheel models are split between three-piece and single. The average customer spends between $5,000 and $10,000 for a set that can take three weeks from initial order to delivery in their elaborately padded boxes.
“It used to be mainly weekend racers coming to us, but these days it’s also people with their [BMW] 7 Series or (Porsche) Panameras or SUVs,” he says. “It’s young, old, for racing, for showing off, for the husband, for the wife. You can’t generalize anymore.”
Peltier comes off younger than 43, surrounded as he is in his office by model cars. He seems to love the product as much as his customers do, and laments the recent loss of a set of 10-spoke HRE 794RSs that paid a price when his 2012 BMW 550i was totaled. But a new car means new wheels, and that has him beaming.
“I love nothing more than talking to a customer who really wants their car’s look to take a quantum leap through wheels,” he says, noting that a few clients in fact demand one-off, creations for their exotics certified by TUV, Germany’s stringent Technischer Uberwachungsverein product safety organization. From pencil sketch beginnings to final delivery: $50,000.
“Is that crazy?” says Peltier. “Not if you knew the amount of technical research going into the effort.”
On his desk is a computer monitor showing a three-dimensional image of a wheel exploding with different colors. He points at a lone flash of red near the lip of the rim, a stress point that the computer will help eliminate way before the wheels are ever build. The program is dubbed FEA, for finite element analysis, and in one of his first orders of business running HRE, Peltier insisted the company buy the software for $25,000. But that’s nothing compared to the cost of the machines actually making the wheels out on HRE’s organized factory floor.
Peltier leads the way, jabbing an index finger at three giant cubes that look like oversized photo booths. A technician mans each, peering through a small window at the wheel inside, which is being delicately shaped while undergoing a constant soapy bath. “Each one of these lathes is about $400,000,” Peltier says.
Strolling through the factory is a car-geek’s waking dream. Wheels of various sizes await final polishing or powder coating. Black wheels are particularly en vogue, he says, adding that customer interest in carbon fiber wheels will likely give rise to a new line made with that exotic material.
Each HRE wheel set already has a home; there’s no big stash of inventory on giant shelves. Over here sits a mesh-style wheel whose build sheet says it’s destined for a 1974 911S. Nearby, a mean-looking multi-spoked number will makes its way onto a new M5. And in an unique twist, there’s a wheel from HRE’s Vintage series that mimics what came stock on Ferrari’s now-iconic F40 in the late ‘80s. Only these wheels will be worn by a new Ferrari 458.
“Whatever people want, we can do” says Peltier.
HRE has been under pressure from some customers waiting to take delivery of Porsche’s revamped 911, the 991, which comes with 20-inch wheels.
“We’re being asked for 21s, but we take design and aesthetics seriously,” says Peltier, who recalls recently parking a 997 next to a 991 for the purpose of assessing what type of wheel would work well on Zuffenhausen’s next-gen coupe.
“At first we thought, of course, it’s logical, make something just a bit bigger. But the more we circled the car, taking in its new dimensions, it really wasn’t clear that 21s would look good on a 991,” he says. “It may take me a while to get my head around it. Ideally, every wheel we make for a particular model should still look right on that car 20 years from now.”