Many car enthusiasts have heard or used the term “Mag Wheels” when describing one-piece vintage and vintage-style wheels. What many don’t know however, is that this generic term has its origins in the iconic Halibrand Engineering one-piece magnesium wheels that were prevalent in the heyday of the 50s and 60s hotrodding and racing scene.
Ted Halibrand was born and raised in New Jersey but made his way to Southern California in the late 1930s to take a job as an engineer with the Douglas Aircraft Company. Ted continued to work for Douglas after the breakout of World War II, traveling around the world as a field service representative, helping maintain Douglas planes for the war effort. As an aircraft engineer, Ted had seen the advantage of lightweight and durable magnesium and had replaced many parts used in high-stress locations that were originally cast in aluminum with magnesium parts.
Another reason Ted had orginally moved to SoCal was to get closer to the burgeoning year-round racing scene, specifically dirt oval track midgets, which he had started working on, and ultimately building, before the war. Although the start of the war put his racing ambitions on hold, working at Douglas gave him a front seat to the new technology, materials, and processes of aircraft construction.
After the war, Halibrand wanted to use knowledge gained in the wartime aircraft industry and apply it to racing. Many racers of the day made midget wheels by welding Model T brake drums to 12” diameter rims. Ted thought he could do better, and build a wheel that was lighter, stronger, and safer. In doing so, Halibrand used the same methods used by Douglas in making the wheels for the SBD Dauntless naval scout plane and dive bomber, sand-casting them out of a lightweight magnesium alloy.
Halibrand’s new wheels caught the eye of fellow racers, including George Robson, who, behind the wheel of the “Thorne Engineering Special,” won the 1946 Indianapolis 500 rolling on a set of 18” Halibrands. Following this success, Halibrand formed Halibrand Engineering in 1947 in Culver City, California. Until 1964, Halibrand wheels were mounted on every successive Indy 500 winning car.
During the wild hotrodding and racing years of the 50s and 60s Halibrand wheels were highly sought after by hotrodders, drag racers, and Bonneville Salt Flat racers (including Mickey Thompson who topped 400 mph on the salt flats in a Halibrand shod car). Halibrand wheels were also original equipment on Shelby Cobras, the Ford GT-40, and many Can-Am sports racers and Le Mans cars. Over the years, Halibrand expanded his line of wheels and also produced many other racing parts, including quick change rear ends for oval racers. The name Halibrand was synonymous with racing.
Ted Halibrand ultimately sold the original Halibrand Engineering company in 1979, after the demand for their wheels wanned in the 70s due to changes at Indy and following the decline in the race parts market. Nevertheless, Halibrand left an unforgettable mark on hotrodding and racing culture. Today, original Halibrand wheels and parts are highly sought after and can fetch several thousands of dollars.