cadillac urethane wheel

clay skateboard wheels and roller skates
cadillac wheels gregg weaver

IN THE EARLY 1970s, anybody could bring a rink full of roller skaters to a sudden, unexpected full stop. It was simple: Just scatter a handful of pennies, and watch people crash to the floor. Clay composite skate wheels, manufactured from a combination of paper, plastic, and crushed walnut shells, made the prank possible. Standard on indoor roller skates—and on early skateboards—the hard clay wheels couldn’t roll over the tiniest obstacle.

This created an annoying—and occasionally bone-shattering—problem for early skateboarders. Clay wheels limited not only the terrain you could skate, but the tricks you could pull off. Hit a pebble in the street, and road rash might be the least of your worries. Steel wheels, another option, were even worse.

Clay wheels, sometimes referred to as “chalkies” in Australia, also wore down very quickly. It wasn’t difficult for skaters to go through a set of wheels in a week if they were riding rough surfaces like asphalt and skating for extended periods of time.

With the development of his miraculous Cadillac Wheel in the early 1970s, Frank Nasworthy changed all that. So the story of the Ollie, then, begins with him. Without the Cadillac and its successors there would be no vertical kickturns, no lipslides, no frontside or backside airs, and certainly no Ollies—nor many of the other moves that make skateboarding as acrobatic as it is today.

East Coast surfer and skater Frank Nasworthy had little idea how his innovation, the first commercial urethane wheel for skateboards, would create a landslide of innovation. Just as the skateboarding boom of the 1960s was tied to the introduction of the clay composite wheel, skateboarding’s second boom in the 1970s was driven by the advent of the urethane wheel.

Nasworthy first began to consider the idea in July 1970, when he stumbled upon some reject roller skate wheels at a plastics factory in Purcellville, Virginia. Creative Urethanes, a new business venture owned by Vernon Heitfield, had a client in Jacksonville, Florida, called Roller Sports, Inc.—a manufacturer and supplier of roller skating equipment that also owned and operated a chain of roller rinks. Would it be possible, Nasworthy wondered, to use these plastic wheels on skateboards? Heitfield needed to dispose of the inferior wheels, and upon seeing Nasworthy’s interest, he told him to take home as many as he liked.

The urethane wheel had only just been introduced to roller skating, mostly on rental skates as an alternative to clay wheels. Urethane not only rode smoother, but lasted longer and could stand up to a large amount of abuse. It was also kinder to roller rink floors. Though more costly, it made better economic sense for rink owners. Serious roller skaters, however, rejected plastic wheels because urethane’s increased friction slowed them down, so the clay wheel remained the favorite among the rink-skating elite.

Nasworthy and his friend Bill Harward brought home 10 sets of wheels. After modifying their old Hobie skateboards, they took off for their first rides in the Washington, D.C. area. They soon discovered that urethane’s grippiness could be a serious asset on a skateboard, particularly on outdoor terrain like concrete and asphalt.

Nasworthy wasn’t the first to contemplate a plastic future. California board designer Hobie Alter had considered urethane for his line of Hobie professional skateboards during the 1960s, but since they doubled or tripled the cost of a board, he deemed them too expensive. Nasworthy, however, saw past the initial economic drawbacks. Urethane wheels delivered more traction with less noise and more durability. On street terrain, they went faster and allowed safe, sharp turning. Urethane was a better mousetrap, and he knew it.

In 1971, Nasworthy and Harward drove cross-country to California on a surfing trip. The two meant to take a summer vacation, but both decided to stay on the West Coast and took up residence in the town of Encinitas, near San Diego. There, Nasworthy began to work on his idea in earnest.

By the following year, Nasworthy had managed to save $700 from waiting tables at a restaurant in Encinitas. With that money, Nasworthy finished the design of his wheel, set up his new company, and placed his first order with Vernon Heitfield in Virginia.

In April 1973, Frank Nasworthy took receipt of his first shipment from Creative Urethanes—one thousand urethane skateboard wheels in four different colors, embossed with the words “Cadillac Wheels.” At the time, Cadillac cars set the standard for a smooth ride. And so did Nasworthy’s new wheels. The name fit; however, his initial inspiration for the idea came not from the luxury car brand, but from a television commercial for a brand of dog food, also named Cadillac.

Naming his product was only one part of Nasworthy’s job. Selling the product was another. In the early ’70s, there was no such thing as a skateboard shop. So Nasworthy turned to Southern California’s surf shops, where local skateboarders bought their gear. Most shop owners laughed him off the premises as soon as he mentioned price; you couldn’t get cheaper than clay. But a shop in Encinitas and one in nearby Leucadia took orders. Those sales, plus a few giveaways here and there, got Cadillac Wheels some initial traction. And once skaters experienced the urethane ride, word began to spread.

“They pretty much sold themselves once you rode them one time,” recalls Lance Smith, who worked behind the counter at the Leucadia Surf Shop. Smith, then a 22-year-old skater and surfer who had gotten his start in the 1960s, was one of the initial riders on this new technology. He says the first sessions on the new Cadillac wheels took place on Neptune Avenue, a street that parallels and runs by Beacons Beach in Leucadia.

By the summer of 1974, through ads in Surfer magazine and word of mouth, sales of Cadillac Wheels exploded. “After seeing an ad in Surfer, we jumped in a car and drove 150 miles to a surf shop that sold these new ‘wonder rollers,’” remembers ’70s skater Jack Smith, who lived north of Santa Barbara, California, in Morro Bay. The same was true for skateboarders on the East Coast, who also traveled great distances to get their hands on the amazing Cadillac wheel.

This simple technical innovation would eventually lead to the most radical skating ever seen. An article on skateboarding’s “dry boogie revival” that appeared in the December 1974 issue of Surfer magazine aptly called the quest for speed and new maneuvers “limit hunting.” No one knew for sure how far the new technology could be pushed.

Skateboarders, once restrained by the surfaces they rode, were now in control. It was as if the skateboard had suddenly developed four-wheel drive. Everything that had ever been paved with concrete or asphalt, public or private, began to be seen and used in a brand new way—streets, hills, sidewalks, embankments, ditches, reservoirs, concrete pipes, and even backyard swimming pools. The skateboard revolution had begun. ◼︎
Stacks Image 4418

Retail pack of Hobie/Vita Pakt Super Surfer clay or composite wheels from the 1960s. This was a DIY kit that also contained loose ball bearings and other hardware, necessary for mounting the wheels on roller skate trucks and a wooden plank of your choice.

frank nasworthy urethane wheel

Editorial piece that appeared in
SkateBoarder magazine in 1975, written by Frank Nasworthy.
Photo: Warren Bolster

first cadillac wheels ad

First Cadillac Wheels ad featuring Gregg Weaver, who later became known as “the Cadillac Kid,”
Surfer magazine, June 1974.
Photo: Art Brewer

cadillac dog food wheels frank nasworthy

A TV commercial for Cadillac dog food was the inspiration behind the name.
Photo: Craig Snyder

cadillac wheels vintage set

Vintage NOS set of first-generation Cadillac wheels.
Photo: Dan Reilly/Collection of Dan Reilly


912 pages
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1930287003
ISBN-13: 9781930287006
Dimensions: 9.3 x 7 x 2.2 inches
Shipping Weight: 4.7 pounds
Retail: $59.95
Printed in the U.S.A.
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