Dear Tom and Ray:
I am having a philosophical debate with my father that I hope you can offer some closure on. About two years ago, my 2007 Toyota Matrix lost a hubcap during a 220-mile drive. Immediately, my father told me to go to the dealership to get the hubcap replaced. The next day, I went to the dealership, paid 70-odd bucks and off I went. Within a week, another hubcap fell off. And again, my father was quick to say it needed to be replaced. I made the argument that it was too expensive, and that I didn't mind the look of a missing hubcap. I held my ground for a while, but he conspired against me and got a new one for me during an oil change. My father's argument is that it makes the car look ugly, cheap, poorly cared for and run down (which, consequently, sounds like one of Tom's cars!). I think it's too expensive, and view hubcaps as lacking a functional purpose that would warrant immediate replacement. We could then get into further discussion about cheapskate-ism, but for now I'd just like to know if there is a real need to replace a hubcap quickly, and is there a functional (not aesthetic) purpose of a hubcap?
Tom: Not really, Chris. Hubcaps have only two minor "functional" uses, aside from keeping Harry the Hubcap King in business.
Ray: If, for example, someone rotated your tires and forgot to tighten the wheel nuts, the wheel nuts might then work their way off. That would result in the wheel falling off the car, and you needing much more than a new hubcap.
Tom: Right. But if you had a hubcap on that particular wheel and it was metal rather than plastic, as the wheel nuts fell off, they would fall into the hubcap, and you'd probably hear them clanging around in there. You might then wonder what that racket was, investigate and find out that your wheel was about to fall off before it fell off.
Ray: Granted, that's an unlikely scenario, but we're trying to give your old man something to hang on to here.
Tom: The other function hubcaps can serve is to protect the wheel nuts and wheel bolts from getting rusty and corroded, which can make the nuts hard to remove someday when you have a flat tire and semis are speeding by your rear end at 80 mph.
Ray: But again, if you have your tires rotated or your brakes inspected every 10,000 or 15,000 miles, your mechanic will be loosening and removing those wheel nuts anyway, and they'll never have a chance to rust shut on you.
Tom: So, the real reason for replacing missing hubcaps is exactly the reason your father states: So your car doesn't start down the road to heapdom.
Ray: As your father clearly understands, the appearance of neglect leads to real neglect. Once you look at your car and say, "Aw, my car's becoming a heap," you then allow it to become a heap. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Tom: It's true. Once you decide your car has begun its downward ride toward the crusher, you stop caring about it. You stop changing the oil so often. You stop worrying about noises that crop up. You stop washing it. And before you know it, you have mushrooms growing in the back seat, like I do!
Ray: So it's a slippery slope, Chris. Be careful. This is exactly how the Roman Empire fell. One hubcap fell off Titus' chariot around 150 AD, and it was all downhill from there.
(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk Web site.)