It had to happen. As sure as the law of gravity makes everything that goes up come down, the cyclical nature of the car business makes every trend that goes away, come back. Ties get wide, then go skinny again; headlamps are round, then square, then oval. Chrome fades away with memories of drive-in root beer stands and waitresses on roller skates. Then it comes back. Right now, it's coming back with a vengeance -- at least on wheels.

"There wasn't any chrome on a car in '92, so there was nowhere to go but up," says Marc Santucci, president of ELM International Inc., an automotive market research company that recently studied the chromed-wheel market. He predicts the popularity of chromed aluminum wheels to continue to soar through 1997, with installation rates as high as 10% to 15% at Cadillac, the first to offer them as factory items. That's not bad for a $1,200 option that yields an estimated profit of about $800 per vehicle. Chromed wheels are a $1,500 option on a '95 Jaguar. Industry sources say they only cost OEMs about $90 each ($360 per car) to produce.

Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. also now offer chromed wheels for around $1,000 on several models.

Still want the look but can't afford the wheels or the luxury car that goes with them? Don't despair. Mr. Santucci says at least one supplier has inked a contract to produce about a million chrome-plated plastic wheelcovers for models such as General Motors Corp.'s Grand Am and Achieva models.

Automakers also are eyeing polished aluminum wheels -- which have a similar shiny appearance -- and are less costly. There was a problem with the urethane coating on these breaking down and causing some appearance problems, but that may be solved now, Mr. Santucci says.

It started a few years ago -- in southern California, of course. Suddenly a large number of BMW, Mercedes and Lexus models were seen sporting aftermarket chromed aluminum wheels. At that time the arbiters of taste apparently decided chromed wheels were a mark of distinction for a vehicle owner, not a sign he was climbing the ranks of a cocaine distribution empire.

If you've been to southern California recently you understand this. Almost every other vehicle now seems to have chromed wheels -- even pickup trucks. And now the trend has taken hold even in the conservative Midwest. Almost every new Cadillac in suburban Detroit, for instance, appears to be equipped with shiny chromed wheels.

Automakers were quick to notice this trend because they saw how eagerly consumers were paying for aftermarket wheels, but they couldn't move faster because of some tricky technical issues. The complex shape of most aluminum wheels makes them tough to plate to begin with. But road salt quickly peels the chrome off conventional plated wheels, severely limiting their use outside the sunbelt.

To avoid a warranty and customer-satisfaction nightmare, automakers had to work with a small band of suppliers to develop corrosion-resistant plated wheels. One of the winning strategies apparently is to use a special squeeze-casting process that minimizes porosity in the wheel itself, and then coating it with zinc prior to plating -- plus a few other tricks.

Just how well the wheels stand up to corrosion over the next few years will play a crucial role in how popular they become, Mr. Santucci says.

Are you still wrinkling up your nose over the thought of all that bright chrome gracing tomorrow's vehicles? Well, don't worry anymore. It will go great with the vinyl roofs and opera windows on the '97s.