"Got my '64 riding on Dayton spokes/And when I open my door/Bitch, get in my car."
-- 50 Cent, "Get in My Car"
The Dayton Wire Wheels plant, a bustling throwback to Ohio's industrial past, is nestled on a barren street on the outskirts of Dayton. It's a place where giant robotic arms grind and burnish steel, where women -- and a few men with hands small enough for the work -- sit for hours, weaving the company's signature steel spokes into frames. It's long, slow work for the 50 or so employees here, but it has to be: Dayton has been a premier wheel manufacturer for more than 90 years. It put the wheels on the Spirit of St. Louis. Model Ts? They were sitting on Daytons too.
But in the '80s, Dayton executives returned from an auto-parts convention with news of a potential niche market that would forever change the company's reputation -- and cash flow. The execs had been approached by editors of Lowrider Magazine, who were convinced that their readers -- the customization-happy car-freaks who make up California's vato subculture -- would love the company's wheels.
It would be a severe market shift for Dayton, whose typical client was a wealthy European looking to outfit his Aston Martin with prestigious, exclusive wheels. But with Ohio's manufacturing industry in steep decline, execs couldn't stomach turning willing customers away. So Lowrider splashed Daytons on its pages, and the gearhead readers were enthralled by the wheel's design: up to a hundred gleaming, tightly woven spokes, capped by a "knock-off" -- a large, often boomerang-shaped locking mechanism, hypnotic when it spins. They also appreciated the craftsmanship: With strong engineering, the rims require no "truing" -- that's rim-speak for maintenance -- and are guaranteed for years.
"They recognize quality," Jeff Rick, a Lowrider editor, says. "The same thing happened with hydraulic brake systems used in old aircraft, which guys like to use to make their cars hop. All these companies aren't really doing any business anymore, and then they start getting these orders from guys in California."
Dayton had always accommodated custom orders. But they usually came from customers seeking a more comfortable ride, guys in London or Bordeaux who needed wheels made of softer aluminum instead of steel. Suddenly, they were receiving strange requests from East L.A.: Tiny 13-inch wheels. Audacious 20-inch wheels. Gold-plated sets, sets painted in Blood red or Crip blue, and sets specially designed for driving with one corner lifted off the road. Within a couple of years, the khakis-and-bandanna crowd was rivaling the linen-and-cashmere set for Dayton's business.
"We really didn't have to do anything," says Dayton VP Joe Guilfoyle. "We started getting the orders, and the next thing we know, everybody was killing each other for them."
By the early 1990s, the West Coast hip-hop scene had fully adopted lowrider culture. When "Nuthin' but a G Thang" hit MTV in 1993, with a video showing Dr. Dre and Snoop cruising in vintage Chevy Impalas outfitted with Dayton rims, Daytons became the must-have accessory for urban America.
The rims -- known as "D's" -- quickly became the Air Jordans of the wheel world: so coveted that owning a set could get you killed. In a 1994 Los Angeles Times article, detectives estimated that, in South Los Angeles alone, 10 people were killed every year for rims, almost always Daytons -- or "death wheels," as the cops called them. In 2004, two Cleveland men shot and beat a man to death with a hammer, stripped the guy's car of its Daytons, and torched it.
Daytons also became the gold-standard wheel for drug dealers. "Dayton wheels were always top of the line," says Gary Adamic, a wheel specialist at Safeway Tire, on Superior Avenue. Adamic's been selling wheels for 35 years, but it wasn't until the inner-city drug boom of the late '80s that he saw heavy interest in Daytons. Before that, "Nobody could afford them."
"That's all they got in the hood" to display new wealth, explains Alabama rapper Rich Boy, who raps about the rims in his summertime hit, "Throw Some D's." "It's a point of pride to have some D's. You got your hustle -- it doesn't have to be selling crack -- and when you throw some rims on it, that means you living good." He puts it less delicately in his song: "Rich Boy selling crack/Just bought a Cadillac/Throw some D's on it!"
Touring Dayton's pristine plant, Joe Guilfoyle doesn't seem to have much in common with crack dealers or the Dirty South. But he and his urban clientele do have one thing in common: They like to get paid any way they can. "Good for business," Guilfoyle says plainly. "Fortunately, it's not a requirement for us to know where our customers are getting their money -- if they're drug dealers or whatever -- but only to know how they're spending it."
Hip-hop culture is notoriously fickle -- think Hammer pants -- and the urban wheel market is especially so. A few years back, the Dayton craze, for young black men anyway, gave way to "spinners" -- wheels that appear to keep spinning after the car has stopped. For the moment, spinners have been replaced by blacked-out or solid chrome wheels. "They kinda played out," Rich Boy admits of Daytons. "Not on the West Coast, though. They always be riding them on the West Coast; that'll never die."
Even if it did, Dayton's factory wouldn't soon join the other hollowed-out plants that dot the city. The company has managed to maintain its original high-end customers, Guilfoyle says. And it's hoping to capitalize on the inner city's new interest in Harley-Davidsons. Besides, they still have their loyal vatos in East L.A.
"Dayton is the wire wheel of status," says Lowrider's Jeff Rick. "And it can't be a lowrider without a wire wheel. I don't see that going anywhere."
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