Page Revised: 10 May 2019


Article by
Eric Dess

The 1980s gave us many, many things that left indelible imprints in our lives, and car design was probably one of the most outstanding of that decade. Obviously, you wouldn't be reading this if that weren't the case. But even as the Cougar and Thunderbird carved their own unique niche into American car psyche, the most 1980s part of the cars is, without a doubt, the wheel design.

And that's saying quite a bit because, as good as the cars were, the wheels sometimes left a little to be desired. The good news is that 13" wheels were gone forever—the base wheel was now 14", with upscale models like the XR-7 and the 20th Anniversary getting 15" wheels. And there was even a level above those, sort of, with the TRX wheel option (390mm, or approx. 15.3"). The 1987-88 Turbo Coupes got a relatively massive 16" wheel.

This means that you have a good variety of stock Ford 4-lug wheels from which to choose. The Fox chassis was known for its unique 4-on-4.25" (108mm) bolt pattern, so any rear-drive Fox wheel will fit your stock car, and also clear the brakes easily.

From the factory, our cars came with three basic wheel types: a 14" steel wheel with a corresponding hubcap; a 14" rubberized road wheel; and an aluminum styled wheel in various sizes. All three have unique restoration qualities that we'll explore in-depth here.


14" Steel Wheels

The steel wheel was a basic staple of cars for many years, and it still endures on some lower-end vehicles to this day. Sure, just about everyone and their brother wanted a nice factory aluminum wheel, but that was not always an affordable option when these cars were new, and trust us, it took quite a while for some nicer factory Cougar aluminum rims to become plentiful enough at salvage yards without breaking the bank. So the economic solution (from both the buyer's and manufacturer's viewpoints) was a basic all-steel wheel, given a quick rust-resistant coat of paint, and finished with a hubcap. It was cheaper, efficient enough, and got the job done. It was not so much aesthetically appealing, however. That was the job of the attached hubcap.

Cougar 14" Steel Wheel Refinished

Restoring the steel wheel itself is not a huge undertaking. Rust removal consists of sanding, sand or media blasting, or even a wire brush (by hand or tool). If the rim isn't terribly rusted then the old paint can sometimes serve as a good base coating for the new paint. A bonus: noticeable bends in the wheel that may cause tire seating problems or even flat tires can usually be hammered back out with good results.

Restoring the steel wheel itself is not a huge undertaking.

For paint refinishing on all but the base 1986 steel wheel, we have used VHT gloss black wheel spray paint (SP187) with excellent results and would recommend it. Other brand wheels spray paints should be fine as well. Just be sure the paint is made for wheels, as it will have better rust resistance. A correct finish will be satin-to-semigloss, front and back. (The 1986 base steel wheel was black on the back section, but the front was painted Ford argent. That argent paint is readily available for a factory-correct finish—see the rubberized road wheel section below for argent paint details).

Now restoring a hubcap can be, well, not fun. Most of them were aluminum and were prone to dings and dents. Sometimes you can get lucky and gently pound them out from the reverse side. The finishes were typically brushed, and that's pretty difficult to replicate at home using hand tools, so you might be better off hunting eBay for replacement hubcaps. The ever-popular spoked hubcap tended to stay together well, although spokes can break or get knocked out easily as these cars get older (ABS plastic gets brittle over time). Again, finding good replacements might be the way to go here.



14" Rubberized Road Wheels

Cougar 14" Rubberized Road Wheels

We're not 100% sure what Ford's thinking was when they created the rubberized road wheel back in the early 1980s but we suspect it had something to do with cost savings. Essentially these wheels began as a normal steel wheel over which a mold was fitted and a urethane rubber solution was poured in. When the final casting was complete, you had a steel rear section but a front side with something that resembled a more expensive-looking wheel, yet was made of a more flexible rubber material. Yes, it's as strange as it sounds, but Ford found magic in that formula because it was used in nearly all of the Fox-chassis cars (and even on some front-drive cars in their lineup).

The good news? These rims tend to hold up well over time, although the paint can fade and chunks of rubber can be taken out with even normal use. However, we've refinished them back to factory specs before and can say that they're not horrible to work on. It does take a little more time than usual to refinish them, generally due to the material.

We're not 100% sure what Ford's thinking was when they created the rubberized road wheel but we suspect it had something to do with cost savings.

To fix any chunks or divots in either the wheel or the center cap, we used urethane bumper repair kits with great results. The two-part mix will give you a good working material although it can be fast setting, so you don't have a lot of time to apply it. Also, you will need to sand between applications and you will need multiple coats to build up the holes and sand flush. That is the longest part of the refinishing process. Otherwise, sanding the rubber section with a red Scotch-Brite pad is all that's usually required to knock the paint down on the rubber side.

The back side is still steel and can be refinished just like a steel rim (see above). Again, finish type is wheel black with a satin-to-semigloss finish. To be technically correct, this section should be painted before the front section.

Ford Argent Spray Paint

On the front, once the wheel is sanded, prepped, and cleaned, the correct spray paint is Ford Argent (PM-19K207-AA). This is a color that's been in Ford's arsenal since the 1960s and is what was used from the factory on the road wheels. To be correct you don't want a high metal flake in the paint, like on newer cars. Now we've had issues with the Ford spray cans clogging up the nozzles; it seems to be a common problem. Fortunately VHT also makes a correct Ford argent wheel paint (Ford Argent Silver SP188) that is absolutely perfect in match and finish. We've used both and like both, but the VHT paint is more commonly found (local parts stores) and tends to be less expensive. Either paint is flexible when dry, so you need not worry about the paint flaking off. There should be no topcoat/clearcoat; how the paint comes out the can would be the correct final finish.

One last finishing touch would be the accompanying beauty ring found attached to the outer part of the wheel. No matter the style of the road wheel, you had a beauty ring from the factory. They actually go on the rim last, after the tire has been mounted. It's kind of a pain to attach them, which is why a lot of tire shops tended to not reinstall them, so if yours are missing that's likely the reason why. We have found replacements on eBay, sometimes even NOS. Be sure to check them for the mounting clips and also dings and kinks. You can use any Ford 14" beauty ring from the 1980s, as they all seem to interchange. The ring is approx. 1" in height for a reference.


14" Road Wheel Restoration Our rims were covered in dirt and grime and, um, other material while they were in storage. Thank you, raccoons.
14" Road Wheel Restoration However, after a little soaking in Simple Green and a wire brush, the wheels cleaned up fairly well. It was still apparent that they needed a new coat of paint though.
14" Road Wheel Restoration After lots of sanding with red Scotch-Brite pads, and the aforementioned urethane bumper filler applied, we were ready for the Ford argent spray paint. Here is a completed rim, with the back of the rim painted black first.
14" Road Wheel Restoration The "spokes" still need blacked out, however. This is how the factory did it, and likely with some kind of template in place. Since we didn't find a good way to produce a template, we opted to simply tape off the areas around the spokes and apply the paint via airbrush. Any flat black, flexible paint will do the trick. We used black lacquer interior paint. It's okay to be a little sloppy with the application here, as the factory didn't always do a neat job with this detail.
14" Road Wheel Restoration A close-up of the finished spoke painted in.
14" Road Wheel Restoration The completed wheel, with all spokes painted. At this point the wheel is ready to have the tire installed.
14" Road Wheel Restoration Close-up detail of the center cap. The cat head emblem on the center cap is usually painted in from the factory; we have used careful masking (or custom-cut vinyl masks) and then painted them with a flat black lacquer paint. We've even gone so far as to use an airbrush to paint them in because we had access to one. Either method is fine so long as you make sure no overspray gets on the argent part.
14" Road Wheel Restoration The finished wheel with tire mounted and balanced, beauty ring installed, and center cap in place. Looks like brand new!


Aluminum Styled Wheel

The factory aluminum wheels offered on our cars were more or less shared with other Ford vehicles, so that means getting them refinished isn't as complex as it once was. In fact, it might not even be worth your time to attempt to refinish them yourself anymore. For the cost involved, there is a better solution out there now.

Cougar Aluminum Styled Wheels

On the Cougar, there was a 15" 10-hole rim found on Mustangs; a 15" 16-spoke "turbine"-style rim; and a unique 390mm TRX rim with 3 sets of triple slots. The Thunderbird had an additional aluminum rim available on some 1984-88 models, an 8-hole 14" wheel with a TRX-style center cap. And of course there is the aforementioned 1987-88 16" Turbo Coupe rim. Save for the TRX rim, all of the other wheels are available refurbished. A company named Keystone is actively refinishing these rims and selling them through various national vendors including Rock Auto (NOTE: this link is for Thunderbirds; you may need to search for 1985-89 Ford Mustang for other results). We have seen them in person and can attest to their quality—these wheels are as factory new as you can get. It is well worth the money (which isn't as bad as you think, by the way) to purchase these wheels instead of trying to redo yours. They may have a core charge so be aware of that.

It might not even be worth your time to refinish your aluminum wheels yourself anymore—there is a better solution out there now.

Also, LMR has recently started offering new 15" 10-hole wheels with new Ford center caps. You can, of course, use the Cougar-specific center caps on this wheel, and they're easily found on eBay.

Now about those TRX wheels...the Cougar/T-Bird version was unique in appearance. We have never seen a reproduction of them and likely never will. It's just too specific of a wheel that are too few in number to begin with. One gentleman we know skillfully cut out the fronts of the rims and mounted them inside hoops to create true 15" wheels with the correct Cougar/T-Bird TRX look. He did an excellent job but that sort of thing is beyond a lot of peoples' skillsets. So if you have to have your factory TRX rims refinished, you'll have to seek out a rim refinishing company that can brush the front and reapply the clearcoat.

LMR TRX 16" Aluminum Wheels

Another option for the TRX wheel (technically not correct for the car model but correct for the era) is the new 16" reproduction TRX rim from LMR. This is the Mustang/Capri style of the TRX wheel. Again, we've seen them in person and they're awesome. And honestly, back in the day we ran the Mustang-style TRX wheels on a few of our cars and loved the look. So if you're not into being correct for the car but still want to use TRX-style wheels, this is the ultimate solution for you. They run a normal 16" tire instead of the ultra-expensive 390mm reproduction TRX tire. Be aware that the LMR center caps are unique and you cannot reuse your old ones, nor can they interchange.



Final Thoughts

Since we are well into the 21st century now, there are much better solutions out there for things like wheel weights. Please have them applied on the back side of the wheel if possible. Stick-on wheel weights are a great solution as well. Sometimes a wheel balances better with weights on the front and that's okay. It's just a much cleaner look with them on the back of the rim if you can have it done that way instead.

Valve stems should be simple and black in color, as factory. We never had factory chrome-style valve stems, although they do look cool and can enhance the rim's appearance. That's your call.

The 1986 base steel wheel had a unique beauty ring and center cap. Actually both were shared with the SSP/police Mustangs of the era and there are reproduction (or sometimes new) centers and rings available for those cars. They're not cheap but they are correct for that style of wheel. It's actually quite a rare wheel on these cars, being one-year-only, but it's nice to know you can properly restore them.