Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Restoring Pontiac’s Classic Spinner Wheel Covers

The article featured on this page is from the January 2011 issue of Auto Enthusiast Magazine.

A Spin of the Cap

Restoring Pontiac’s classic spinner wheel covers

Story Jim Black

In 1964, Pontiac offered a variety of wheels, hubcaps, and full wheel covers for its popular Bonneville, Star Chief, Catalina, and Grand Prix full-size car lineup.

From standard custom discs, to deluxe discs, to wire wheel covers and the integral aluminum wheel hub and drum assembly (commonly referred to as eight-lugs), choices were made difficult for the new car buyer.

Landing squarely in the middle of these choices was Pontiac’s Custom Sports Cover option, a full-faced wheel cover with a three-eared knock-off hub, which mimicked the road-racing cars of the period. The wheel cover design actually had its roots in the Corvette’s cast-aluminum knock-off wheels offered the previous year.

Our Bonneville sport coupe came equipped with optional Deluxe discs which looked great, but when we saw a clean set of the optional spinner-style wheel covers available online, we purchased them in a heartbeat. These were a great find, but they had several imperfections, including many surface scratches, faded and chipped paint, and all four of the bolt-on knock-off spinners were in need of cleanup and rechroming. With lots of TLC, though, we can have these wheel covers looking like new, which can really showcase our all-original 1964 Sunfire Red Bonneville.

The wheel covers are made of heavy-gauge stainless steel and are trimmed and painted satin black, resembling a jet turbine. The three-eared knock-offs are made of pot metal and were chrome plated and attached to each wheel cover with three screws and a backing plate.

We started with disassembly and cleaning, and then moved on to sanding. At first, we were aggressive, using 220-grit paper and a firm hand. Then we progressed through the grits (400, 600, 800) to finish with 1,000. Polishing required a special kit from Eastwood.

The kit is designed to be used with a common electric hand drill or bench grinder and included several different types of shaped felt bobs, felt buffs and different grades of polishing compounds. The unique selection of shapes made it easier to get into the tight spots for a more professional job. Once all the scratches were removed and polishing was completed, we continued our restoration by masking and painting the wheel covers. When the knock-offs came back from rechroming, we finished the project by hand-painting the recessed lettering.

1 We found this rare set of spinner-style hubcaps for our Bonneville on eBay. Although the wheel covers are in good condition overall, they still suffer from the usual wear and tear and will need some restoration.

2 We started by separating the wheel covers from the spinner caps and washed everything with soap and water to remove any sand and dirt particles which could harm surfaces during the restoration process. This was also a good time to send out our spinner caps for replating.

3 Having a good stable working surface is paramount when sanding and polishing stainless steel. We utilized our Bonneville’s spare tire atop a work table for this purpose and simply snapped each of the wheel covers into position on the wheel.

4 The bad scratches are evident and will require extensive sanding prior to polishing. In general, any scratches you can catch with a fingernail will require sanding first.

5 Since most of the scratches are pretty deep, we decided to sand aggressively, starting with 220-grit paper on a soft sanding block. Sanding stainless steel requires a firm hand. We continued working these areas using 400-, 600-, 800-, and finished with 1000-grit papers.

6 We’ll be using stainless steel polishing kit that we picked up. The kit contains several shaped felt bobs and buffs, three different polishing compounds and instructions. The kit is designed to work with a common electric drill or bench grinder.

7 We selected one of the shaped felt bobs and attached it to our drill, then spun it across the black emery compound (coarse grit) at a low power setting. During the polishing and buffing process, lots of particles become airborne, so wear eye protection and a dust mask.

8 Using the felt bob with compound applied, we worked the areas where the scratches had been removed in an effort to remove the previous sanding marks. We reapplied compound as needed and eventually the sanding marks disappeared. Remember to keep the drill at a low power setting (under 3,000 rpm) and keep it moving to prevent hot spots.

9 Once all the previous areas had been polished with the coarser compound, we moved to the Brown Tripoli compound using a different shaped felt bob. We continued by polishing all the surfaces we could get to in an effort to get a uniform finish.

10 To achieve a mirror-like finish, we applied the final green stainless compound to one of our felt buffs and went to work. If we didn’t mention it before, you’ll notice a black residue coming off the material as you polish.

11 We applied several applications of the green compound and finally had the bright finish we desired.

12 With the polishing completed, we wiped down each of the wheel covers with glass cleaner to remove any residue and then started the tedious job of masking in preparation of paint.

13 Prior to painting, we lightly scuffed the painted areas and wiped everything down with a tack cloth and Eastwood’s pre-paint prep to promote paint adhesion.

14 We applied a couple of light coats of semi-gloss black to our wheel covers and let them dry overnight prior to removing any masking.

15 A couple of weeks later, we picked up our rechromed spinner caps, and they looked great. Each cap required lots of cleanup and smoothing prior to the plating process.

16 The shop that did our chrome plating suggested we fabricate a plate to mount the spinners into a lathe so they could replicate the brushed-metal finish in the centers. It took a few extra days, but the results were impressive.

17 A final touch to our spinner caps was reapplying the paint to the “Pontiac Motor Division” recessed lettering. We used acrylic black, properly thinned, so it would easily flow into the recessed letters applied with an artist’s brush.

18 After the paint had dried, we cleaned up the letter edges with acrylic thinner applied with a cotton swab.

19 When we were finished, we brought out the shine with some conventional glass cleaner. Now all we have to do is bolt them back on.

20 The restoration of our spinner wheel covers is complete. The whole process – sanding, polishing, painting, and detailing – took about 12 hours for the set of four wheel covers, but it was well worth the effort.

Materials List:

• Stainless steel polishing kit

• Electric hand drill

• Paint respirator

• Safety glasses

• Sanding pads

• 220-grit wet-or-dry sandpaper

• 400-grit wet-or-dry sandpaper

• 600-grit wet-or-dry sandpaper

• 800-grit wet-or-dry sandpaper

• 1,000-grit wet-or-dry sandpaper

• Masking tape – ¼-inch

• Masking tape – ¾-inch

• Scuffing pad

• Tack cloth

• Eastwood pre-paint prep

• Dsemi-gloss black spray paint

• Black acrylic paint

• Acrylic thinner

• Paintbrush – small artist’s

• Cotton swabs

Click here to read the free digital edition of Auto Enthusiast now.


  1. A few vehicle manufacturers make wheel covers or hubcaps that bolt on to the steel wheels under the lug nuts. Unlike spring steel / wire retention hubcaps and wheel covers, lug nuts must be removed in order to install bolt on styles.

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