I am the product of a Southern urban culture in which cars play a major role. In Houston the city of my birth people trick out all types of cars which makes living in the city like being surrounded by a 24/ 7 car show. You are likely to see everything from a late model Cadillac with Ferrari doors to a purple Maserati with hot pink interior.
It’s literally off the chain and for the most part it’s all good. But there is one pair of rims that have been dubbed the most dangerous rims in the city.
These rims known on the streets of Houston as Swanger or Elbows are a essential part of Houston’s car culture, yet they have a long bloody and deadly history. Originally invented by Crager for limited edition Cadillacs, the car giant put the rims on the 83 and 84 Eldorado models, but quickly discontinued there use after it was discovered the rims had a tendency to loosen in certain places and to make a clacking sound.
The rims bare a strong resemblance to another chrome Crager rim the 15 inch 30 spoke, with one exception. Unlike the 30 spokes that sit flush with the tires, the company’s 83 and 84 model rims extended out from the tires hence the nickname elbows. Due to the rims tendency to clack Cadillac stopped ordering them for their cars forcing Crager to discontinue production.
Shortly after the Detroit auto giant decided to move on to another type of rim for their luxury vehicles, the rims became a smash hit with Houston’s underground car scene, often showing up on late model Cadillacs, Buicks and Oldsmobiles.
From the mid to late 80’s the rims could still be purchased through Cadillac dealers as they proceeded to liquidate their entire back inventory of the troublesome rim. Once that avenue was tapped out the rims began to be bought and sold strictly on the secondary market. And as is generally the case high demand caused the prices to sky-rocket. To the point that a brand new set of 83’s or 84’s that could’ve originally been purchased from the dealer for under six hundred dollars a set nearly tripled in price.
By the early and mid 90’s a set of 83 and Vogues would set you back anywhere from fifteen to twenty five hundred depending on their condition. While a set of 84’s which have straighter spokes that stick out about an inch further would cost anywhere from three to five thousand.
On top of this sudden price increase was the fact that with the exception of a few Mom and Pop tire stores, most notably Big Tex on the Southside there was nowhere in Houston that you could just walk into and purchase a set, creating a process to where even a person with the money to buy a set would have to search around and try to find someone willing to sale a set. A process that was not only tedious but equally dangerous.
A tragic consequence of this high demand and short supply was the robbing and killings that began around 92. At one time the car jackings were so bad that a saying developed which was “83’s get you jacked, 84’s get you killed.”
Between 1992 and 2000 it’s believed that over a hundred young men and even a few women lost their lives as a result of riding Swangers.
Before long the rims had developed their own folklore to the point where putting a set on your car meant you either had a death wish or that you were someone who didn’t mind riding around strapped at all times.
When I was growing up, I craved a set badder than I wanted oxygen and didn’t rest until I got my first set. But soon I discovered that the rims were more trouble than they were worth and ended up selling them to another guy who didn’t mind spending most of his time guarding his car, or better yet his rims.
Today while these rims remain as popular as ever and very much a H-town staple things have improved a whole lot. In the early 2000’s spurred on by an employee who had grown up in Houston. Executives at Texas Wire Wheel decided to purchase the rims design patent from Cadillac and to start making newer versions of Elbows strictly for the Houston market.
While the originally elbows only came in 13 and 15 inch and are still favored by old heads. The newer version come in a range of sizes including the mind boggling Gorillas and Super Pokers.
Texas Wire Wheel’s decision to begin production of “Swangers” again was undoubtedly a good business move for the company. It also had the unintended consequence of decreasing (not stopping) the robbing and killings that had become a regular occurrence as result of the rims coveted status.
So the next time you’re in Houston, enjoy the weather, the Zoo, the Space Center, Reliant Stadium and all the beautiful shinny cars you’re likely to see. But beware of the rims, they bite.