For a company that is so closely associated with Italy and its iconic Grand Prix and sports cars, it may come as a surprise that Borrani Route's origins are actually British, founded by a Californian, and represented by a logo originating in Ireland! So while the story of Borrani has origins elsewhere, the company is now Italian through and through.
The company's innovations had Italian car makers beating a path to their door which is why we think of these gorgeous, knock-off wire wheels as a defining element for a vintage sports car.
Our tale begins with a bicycle and motorcycle manufacturer in Coventry, England, called Rudge Whitworth Cycles. When founded in 1894, they selected the red hand of Ulster as the company's badge due to a founder’s Irish heritage. While growing their two-wheeled business, a son of a co-founder named John Pugh was dabbling in the nascent sport of auto racing.
In the early days, tires went flat often. The entire tire was changed while the wheel remained attached to the car. Many of us have changed bicycle tires. It was like that, but much, much more time-consuming. Young John thought it would be better to be able to remove the wheel and replace it quickly.
In the early 1900s, he engineered and patented a detachable steel wire wheel, mounted on a splined hub with a center locking nut, what we now refer to as a knock-off wheel. Pugh’s invention caught on quickly among racers as the advantages were obvious. By 1913, they became the exclusive style of the wheel used by Grand Prix cars. Thus, the idea of tire strategy was born, as tires could be made to perform better for a shorter period since they could now be easily changed.
The demand for Rudge Whitworth wheels was high, and their factory in Coventry was at capacity serving the nascent British automotive industry. To expand their sales, Rudge Whitworth wanted an outpost on the Continent. In 1922, they set up a licensee in Milan to manufacture wheels there. Carlo Borrani, born in 1887 in Napa, California, to Italian parents that had immigrated there, returned to Italy to start Rudge Whitworth Milano.
Borrani had immediate success. Within the first year, the company supplied wheels to Alfa Romeo, Isotta Fraschini, Fiat, Bianchi, Lancia, and Auto Union for their race cars and top-tier production cars. An early adopter was Enzo Ferrari, who insisted on using them when he was leading the Alfa Romeo racing efforts, and would later continue their exclusive use for his namesake racing and production cars after the war.
In the 1930s, the name was officially changed to Ruote Borrani S.p.A. (“ruote” is Italian for “wheels"), mainly at the behest of Benito Mussolini, who was cleansing the country of Anglicized names. The Italian outpost made advancements of their own in concert with their diverse and enthusiastic customers. Borrani's most notable improvement was manufacturing the outer rim of an aluminum alloy, which was significantly lighter and reduced the unsprung weight.
After WWII, to meet the growing demand for Italian sports cars, the holding company changed names and moved its manufacturing to a suburb of Milan. After a successful period for wire wheels, the cast aluminum wheel gradually took over the market. Looking to stay relevant, Borrani began mounting a pressed steel wheel disc into their existing aluminum rims.
These "bimetal" wheels, which were already produced as early as 1954, had their fair share of success. They were mounted on famous brands such as Alfa Romeo, ASA, Abarth, Fiat, Lancia, Maserati, and others. Borrani wheels weren't just for Italian cars. They were notably used on early Porsche 356s, Corvettes, and even Ford GT40s.
John Pugh's original design for Rudge Whitworth wheels was a game-changer. The idea of a quick-change wheel simply hadn’t been needed yet. As we see throughout the history of the automobile, racing is the mother of invention of these safe, strong, and light wheels. Here are the key qualities that made Borranis better:
Splined Hub and Tapered Mating Cones. The low-profile splines provided tremendous strength that could handle acceleration and deceleration. The end was rounded so the wheel could be positioned on the axle in one motion, no longer requiring it to be mated at a specific angle of rotation. Today, this design is still utilized on modern Formula One cars.
Self-Tightening Locking Nuts. This was a big step for safety! The center locking hubs were designed to tighten under load by featuring reverse threading on one side of the car. The nuts were easily removed with a few blows of a soft hammer.
Forged Alloy Construction. The differentiator between what was being done in Coventry and elsewhere, was that Borrani used aluminum alloy rims that reduced weight and improved steering characteristics, while also being tough enough to handle the extreme loads of Grand Prix and endurance sports car racing.
Ageless Beauty. Borrani wheels are a perfect marriage of form and function. Whether chromed or painted, they are evocative and add sophistication to a car. The knock-off spinners were offered in two- and three-wing designs that in and of themselves became iconic. Their popularity made them fashionable, setting off a decades-long period in which they were utilized on the most successful and beautiful cars. Today, they epitomize what a sports car wheel should look like.
All Borrani rims are identified by a stamped RW-code of four or five digits, the unique Ruote Borrani Milano stamping, and a stamped internal production number. The hubs are also coded and the numbers correspond to technical specifications.
The legacy of Ruote Borrani is forever etched in automotive history. However, the company as it exists today is a shadow of its former self. At its height in the 1950s, Borrani was producing 15,000 wheels per month. In the 1960s, cast aluminum wheels were becoming popular. Some Ferraris carried Borrani wheels into the early 1990s.
Today, the entity operates as RuoteMilano srl as part of the international automotive concern Zeta Europe BV, a Dutch outfit. Borrani primarily manufactures wire wheels out of a facility near Milan for both automobiles and motorcycles. Their main production is wire wheels for collector vehicles, but they also have modern designs that are aftermarket upgrades for modern production cars including Audis, Maseratis, Minis, and Fiat 500s.
Borrani wheels are still iconic and highly sought after, which keeps the market for originals hot, with sets selling for upwards of five figures. It is hard to imagine a product that is as well known as the cars it is fitted on, but Borrani wheels have arguably attained that enviable and well-deserved status.