Doing tires on a budget? A tire machine can quickly pay for itself, and a running setup may even cost less than you think.
Race tires do not last very long. A new set of Toyo RR’s can last me about a season if I’m careful. Two sets would be optimal, but I’m not on that kind of budget. If you’re racing on a tighter budget and buying used scrub tires, you may only get a couple weekends out of a set of race tires before they cord. Even a set of free scrubs may not be that great a deal if you need to pay $100 to get them mounted and balanced.
Easy access also means flipping tires on the rim becomes an option to maximize the life you get from your tires.
I worked weekends and summers at a shop through school and I was spoiled with free access to a great Hunter Tire Machine and Balancer. They were generous enough to let me come back and continue using the machine even after I stopped working there. But once I moved almost two hours away it became more of a hassle than it was worth. Bothering local friends for favors got old, especially with how often I need the machines. The ONE time I paid an acquaintance’s shop, his techs left me with broken parts on the car and a bill that sure didn’t look like “I’ll take care of you!” It was time to get my own setup.
I began searching for my own machine, but was quickly turned off when I saw that the modern machines I was comfortable with were often listed for upwards of $2,000 and in questionable shape. Don’t forget the balancer too, add another thousand dollars at least! Space was also an issue, the Tire Machine and balancer in my old shop had a huge footprint, and seemed to always be in the way even in a 6,000 square foot shop.
It all changed for me when a friend was selling an ancient “Coats 2020″ for $250. I can’t find a specific build date, but I think this machine is from the 1970’s and it was designed to do 14” Steel wheels. It may not be able to do every performance wheel out there, but it can do a Miata wheel without much trouble.
I then lucked out and found a 1980’s snap-on digital hand-spin balancer on Craigslist for $200. The previous owner kept it as “backup” after buying a new, modern balancer but finally decided to clear out the garage space. So for an initial total purchase price of $450, I was good to go.
There are advantages and disadvantages of running old equipment in the home-garage. There are some compromises. They aren’t super quick, and getting the job done on modern wheels+tires requires creativity… but for me they instantly proved their worth. Are you a no compromise person and don’t mind spending more? There are cheap off-brand mounting/balancing combos out there that have gotten rave reviews for around $1500. That is 3x the cost of my budget setup, but still a fraction the cost of a name brand setup… and the only disadvantage is they take up a bit more garage space when not being used.
Disadvantages of an old tire machine:
Here’s the big issue for many. Unfortunately, the ancient machine is not up to the task of mounting all modern day sizes. Lucky for me, it is still able to handle 15″ Miata rims and 205/50/15 race tires with no problem. If you have larger diameter, short sidewall tires (Like the 245/40/17 on my friend’s FRS) the Coats 2020 won’t be able to mount them and you’ll need to look at other machines. It may JUST be able to squeeze a 275/40/17 on, but I don’t have one to try. Good thing Miatas, Hondas, E30’s, and many other cars commonly race on 205/50/15’s with 15×7 wheels.
I have successfully mounted 17″ and 18″ tires on the machine, but only those with tall sidewall tires like the ones on my Dodge Charger and Pickup Truck. Even then, the machine’s bead breaker wasn’t up to the task so they required a bit of “Creativity” to initially break the bead. I built a tool using a 2×6 and a piece of 1/8″ steel. With that and my 20 ton shop press it’s easy enough, and certainly easier than some other methods I read. It just adds another step.
Instructions for the 2020 seem to have been lost to time. I was able to find one scratchy PDF of a manual, but it wasn’t very clear and not super informative. The overall operation is pretty simple and there are a couple videos on youtube to get you started.
Also, it’s not the gentlest machine to the wheels. I wouldn’t put expensive show car wheels on it, but it does just fine for my race-car and daily driver wheels. It hasn’t done much worse than small paint scratches on the lip of the rims.
Disadvantages of an old tire balancer:
The balancer wasn’t built with modern sticky-weights in mind. It’s system of measuring is based on the hammer-on rim weights. Because of this it takes a some time to get the right amount of modern stick on weight exactly where the machine wants them to go. A wise old friend who uses a similar older machine suggested I first hold the weights in place with masking tape. If another spin comes up as still needing weight, I adjust as needed until it gives that relieving 0 – 0. Once a test-spin successfully comes up as balanced… mark the location and permanently stick the weights down.
I have also learned it gets a bit easier if you “trick” the machine by inputting wheel size based on where you will be sticking the weights and not by the actual height and width as the machine calls.
All in all, it gets the job done but it often takes a few tries vs a fancy modern machine that would get the weights placed in the perfect locations on the first try.
Advantages of an old tire machine:
The best part about the older machine? (Aside from the low cost) It’s TINY. Modern machines are huge, with large arms and presses taking up space vertically as well as in the footprint. This tiny Coats machine barely takes up any space and fits mostly under a workbench when not being used. My two-car garage/bodyshop/woodshop/etc wouldn’t be able to fit much more.
Advantages of an old tire balancer:
These things are SIMPLE, with very few moving parts there isn’t much to wear down or break. The hand-spin gets plenty fast to get the job done. I have no complaints up to 120mph in the racecar, and the streetcars I’ve done have all been over 80 with no apparent balance issues). A machine that spins the tire automatically, adds roadforce, etc has way more parts to break.
Just like the tire machine, this simple balancer is also TINY. It tucks in under a workbench, completely out of the way. Modern self-spin machines have huge screens, motors, and safety guards that would have taken up half of my garage.
When looking for an old setup, watch Craigslist, Facebook, and other online marketplaces… but have some patience. Deals on tire machines and Balancers come up occasionally, if you’re a rush to buy one you may not find anything affordable. I was “in the market” for a year or so before I found mine, I was lucky enough to find the balancer only a couple weeks after I got the tire machine.
I didn’t get much history with my setup and was initially a bit concerned but it has worked flawlessly for two years. Many have been used and abused in shops for decades. The good thing is these seem to take abuse well and can be repaired if need be.
However, Beware of missing parts with old models. Some items are very specific and expensive, so if you find a smoking deal that’s incomplete know that things like the model-specific combination tool may end up costing you another $100.
You also have the easy button option of ordering a Mayflower combo from Amazon.
mounting tips: Get some hairspray as tire lube. Traditional tire mount lubes aren’t too expensive, but cheap hair spray is super cheap. Plus for race cars it has the advantage if preventing tires from moving on the rim under heavy braking. It also makes your garage smell nice. The disadvantage – Make sure you work fast or else it may get tacky before tire seats on bead and you’ll have a headache trying to get it to seat.
balancing tips: Before sticking down weights, tape them in place with masking tape and check spin. For an older machine designed for hammer on rim-edge weights: Set the machine for the dimensions of where sticky weights will be, not where clip on’s would have been.
What Should You Spend?
As I said earlier, I’m about $450 into my machines. Add another $100 or so for various accessories and consumables I’ve used over the last 2 years and ~30 sets of tires that it has seen.
A quick craigslist search showed a few machines like mine for $250-350, but also some used but more modern machines for $3500. Do you need to mount 17″ and up low profile tires? You’re stuck looking for a modern unit. I occasionally see a newer machine in the $750-$1000 range, but often they need work. Balancer prices are similar, don’t forget you really need both.
As mentioned earlier, I’ve heard many good things about the ultra cheap combos for sale on places like amazon: ~$1500 is not a small sum of money, but for a brand new Tire Machine AND Balancer it seems too good to be true. However, they all have surprisingly good reviews. A friend’s shop has been using the machines without major issue for years. The person I bought my balancer from upgraded to a Mayflower combo and after a few years of it working flawlessly, sold me his “Backup” balancer. If the $1500 pricetag doesn’t shock you, It may certainly be a good option and is my second choice.
How about the other end of the spectrum… a Harbor Freight $40 manual tire machine? If you are changing a light truck tire here and there and don’t mind taking forever… sure it may work, but I wouldn’t want to try it even with tiny 15″ spec miata tire sizes. File that under the “Too cheap to be true” category.
“But the machine runs on compressed air, I don’t have a big compressor!”
Contrary to many people out there overbuilding their garages to show off to their neighbors, there is little to no need for a massive shop-sized 220v compressor in your home garage. I Have a 29 gallon 2hp 150psi compressor from Harbor Freight (~$350) that plugs into regular 110v outlet. It has no problem keeping up with almost anything in my garage. It even ran a notoriously air-hoggy Dual Action Sander with occasional breaks to let the compressor catch up (Though I now run an electric sander now). My compressor doesn’t even break a sweat with the tire machine. A friend also runs his own tire machine with the <$200 16 gallon, 1.8hp compressor, with no problem.
Like your air compressor, many tire machines have an internal air storage tank so it has a bit more air in reserve when it’s doing the tasks that take a lot of air. I’m sure that an even smaller compressor than the 16gal/1.8 would work… Worst case scenario you’d need to take more beer brakes as the compressor catches up.
“What ELSE do I need?”
There are countless accessories for tire machines, enough that they warranted their own post. Look for it in the next few days.
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