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HE'S GOT YOUR WHEELS COVERED

Sam the Hubcap Man has been replacing broken hubcaps for decades.

Sam the Hubcap Man loves rain.

"Rain helps my business,'' he says.

Rain causes potholes, and Sam Licata, 62, knows that within a week of a heavy rain, he'll see an increase in business. A steady stream of customers will stop by his odd-shaped building on Busch Boulevard to buy used hubcaps.

Licata likes right turns, too. Drivers turning right often smack into the curb on the blind side and either scratch or dislodge the right front hubcap. Store manager Gino Lamputi says right turns seem to cause the majority of missing hubcaps.

"More likely you can walk out to the car and see (only) the driver's side and know that the right front one is missing. It's just common.''

Whatever caused the old wheel cover to spin off, Licata can sell customers used replacements for about $35 to $45 apiece, depending on condition, or about a third to half the price they would pay at a dealership. Refurbished covers - sanded, painted and sealed to look new - run about $65. And a manufactured plastic copy with metal clips can cost $65 to $95 for a set of four.

Licata has operated out of the same location for 20 years, and he has been successful enough to expand his inventory to tires and custom wheels. He even has a Sam the Hubcap Man catalog, from which a customer can select a set of wheels costing as much as $13,000.

Most customers, however, are just looking for a hubcap. While automotive performance has greatly improved in the past two decades, hubcaps have gone the other way. Metal wheel covers were phased out 20 or 25 years ago, replaced by plastic hubcaps, many with relatively flimsy plastic clips. Service attendants tend to break the clips by slamming the hubcap on improperly after checking brakes or rotating tires, and eventually the hubcap and wheel part ways.

Though some people continue to drive with hubcaps missing, most people who come in are too self-conscious, Licata says. "They don't want that ugly black wheel showing on the car.''

Lamputi, 34, the son of close friends, has known Licata all his life. He describes him as a funny guy, a good guy to work for.

"It's not boring at all, I can tell you that. He's a stickler; he likes it his way. We call him 'Old Man,''' Lamputi says. "He doesn't want to change a whole bunch.''

And he doesn't want the customer to go anywhere else. He insists that he can get replacement hubcaps for 98 percent of cars on the road.

His biggest seller is for Toyota. "They fall off,'' he says, adding that six or seven Toyota owners stop in every day.

He has found that Honda and some Nissan hubcaps are more likely than others to peel, revealing a tan base under the paint.

Licata became a used hubcap entrepreneurby accident, he says. Looking for a job 28 years ago, he signed on with a company that sold replacement hubcaps to dealerships, which wanted to make their used models more appealing.

He, his son and another man formed their own company, and servicing dealerships is still a large part of his business, he says. Sam Jr., the vice president of the company, oversees that operation.

They replace the hubcaps on dealers' used cars with metal-clip manufactured copies and take a trade-in on the wheel covers they remove-. Licata will sell the used covers as they are, or slightly scratched. Those that are badly scratched are sent out to be sanded, given a primer coat, a main coat and sealed before they are sold.

Surprisingly, the demise of metal hubcaps did not end hubcap theft, a notoriously common crime for juvenile delinquents.

People still steal hubcaps,Licata says. "We hear it every day.''

The difference is, the thieves aren't selling them for a profit. They're putting them on their own cars, which is cheaper, even, than visiting Sam the Hubcap Man.

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3435.

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