Engine Out | Fuchs Wheels: Forged for Speed

January 17, 2022

Sticking with our theme of wheels after looking at Borrani, we turn to Fuchs. When you think of a classic Porsche 911, you’re undoubtedly imagining it with the iconic “windmills” from Fuchs. They had others you would recognize, such as the distinctive Mercedes "Baroque" wheels and the Porsche 928 "manhole covers." What you may not know is that the inspiration for these wheels actually started with a military tank. Go figure.

The German wheels aren’t just about style, but also substance. You see, Fuchs wheels were the first forged aluminum wheels to shod a production vehicle and are renowned for their strength and lightweight properties. They are now fitted on Audis, Ferraris, Alfa Romeos, and many other modern road car brands.

Before we go any further, we’ve got some business to attend to which is how to pronounce “Fuchs" (German for fox). The correct pronunciation for Fuchs rhymes with the word “looks.”  It is not a natural sound for English speakers, so be sure to practice it. I quickly say “looks, looks, looks” followed by “Fuchs, Fuchs, Fuchs” and that sticks for me, so give it a try. Now let’s get on with it.

The Fuchs Origin Story

Otto Fuchs

The company that makes the wheels actually had little history with the automotive industry prior to the 1960s. The firm started out in 1910 as a tiny brass manufacturer founded by the company’s namesake, Otto Fuchs. Its brass forgings were in all sorts of household and commercial items, including several fittings for cars and motorcycles. By the 1920s, the company had become a significant supplier in Germany, operating its factory in Meinerzerhagen, a town near Cologne, and employing more than 400 workers. 

The company’s reputation grew during the 1930s as it was one of the first outfits to work with aluminum, later adding magnesium and titanium as other specialties. These cutting-edge metals turned OTTO FUCHS KG (yes, all caps) into a key supplier for the burgeoning aviation industry, which you can imagine at the time had more of a military bent versus a commercial one.

After WWII, OTTO FUCHS continued to grow in what was then West Germany. In the 1950s, OTTO FUCHS began making lightweight track rollers for a German Army tank that was designed to be air portable. The forged aluminum wheels helped reduce the tank’s weight for airlifting but could also endure rugged use in the field. This tank was designed by Porsche AG.

Porsche was on a roll in the 1950s with its popular 356, built with many parts scavenged from Volkswagen. In the 1960s, they designed a new model, the 911, which was a 2+2 sports car powered by a “boxer” 6-cylinder rear engine. The first 911s came into production in 1964 to great adulation from customers and the press. As we all know, this launched a beloved model the likes of which we will probably never see again.

With the car’s instant popularity, the Porsche engineers set out to make a sports model, called the 911S. The engineers wanted wheels to be no more than 5 kgs, fully 3kgs lighter than the steel wheels used on the base 911. They recalled the lightweight alloy wheels that were made using an innovative forging technique for the tank project. Other wheel makers offered cast aluminum prototypes that were too fragile. They approached OTTO FUCHS and they were willing to give it a shot. 

The first sketch was drawn in February 1965 by Porsche designer Heinrich Klie and Ferdinand Porsche Jr. The first prototype Fuchs wheels were shown on a 911 at the 1965 International Motor Show in Frankfurt. The reaction was encouraging, so Porsche ordered 5,000 wheels in December 1965 from Fuchsfelge (“Fuchs rims” in English), the recently created automotive wheel division of OTTO FUCHS. 

This was the first forged alloy wheel for a production vehicle, a significant technological innovation for automobiles that we’ll delve into in a moment. However, what most of us remember about it is the iconic “windmill” design featuring five tapered spokes. These were integral to the look of the classic 911s, and were so popular that they remained available on 911s until 1989.

Fuchsfelge didn’t stop there. In the early 1970s, the firm developed its next hit with the so-called “Baroque” or “Bundt Cake” wheels for the Mercedes-Benz S-Class that showed an impressive, sculptured design. Fuchs continued to be in demand and appeared on other Porsche models such as the Carrera RS, 914/6, 928 (“manhole covers”), and the 997 Turbo, as well as on top-of-range models for BMW and Audi, including the groundbreaking Ur-Quattros. More recently, Fuchs wheels were standard on the 2003 BMW M3, the 2009 Lamborghini Gallardo, and the 2015 Mini Cooper S. 

The Fuchs Difference

As previously noted, Fuchs wheels were the first forged alloy wheels on a production automobile. Since most laypeople like me don’t know what that means, let’s take a short lesson on metallurgy. 

The Advantages of Forging -- There are four primary ways to manufacture a metal wheel: 

  • Rolling -- A piece of metal is shaped by rolling it between two dies. To make it a wheel, the rim must be connected by a weld or rivets to complete the circle. (ex. Borrani) 
  • Casting -- The metal is heated to reach a liquid state and poured into a mold. (ex. Campagnolo) 
  • Forging -- A piece of metal is heated and shaped under extreme mechanical pressure over a die, so the entire wheel is made from a single piece of metal. (ex. Fuchs)
  • Machining -- The most modern technology that takes a solid block of metal and uses a CNC machine to carve away the excess material, kind of like robot sculpture. (ex. An entire cottage industry)  

From a metallurgical viewpoint, when metal is liquefied for casting and then solidifies, the grain structure is more random and is prone to porosity (i.e., trapped gas bubbles). The result is a weaker and more brittle structure. When the metal stays in a solid state, such as with forging, the grain structure is uniform which adds strength and flexibility. Forged aluminum is about 30% stronger than cast aluminum and it fails slowly, a critical benefit for automotive wheels. Finally, forging can be used for mass production, unlike machining, because it is both fast and affordable.

Forging process.

Fuchsfelge employs a multi-stage process, requiring huge hydraulic presses that generate as much as 7,000 tons of force to turn an aluminum blank into a gorgeous wheel. Now forged aluminum wheels are standard on virtually every sports and performance car because the wheels are 40% lighter when compared to steel. The wheels can handle extreme forces and heat, are perfectly uniform, and make the car more nimble with less rotational and unsprung mass

Unique Designs -- The 60s were a decade of change, including the area of car design. After decades of wire wheels, Fuchs arrived on the scene. Not only did they offer a superior product, they opened up new aesthetic possibilities as well. The multi-stage forging process allowed for complex shapes and cut-outs, opening the door to radically new designs. 

The “windmills” are the most iconic, but more sculpted and complex shapes arrived in the 1970s such as the “Baroque” wheels. With clever techniques, the forged wheels could mimic the complexity of casting without compromising strength and durability. 

Fuchs Today

The company is a worldwide leader in forged metals for aerospace, extrusions used for architecture, and battery housings for EVs. Fuchsfelge is going strong with new wheel designs, as well as the popular old classics, including sizes such as 19” rims that are suitable for modern cars. Fuchs has dozens of models available as after-market upgrades for marques such as Alfa Romeo, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Jaguar, and even motorcycles. 

The original sets of “windmills” are desirable and very collectible. If interested in purchasing, beware of fakes! Some things to look out for include:

  • Fakes are cast and tend to be much heavier than genuine forged Fuchs.
  • There are multiple date and part-code stamps, including a date code on the inside of a spoke and a “fox” logo on the hub, along with several others.

Fuchs has earned a strong reputation as an innovator in technology and design that started with one of the most iconic designs, and continues to this day with creative, stylish, and advanced wheels.

References

VIDEO - Fuchs Wheel Factory - Wheel Creation

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