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June 3, 2014

News & Features

Mobile services come to you to repair wheels

New York Times News Service

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Hayden Kelly, of Kelly Wheel Repair in California, does repairs in a trailer. (Max Whittaker / The New York Times)

Jennifer Franz scraped a wheel on her 3-year-old Honda Accord last August in an encounter with a curb. To keep her mother from finding the damage, she made an appointment with Kelly Wheel Repair, a local business that travels to its customers in the Sacramento, Calif., area.

The job of restoring the rim would be done discreetly — in the parking lot of the television station where Franz was working as an account executive. A truck pulling a trailer specially outfitted for cosmetic wheel repairs pulled into the lot at 9 a.m. the next day. When the work was completed, Franz was left with a wheel that looked "spanking new," she wrote on a Yelp review online.

Nine months after the $150 repair, she is still pleased with the work, and she plans to use the service again.

Local options
    Here are some of the shops that offer mobile service for wheel repair in the Seattle area.
    Alloy Wheel Repair: Services include refinishing, straightening and recoloring alloy wheels. awrswheelrepair.com
    Complete Wheel Repair: The shop specializes in metal reshaping due to curb damage. It also does machine facing, repainting and aluminum polishing. completewheelrepair.com
    Sameday: The West Coast chain offers alloy wheel refinishing. sameday-usa.com
    NWautos staff

In recent years, carmakers have moved from steel wheels to alloy rims made mainly of aluminum. At the same time, wheels have grown in diameter, and the tire sidewalls have shrunk proportionally.

Larger and lighter rims can improve handling and fuel economy, but replacements are costly, from about $400 for an original-equipment 17-inch Honda Accord rim to more than $1,000 each for some luxury models. And with the smaller tire sidewalls providing less protection, the wheel is more exposed to curb and pothole damage, says Jeff Smith, president and owner of Kwicksilver Systems of Washington, Va., a wheel-repair business.

But not every victim of curb or pothole damage can get the on-site service that Franz received. Although Kwicksilver operates nearly 50 franchises nationwide, many equipped with mobile wheel-repair units, some don't make house calls or on-site fixes.

"These customized trucks and trailers are pretty expensive," Smith says. "They're primarily designed to go to a car dealership and do wheel after wheel."

However, in some parts of the country, up to 10 competing wheel-repair businesses might be vying to meet customers at a location of the car owner's choice.

The materials, skills and range of services vary. Some technicians touch up a wheel while it's still attached to the vehicle; others remove it and do the repair in a mobile workshop that may have just come from serving a Mercedes-Benz dealership. Many repairs can be done without removing the tire entirely from the wheel, just deflating it and pushing the sidewall back from the edge.

"Some guys do this from lawn chairs," says Todd Ford, referring to a less professional level of wheel repair. Ford's company, Custom Upfits in West Sacramento, Calif., operates on a higher level, he says, modifying trucks and trailers for several wheel-repair businesses around the country at a cost of $35,000 to $40,000 per business.

Ford says that all of his vehicles meet strict standards for environmental and fire safety, which may vary by locality.

Then there are the one-person businesses such as Kelly Wheel Repair, which did the work on Franz's car. The owner, Hayden Kelly, bought a purpose-built trailer from Custom Upfits after more than a decade of repairing wheels while they were still bolted on the car.
"It hurt my back," says Kelly. He says he also prefers the dust-free conditions and privacy of the mobile unit, where he does cosmetic repairs but does not fix bent or cracked wheels.

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