A wheely big problem

Blog post posted on 30/04/19 |

Alloy wheel theft was a problem years ago, when a smart set of wheels made your mundane car stand out from the crowd. 

Unfortunately, it was simple for the scumbags of the world to jack the car up and unbolt them – easier than actually earning some cash to buy them. Then anti-theft locking wheel nuts came out. 

These are wheel securing nuts or bolts; they’re usually referred to as locking wheel nuts, even though many are bolts, which can only be unscrewed with a special adaptor – the key supplied with them.  Alloys also became common as standard equipment on anything but the most basic car models and the problem more or less went away.

However, wheel theft is creeping back. There are a few reasons. First, a very flash set of alloys these days might set you back anything up to £2,000 so the temptation is there. More importantly, lots of new cars are taken on a lease, which means they must be handed back more or less unblemished, or the owner pays for any damage to be put right. 

The modern fashion is for big wheels and skinny tyres, but a thin tyre means the metal of the wheel is below kerb height and these expensive wheels are easily scraped, even by careful parkers. Hence the market for stolen alloy wheels, even those fitted as standard. 

They may be stolen to order from a relatively new, undamaged car simply by using the owner’s key and looking for a car with the same locking nut profile – most manufacturers only make around 20 or so different types.

People also lose the wheel nut key or forget to pass it on when the car is sold, resulting in a garage being unable to remove the wheel for a service. 

Locking wheel nut removal tools are therefore now commonplace and quite cheap. They bite into the metal of the nut or bolt, gripping it and allowing it to be unscrewed. Thieves use these as well, to steal the wheels, although they do take a few minutes for each wheel. 

Upmarket cars up to four or five years old with large alloys are particularly vulnerable because the wheels are easily scraped, the cars are usually leased and the wheels are expensive to replace.

So, what can you do to guard against the morons who feel that theft is an acceptable form of income?  Well, any locking wheel nut is at least a deterrent. 

Buying a set of after-market nuts to replace the maker’s standard ones may be an advantage as well because the thief is unlikely to have the right key and using a wheel nut remover takes time and attracts attention.

Turning the front wheels to a full lock towards the kerb is another deterrent – it makes them more difficult to remove and, since thieves want to get the wheels off as fast as possible, anything which makes life more difficult for them will help.

Some locking wheel nuts, such as McGard or EVO Mk5, are sold as high security. They are widely available in accessory shops and online and have a hardened outer section which spins, so a standard wheel nut remover won’t work. They can be removed by someone determined, but it takes a more specialist tool and a lot longer, so they will be a good deterrent unless some very rare or expensive wheels are being stolen to order. 

Unfortunately, no-one seems to offer an alloy wheel security marking service – but that would only help the police to identify wheels after they have been stolen, but even so, maybe there’s a gap in the market if an entrepreneur is reading…

In the meantime, fitting high security locking wheel nuts, turning the front wheels to the kerb and parking in a well-lit, public place are about the only security measures you can take. Or of course, you can stick to the mundane steel wheels that no-one wants to steal; they revolve just the same after all!

By Tim Shallcross, IAM RoadSmart head of technical policy and advice