Chromed-plated factory, re-pop, and custom wheels are almost as common on C5s as fleas on a junkyard dog. For a while, a coating of the glistening stuff was about the only way to go, on a budget, to perk the tire and wheel package on '97-99 Vettes. The handsome five-spoke wheels that were introduced on the '00 models added a new alternative to the equation, as did the factory offering the new wheel with a highly polished finish. Nearly half of all model-year '00 buyers (15,204 out of 33,682) opted to pay an extra $895 for the added flash factor of RPO QF5. The only downside of the polished wheels is that they need regular maintenance to keep the polished finish looking decent, and nothing looks much worse than a set of polished wheels with a hazy or clouded finish.
The aftermarket wasted no time jumping onto the bandwagon, with nearly every Corvette specialty shop and parts and accessories outlet offering chrome-plated OEM and/or reproduction (factory-style) wheels, including the Z06-style, beginning in 2001. Most of theses same shops also offer re-pops of the several various wheel designs and sizes offered for C4s. Chrome-plated aluminum alloy wheels do require some work to keep them looking their best, but a quality-plated finish will both look better longer and require less upkeep than will a comparable wheel with a polished finish.
Getting that bright and gleaming finish requires a lot more than a simple dip in a vat of molten chromium. A high-quality job entails multiple stages of finish stripping on all but raw, new wheels. This is followed by very thorough polishing, chemical baths, passes through nickel- and then copper-plating operations, and another session in the hand polishing session-all before that glistening silvery coat of chrome gets applied.
Recently, Bill Giannattasio, proprietor of BJ's Chrome & Custom, invited me to take a tour of the wheel-plating shop run by his partner-in-chrome, Enrique. A lot has changed since I was last in a chrome-plating shop. I was in junior high, and it was a place owned by the father of a good friend at the time. We used to race go-karts through the shop and around the parking lot on Saturdays. That was a few decades ago and puttin' the shiny stuff on metal didn't interest me much then. It does now, so I jumped at the opportunity. This plating shop does work for a number of wheel stores and manufacturers-so the wheels in some of the accompanying photos will not be Corvette. However, the shop is geared up specifically for custom-plating wheels; no valve covers, no air filter housings, and no motorcycle parts-just wheels.
The tour was interesting and informative and great for someone who is always fascinated by how things work and how things are done-fun. I was impressed by the quality and care that goes into the finished product and by the efforts expended to make the shop environmentally friendly-not an easy task when dealing with chemicals and metals. If you have chrome-plated wheels on your Vette, are considering them at some indeterminate date in the future, or are just curious about what it takes to put the shiny stuff on a set of wheels, here's your look behind the scenes.