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Bead-Lock Wheels - Bead Locks Unlocked

Posted in How To: Wheels Tires on May 1, 2008
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Photographers: The Manufacturers

The beauty of most four-wheel-drive upgrades is that they're self-explanatory. In our dirt and rock world, we keep flowery verbiage to a bare minimum. Want a bumper that'll hold a winch? We call it a winch bumper. Want to lift the suspension of your truck? We call that a suspension lift. Yep, we keep it simple. So what do we call a wheel that locks to the bead of a tire? You guessed it, a bead-lock wheel. More simplicity. Ain't it great?

So what's up with bead-lock wheels? To answer that question, you have to look at how a standard wheel works. On a normal wheel, air pressure pushes against the beads of the tire, firmly pressing them against the lips of the wheel. Weights are used to balance the wheel and tire combination. Under normal driving conditions with the tires property inflated, this bead contact area is more than adequate to keep the tire firmly attached to the wheel. Heck, this system works so well, you can even air down your tires to about half their recommended pressure to improve traction.

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But here's the thing: If you decrease pressure too much, the tire can spin on the wheel, throwing the pair out of balance. Worse, you can actually peel the tire's bead from the wheel. Let's use sand as an example. Let's say you head to your favorite beach to do some fishing. You air your rig's tires down to 12 psi to improve flotation. You've now decreased the amount of pressure holding the beads onto the wheel. As you power through a turn in deep sand, the outer bead on one of the front tires breaks loose from the wheel, leaving you stranded. What a pain. This scenario can also apply whether you're crawling rocks, blasting mud, or battling snow at low tire pressures.

This is where bead-lock wheels come into play. There are a few variants to bead-lock wheels, but we're going to talk mostly about bead locks that use a bolt-on ring to clamp the outer bead (the most likely to defect) of the tire to the wheel. With bead-lock wheels, you can air down to single-digit psi, which will allow your tires to mold themselves around obstacles as well as flatten out for incredible flotation and traction without risking the tire spinning or debeading. Bonus: Most bead-lock wheels also allow you to mount and dismount tires without a tire machine.

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Is there a downside to bead-lock wheels? Well, yes. First, they're more expensive than a standard wheel. Second, they're often heavier than a non-bead-lock wheel. Third, most require more maintenance than a normal wheel because the lock-ring bolts have to be checked often to ensure they're tight. Finally, some manufacturers (but not all) clearly state that their wheels are for off-highway use only. As with any other mod, it's up to you to make sure your rig is in compliance with the law in your state.

So do you really need bead-lock wheels? If most of your driving is on the street, probably not. But only you can answer that question, and your analysis has to be based on the type of off-highway travel you do the most. If you travel off-highway a lot on brutal terrain and you sacrifice traction because you're afraid to air down and risk spinning or peeling a tire from a wheel, bead locks might be for you.

So what bead-lock options do you have? Quite a few, actually. Following are a sampling of bead-lock wheels available now. All prices quoted here were as of press time.

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American Expedition Vehicles
Wixom, MI 48393
High Impact
Camino, CA 95709
Trenton, NJ 08609
Temple City, CA 91780

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