Of all the components of an interior, none takes more abuse than the seats. Let’s face it, the older we get, the heavier we get, and that’s a lot of abuse on those seats, probably more than what the manufacturer suspected they’d have to support. Springs sag over time (that is, if they don’t outright break), foam cushions go flat (if the mice don’t ruin them first), and seat covers become stained, ripped, and torn (regardless of the materials used in their construction). Before long, you’re sitting on seats no more comfortable than a swift kick in the rear.
This Tech Tip is From the Full Book, MUSCLE CAR INTERIOR RESTORATION GUIDE. For a comprehensive guide on this entire subject you can visit this link:
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Just as putting a cheesy, big-box parts-store dash cover over your dashboard won’t address the real problems underneath the dash skin, putting a cheesy big-box parts-store seat cover over your buckets won’t repair the damage done by 35-plus years of abuse. That means you’ll have to strip down the seats and rebuild them with new foam and new seat covers. The seat frame should be free of any cracks, twists, bends, or severe rust. If it is, a simple sandblast and repaint will be sufficient to prepare it for new padding and covers.
If the seat frames exhibit severe damage, they should be replaced— refurbished and reproduction seat frames are available for some of the more popular muscle cars, while less popular muscle cars require a search for good, used seat frames. Fortunately, for most muscle car owners, it’s simply a matter of picking up the phone or logging on to the Internet to order brand-new reproduction seat covers, foam seat buns, and even the springs and internal seat mechanisms. Even if your car isn’t that widely supported by the aftermarket, it’s still possible to repair and refurbish it using simple techniques and commonly available materials.
But first, you should identify the materials used in the construction of your muscle car’s seats. Remember the swatch books we mentioned in Chapter 1? Here’s where they come into play. You can hold them up against your seats to determine the correct patterns of the cloth or the correct grains of the vinyl. You may find that the sun has faded the colors on the seats; to find the original color, you may have to disassemble the seats at least partially to find a spot that hasn’t seen the sun since the Age of Aquarius.
A quick note here on the different terms you’ll hear for vinyl. Naugahyde, for instance, is similar to most other cloth-backed vinyls used in automotive interiors. It only refers to the company that produces it, which took its name from its initial home in Naugatuck, Connecticut. The material is completely artificial and is not made from the hides of the mythical Nauga creature.
If you’re into Pontiacs, you’ll hear about Morrokide. If you’re into Oldsmobiles, you’ll hear about Lansing’s version, called Morocceen. Both are also cloth-backed vinyls, though they’re rather renowned for their durability and longevity.
Leather is out of the scope of this book, if only because, quite frankly, muscle cars didn’t come with leather upholstery. For the same reason, I won’t discuss bench seats. However, many of the same techniques that are used to restore vinyl upholstery can also apply to leather upholstery, and in fact, many restorers note that leather is often easier to work with than vinyl.
So before ordering new seat covers—or before taking the old covers to an upholstery shop to have them replicated—note not only the material type, but also the construction methods. Does the seat back have a plastic shell, or does the seat material extend all the way down? How are the seat inserts configured? Will you need to replace any trim on the seats? Are the stitches at the seams actual stitches, or are they molded, imitation stitches?
Keep in mind that the width of the back seat will be narrower in a convertible than in a hardtop. And check to make sure whether your seat covers were standard for your car or if they were a deluxe or optional item; sometimes the entire seat construction, down to the foam padding, changes between standard and deluxe interiors.
Installing New Seat Covers
For the seat cover replacement process, we went back to our 1968 Camaro, which had a pair of standard vinyl seat covers on the original buckets. However, the Camaro’s owner wanted a full set of houndstooth vinyl-and-cloth seat covers, manufactured by PUI Interiors and supplied by Classic Industries. The buns for the seats—the foam padding that will go between the springs and the seat cover—were ordered from American Cushion Industries. You can also sometimes buy buns from Dashes Direct.
To save money, you may be tempted to order just the seat covers and skip the buns, but it’s a bit ridiculous not to replace the old, squished, dirty, and possibly mousechewed foam while the seat’s all apart anyway.
We started by removing the seats, both front and back, and inspecting them to make sure the new covers will fit. These seats showed extensive mildewing, just like the door and interior panels in Chapter 6. The mildew could be removed with either Simple Green or Spray Nine and a soft brush (a potato brush from the local kitchen store works well). However, mildew usually comes on the heels of excessive moisture, which can warp and damage more than just the seat covers. Besides, these seats also exhibited some rips, and as we turned over the rear seat back, we found a substantial mouse nest, reasons enough to put new covers on the seats.
Beginning with the rear seat back, we began removing all the old hog rings holding the seat cover to the frame. Where the hog rings didn’t go through pre-stamped holes in the frame, we noted what seat springs or other seat-frame structures they attached to. Rather than cut the hog rings with side cutters, we employed a twisting technique— using the seat frame as leverage— that removed the hog rings without hand fatigue and without sending sharp pieces of hog ring flying across the room.
With all the hog rings removed, we then removed the stiff metal rods from loops of fabric (the technical term for the loops is listing) around the perimeter of the seat cover. Usually, the factories built seats with one rod for each side of the seat, so in this case, the seat back used one rod for the left side, one for the right side, another rod at the top, and another rod at the bottom.
We came across some exceptions to that rule as we did the rest of the seats in this Camaro. If the rods didn’t easily slide out, we cut them out of the listing with a razor blade. The rods are usually rusty, so now would be a good time to clean them up and paint them. Note that sometimes the factory wrapped the rods in paper, which can help them slide into and out of the listing.
Next we removed the cover from the seat back, being careful not to disturb the cotton filler under the cover. (The seat back is unique in that it doesn’t use foam padding and instead relies on the springs and a thin layer of cotton for cushioning.) The owner of the Camaro wanted to save a few bucks, so we didn’t strip down the seat any farther than it needed to be stripped, which means we simply left the cotton and springs in place and vacuumed out the remains of the mouse nest.
Installing New Seat Covers
Step-1: Installing New Seat Covers
Though not stock to this 1968 Camaro, the houndstooth-pattern vinyl and cloth seat covers will look much nicer than the raggedy, plain-vinyl seat covers in the Camaro now. New seat cushions to match the covers were ordered at the same time.
Step-2: Installing New Seat Covers
You can see how extensive the mildewing had become. Though it could be cleaned up now, you won’t be sure all traces of mildew or the source of the problem is gone, until you’ve removed and/or replaced the entire interior.
Step-3: Installing New Seat Covers
Oooh, money! Another benefit to replacing or refurbishing your interior is that you find all sorts of change and neat stuff. Of course, if you lost it in the first place, you’re not really ahead of the game, are you?
Step-4: Installing New Seat Covers
This Camaro was full of surprises; when we removed the rear seat back we discovered a mouse condo in one corner. It’s for this reason that you should probably wear a respirator, or at the very least a dust mask, when disassembling your interior.
Step-5: Installing New Seat Covers
With a pair of side cutters (also called diagonal cutters or electrician’s snips), we began removing the hog rings from the rear seat back. Rather than cut the rings, however, we used a twisting motion that removed them just as quickly and with less strain on our hands. This is an important consideration because a typical seat will have two or three dozen hog rings.
Step-6: Installing New Seat Covers
With all the hog rings removed from one side of the seat, we removed the rod from the listing. Cleaning the rust from the rods now will help them slide into the listing in the new seat covers later
Step-7: Installing New Seat Covers
If the rods do not easily slide out of the listing, as with these rods from the back seat cushion, you may have to cut them from their listing with a razor blade. Just be sure to cut only the listing and not the seat material, which you may need for reference later on.
Step-8: Installing New Seat Covers
With all four rods removed from all four sides, the seat cover will pull away from the seat frame just as easily as it will go back on later in the process, so there should be no need to cut the seat cover apart just to separate it from the frame.
Step-9: Installing New Seat Covers
Vacuum the remains of the mouse nest. This is also a good time to continue stripping the frame down to bare metal to rid it of rust, and to paint it to deter further rust.
Step-10: Installing New Seat Covers
Rather than remove the cotton padding and burlap spring cover from the seatback, we instead rolled out another layer of cotton. The old cotton, flattened over the decades, wouldn’t fill out the new seats on its own, and would leave the seat covers loose on the seat back.
Step-11: Installing New Seat Covers
With the cotton trimmed to size (it pulled apart easily by hand), we centered the seat cover over the frame and flipped its edges over the seat frame, starting at the corners. The last two corners are sometimes difficult to pull over the frame, but will eventually make it.
Step-12: Installing New Seat Covers
After pulling all four corners over the frame, we checked to make sure the cover had remained centered. A bit of gentle tugging from either side brought the cover back to the correct position.
Step-13: Installing New Seat Covers
The listing on the new seat covers may need to be cut open at the ends, as with the covers for our Camaro. Note the holes stamped into the inner edges of the frame; the hog rings will attach here momentarily. If no such holes exist, the hog rings will have to attach to the seat springs.
Step-14: Installing New Seat Covers
We inserted the rods that we removed earlier into the new seat cover’s listing. For the longer rods, we often had to hold the listing straight to force the rods to slide in without catching the sides of the listing.
Step-15: Installing New Seat Covers
These hog ring pliers are a bit simpler than the ones we discussed in Chapter 1. These require loading the hog ring into the pliers manually, but the concept is the same. Here, we used the sharp end of the hog ring to pierce the listing behind the rod, and hooked both ends of the ring around the stamped holes in the frame.
Step-16: Installing New Seat Covers
We tackled each side of the seat back by cinching the hog ring closest to the center first, then working out from there. The stamped holes told us how to space the hog rings, but in the absence of stamped holes, we usually placed a hog ring about every 2 to 3 inches.
Step-17: Installing New Seat Covers
With all four sides hog ringed, we flipped over the seat back to examine our work. Wrinkles in the vinyl were easily smoothed out with heat or steam.
Step-18: Installing New Seat Covers
For the cushion of the rear seat, the process is nearly the same as for the seat back, except the cushion has this center hump, created by two additional rods inserted in two additional pieces of listing on either side of the hump.
Step-19: Installing New Seat Covers
After removing the hog rings and four rods from the underside of the cushion, we flipped over the cushion back and folded back the seat cover to the first defining rod, to reveal the hog rings that hold that rod to the seat frame.
Step-20: Installing New Seat Covers
With both of those defining rods removed, we transferred them to the new seat cover before stretching the seat cover over the frame. The listing for the defining rods is occasionally stitched in the wrong place, so it’s a good idea to check the new seat cover against the old one to make sure the listing is in the same place.
Step-21: Installing New Seat Covers
Usually, the defining rods are hog ringed straight to the seat springs, but you should doublecheck to see where exactly they attach. The hog ringing process is the same as for the rods on the perimeter of the seats, save for the fact that you have to negotiate the hog ring pliers into a somewhat more cramped space.
Step-22: Installing New Seat Covers
From the underside, you can see exactly where the hog rings attach to the springs.
Step-23: Installing New Seat Covers
Only one rod secures the front of the seat cover to the cushion around the driveshaft tunnel, and that rod bends around the tunnel while in the listing. Simply straighten the rod before inserting it into the new listing (it goes in a lot easier when straight) and then hog ring it exactly as it was hog ringed in the old listing. The driveshaft tunnel will bend it back into its previous shape.
Step-24: Installing New Seat Covers
At the back of the seat cushion, the rod is actually hog ringed just forward of the back of the frame, so don’t try to pull the seat cover back too far. A flap of material aft of the listing will cover the back of the seat frame.
Step-25: Installing New Seat Covers
Hog rings secure that flap of material as well, though without the benefit of rods and listing. At the corners, fold over the excess material and hog ring it down. Even the topside of this area won’t be visible once the cushion is installed in the car, but folding over the edge will prevent that excess material from getting snagged during assembly.
Step-26: Installing New Seat Covers
Again, you may have to smooth out some wrinkles with the heat gun, but just for a moment, congratulate yourself on a job well done. You’re making some good progress.
Step-27: Installing New Seat Covers
You’ll have to spend a little more time disassembling the front seats before you are able to remove the seat covers. For example, our Camaro uses hard plastic shells to cover the back of the bucket seats and the latch assembly. If possible, work on one bucket seat at a time to avoid confusing parts.
Step-28: Installing New Seat Covers
If you can’t work on one bucket seat at a time, it helps that most of the bucket seat parts are marked L or R, such as this bracket for the seat latch. Also, make sure you have the right covers for the right seat, and that you’re installing the left covers on the left bucket seat.
Step-29: Installing New Seat Covers
Separate the seat back from the cushion and remove the seat tracks. Now is a good time to derust and paint the seat tracks. Make sure to grease the tracks thoroughly before reassembly.
Step-30: Installing New Seat Covers
On first-generation Camaro and Firebird seats, the covers for the front cushions are held down with plastic clips that fasten to the seat frames (not with hog rings). The easiest way to remove these clips is to simply slice them to release the tension, letting the clips fall away from the seat frames.
Anybody doing this step at home, however, can certainly take a more thorough approach and remove the cotton in order to attack any rust on the springs and frame, and then repaint them before applying a fresh layer of cotton.
The cotton, by the way, is simple craft-store cotton that comes off a roll; it can be torn apart with the hands rather easily to fit the seat frame and springs. Higher-grade cottons aren’t necessary here. Unfortunately, the cotton also usually soaks up the smell of mouse urine, so if you find that you just cannot get rid of that acrid, ugly smell, you may have to replace the cotton.
For this Camaro, we added a little extra cotton to make up for the compression that the old cotton suffered over the decades. Adding extra cotton also makes the seat covers a little tighter, and most upholsterers aim for a tighter fitting seat cover rather than a loose one, which has more potential to slide around on the seat.
We then laid the cover over the seat with the correct orientation, making sure it was generally centered on the seat. The cover should come with the sides folded up—as if it were inside-out—which makes it easier to pull the sides down over the frame.
By inserting a hand into the pocket created by the turned-up sides at the corners of the cover, we were able to flip the corner down and snug it over the corner of the frame, repeating the process at each corner. Though we pulled the sides down by hand, if you feel you can’t get a good grip on the seat cover or if you can’t stretch it enough by hand, it may be necessary to pull the sides down with a pair of stretching pliers. Vinyl is notorious for being hard to stretch, but it also is capable of resisting damage while stretching it.
It’s a good idea to start stretching the cover down at the corners, which will show you if the cover fits tight or if it needs more cotton. If it’s too tight, you can either take some cotton out of the seat or use a heat gun to soften and stretch the areas that are too tight.
The listing on the new seat cover wasn’t open at both ends (which is not uncommon), which forced us to cut a small slit in one end so we could slide the rods into the listing. Here’s where cleaning up rusty rods helps reassembly—painted (or papercoated) rods slide easier through the listing than rusted rods.
With the rods inserted into the listing, we then loaded up our hog ring pliers. Starting at the center of each side, we poked one end of the hog ring through the listing, making sure to hook the rod within the listing. We then poked the other end of the ring either through a prestamped hole or around the seat structure noted earlier. With a squeeze of the pliers, the hog ring collapses, securing the rod (and thus the listing and thus the seat cover) to the seat frame.
Unless pre-stamped holes in the seat frame dictate how much space to put between the hog rings, you can leave about 3 or 4 inches maximum between hog rings. Secure them to the seat springs if necessary.
Installing New Seat Covers (CONTINUED)
Step-31: Installing New Seat Covers
It’s not that firstgeneration Camaro and Firebird cushions don’t use hog rings at all; it’s just that GM decided to use hog rings to secure the foam buns to the frame instead of the covers. They also used hog rings to secure the defining rods in the center of the cushion.
Step-32: Installing New Seat Covers
Speaking of those defining rods, the new buns should have three valleys for three defining rods. Unfortunately, these buns came with just two valleys, so we laid the new seat cover over the new bun and marked the position of the listing.
Step-33: Installing New Seat Covers
We cut out a new valley along the marked line, careful not to cut entirely through the bun.
Step-34: Installing New Seat Covers
Before installing the seat cover and the bun, however, we checked the seat frame for any damage to the springs. We also checked the burlap and the thin layer of cotton atop the springs, and found that the mice that built that little condo in the back seat must not have needed to nibble on the front seat innards.
Step-35: Installing New Seat Covers
Had the seat springs busted, we could have replaced them with new springs cut from a roll, available at any interior or upholstery supplier.
Step-36: Installing New Seat Covers
Where we couldn’t use an original rod, or when the car’s owner didn’t supply us with the original rod, we found that 16-gauge wire from the local hardware store made a decent substitute. It was stiff enough to hold the listing in place, but was still pliable with pliers or side cutters.
Step-37: Installing New Seat Covers
To fashion a replacement rod, we first cut and straightened a piece of 16-gauge wire at a length slightly longer than the listing. We then curled each end into a loop to make the wire slide through the listing a little easier.
Step-38: Installing New Seat Covers
When hog ringing the bun to the seat frame, we didn’t have the benefit of the stiff rods in the listing that we had with the seat covers, so we made sure to insert the hog rings through the reinforced section of the bun.
Step-39: Installing New Seat Covers
To make sure the seat cover slid over the bun, which can often grab at the cover material when new, we hit them both with a shot of silicone spray. We gave the seat a good dose to get the cover to stretch all the way down to the seat frame.
Step-40: Installing New Seat Covers
Slipping the seat cover over the frame is only half of the job with these F-body seats. We next had to flip over the plastic clip already stitched into the seat cover, and hook the clip over the lip in the seat frame.
Step-41: Installing New Seat Covers
The back of the cushion needs to be hog ringed to the springs in the conventional method.
Step-42: Installing New Seat Covers
With the seat cover secured, it was time to reassemble the bits that came off the cushion during disassembly. To find screw and bolt holes, we first felt around for the depressions, then poked a starter hole with an awl.
Step-43: Installing New Seat Covers
Holes for the seat back pivot posts can be cut in a variety of ways. We used the most straightforward method of just cutting around the post. We already knew that a piece of plastic trim would slide over the post later on, covering any hole that we cut.
Step-44: Installing New Seat Covers
As mentioned before, make sure the seat back covers are not mixed left-to-right, so the hole for the latch handle will end up on the correct side of the seat back.
Step-45: Installing New Seat Covers
With the seat back recovered and the two halves of the bucket rejoined, we can see how the two covers don’t quite match up. A difference like this would definitely be noticeable with the bucket installed in the car, but lesser differences may not be visible.
Step-46: Installing New Seat Covers
Rather than separate the two halves of the bucket and rework both halves to make the seat covers match up, we gently tugged at the seat covers until they lined up.
Step-47: Installing New Seat Covers
This looks much better than the mildew-and-mouse-nest state in which we found it. As for the continued mismatch between the seat covers, perhaps this head-on perspective makes it more noticeable than the angled perspective you’ll have when the seat is installed in the Camaro.
Step-48: Installing New Seat Covers
With our new seats plopped into the Camaro, resting atop new carpet (see Chapter 5) and beside new door panels (see Chapter 6), the Camaro certainly looks a few thousand dollars better. Not bad for a few hours of work, right?
After we finished hog ringing the top and bottom of the seat cover, we double-checked that the seat cover remained centered on the frame, then hog ringed the sides of the seat cover. We then flipped over the seat back. Where we saw any loose spots or wrinkles in the seat cover, we either manually stretched that area of the seat cover or applied some heat to smooth it out.
Some restorers recommend using steam in such a case, which works well on cloths and vinyls, but will shrink and stiffen leathers. However, it’s not really worth the time to fire up a steam machine (which many resto shops have) or even to boil a pan of water if you’re only doing one or two seats. A heat gun will accomplish the same thing with less hassle.
The bottom of the back seat (called the cushion) is constructed largely the same, with cotton over springs instead of foam padding. It does, however, have two additional rods and pieces of listing running from front to back toward the center of the cushion, hog ringed to the seat springs. These help define the rear seat cushion into distinct sections for each passenger. The old hog rings here should be removed after the old hog rings around the perimeter of the cushion. The new hog rings here should be installed before the new perimeter hog rings. The easiest way to reach them is to just flip over the seat cover with it laying on the seat, which will give you access to the listing and the valley through the cotton padding where the hog rings attach to the seat springs.
The transmission and driveshaft tunnel will also likely intrude into the rear seat cushion, but you’ll notice that the cushion only uses one rod for the front and one rod for the back, both bent to conform around the tunnel. Before inserting these rods into the new listing, straightening them will help them slide in. Attach the hog rings as you normally would. They will then bend around the transmission tunnel according to the placement of the hog rings.
Also, pay attention to how the back of the seat cushion is constructed. On this Camaro, the rod isn’t hog ringed to the far back edge of the seat frame. Instead, it reaches down to the springs just forward of the back edge of the frame. A flap rearward of the listing stretches over the back edge of the frame. Hog rings pierce that flap, assisted by a cord stitched into the flap. This trailing edge tucks in under the seat back, so wrinkles in the flap here don’t show when the rear seat is in the car. For this reason, though, the flap covers the trailing edge of the frame and protects the seat back from that raw metal edge.
Front bucket seats are a little more complicated, but the overall process remains very similar. Take care during disassembly to note not only which side each seat track goes on, but also how the seat latch operates and the location of any hardware or trim that attaches to the seats. Doing one bucket seat at a time helps reduce parts confusion, and allows a seat to remain assembled for reference.
After removing the trim and separating the seat back from the cushion, we focused on the cushion. General Motors F-bodies, such as this Camaro, use only a few hog rings around the seat perimeter, at the back of the seat. The rest of the perimeter relies on a plastic piece stitched into the seat cover material that clips directly into the seat frame. Rather than fight with the tension of the plastic clip, we cut it free from the seat cover with a razor blade. Most other muscle cars use hog rings to attach the seat cover to the frame, but such plastic clips are not uncommon.
The Camaro’s bucket seat uses hog rings to hold down the foam buns and to attach the rods that define the center of the seat to the springs (similar to the rear cushion’s defining rods). The hog rings that hold down the foam buns go straight through the buns rather than through any listing, though the hog rings do attach through areas that are lightly reinforced by a listing-like material bonded to the foam.
If the foam is damaged and no reproduction buns are available, it’s easy enough to repair the foam by cutting out the damaged sections with an electric carving knife, then buying new foam at any craft store and using contact cement to bond the new foam to the old foam. Similarly, some reproduction seat buns come as universal blocks of foam, which then need to be shaped with an electric carving knife to match the original shape.
Even the shaped reproduction bun for this Camaro required a slight alteration. The cushion used three rods to define the shape of the cover—two running longitudinally and one running latitudinally. The bun had two pre-cut valleys for the longitudinal rods, but no pre-cut valley for the latitudinal rod. For that reason, we had to mark the location of the latitudinal rod using the listing on the seat cover as a reference, then slice open a valley with a razor blade. Although our new valley extended to the other two valleys, it didn’t go all the way through the foam, which left enough bun for the hog rings to grasp.
After we removed the old bun from the seat, we checked the springs to make sure they didn’t require repair or replacement. Of all the seats in a car, the driver’s seat sees the most use, followed by the front passenger seat. Thus, the driver’s seat is the one most likely to suffer a broken spring or other maladies. Broken springs usually occur right at the edges of the seat, where they are secured to the frame, and can easily be replaced with new spring material.
Bulk spring material comes on a roll from upholstery supply houses such as Albany Foam and Supply or through reproduction parts houses. Some upholsterers like to use actual coil springs, also available through upholstery supply houses, to assist the stock corrugated springs. Coil springs last longer, but they require some creativity to figure out how to mount them to the seat frame.
Burlap is also a commonly available item; heck, check with your local feed supply store. It serves two functions when it’s laid over the springs. First, it suppresses the noise of the springs. So if you hear your seat springs creaking as you drive down the road, your burlap is probably shot. Second, it covers the raw metal edges of the seat frame and prevents the seat frame from damaging the foam buns. Some restorers like to use heavy canvas instead of burlap, simply because it doesn’t disintegrate as easily as burlap.
We found that a couple of the original rods from the Camaro’s bucket seats couldn’t be reused, a common malady due to extensive rust, original rods snapping in half, or car owners misplacing the rods. Some reproduction seat covers come with rods already inserted into the listing, and sometimes rolls of prestitched listing come with the rods already inserted.
No such luck in this case, so we took a roll of 16-gauge wire—available in any hardware store and usually labeled for use in drop ceiling installations—and cut a length just slightly longer than the section of listing. After straightening the length of wire, we then bent the ends of the wire into a loop, which made it easier to slide the wire through the listing. The loops also prevented the wire from sliding past the hog rings once installed. The corrugation of the original rods served the same purpose.
Some reproduction seat covers come with flimsy cardboard inserted into the listing and intended to take the place of the metal rods. Unfortunately when the cardboard is hog ringed, it pulls in toward the hog ring only around the hog ring instead of along the entire length of the rod. The effect is less than pleasing and less than durable, so whenever possible, it’s a good idea to replace the cardboard insert with a wire insert.
After setting the center hog rings into place and hog ringing the bun, we sprayed some silicone on the upturned sides of the cover and the bun itself. The silicone helps the cover slide down over the foam (which doesn’t slide well on its own), as we stretched it toward the seat frame. One warning about silicone: Do not spray it anywhere near where you’ll be doing bodywork or painting. You’ll end up with plastic filler that won’t stick to the metal, and fisheyes in your paint.
Some people like to use plastic grocery bags to slide the seat cover over the bun. But if you can’t remove the bag afterward, the seat crinkles and crunches like your grandma’s plastic couch cover.
Whatever slipping agent you use, be sure to use plenty. You’ll need to pull the cover tight to either hog ring it to the frame or attach the plastic clip on the new seat cover to the frame.
At this point, the cover should look stuffed, but not overstuffed. Many times, an overstuffed seat is the result of an overlooked wire in listing that needs to be hog ringed down. Nor should the seat look understuffed and flat—to puff it back out, layer the buns underneath the covers with cotton until the voids between the bun and cover are filled.
With the seat cover secured, we used an awl to find the screw and bolt holes for the various brackets that we removed earlier, using the old seat covers as reference. A variation of the leave-the-screws-threaded method (see Chapter 5) would have also worked well in this case. For the posts on either side that the seat back pivots on, we took a razor blade and pressed an X in the top of either post, which allowed us to push the seat cover down around the post. Some upholsterers also like to tap a hammer lightly around the edge of the post’s top, effectively punching out a perfect-sized hole for the post. Just as long as the hole cut for the post isn’t too large, any hole will do. The factory used a plastic disc to cover the material around the post.
For the seat back, the process is nearly the same as for the cushion, except the seat cover is fastened with hog rings around the back. Oh, and the seat back covers are often different—left versus right—due to the location of the handle for the latch, so it’s important to make sure you have the driver’s side seat back cover on the driver’s side seat back, and vice versa.
With both covers on, reattach the seat back to the cushion to make sure the two seat covers line up. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t, depending on the quality of the seat covers. The houndstooth pattern on these seat covers also made any misalignment between the two very evident. If the covers don’t line up, you’ll have to separate the seat back from the cushion again and adjust one or the other or both by pulling on the covers until they slide into position.
In all, and without including any time for sandblasting and painting, it took us about 11 ⁄2 to 2 hours to finish each cushion and seat back set. So for both buckets and the rear seat, set aside about 6 hours total. It’s maybe not a project for one night in the garage, but perhaps for a weekend, or a string of three or four nights.
So maybe you don’t have the dough to spring for new seat covers, or your existing seats aren’t ratty enough to warrant total replacement. But there’s a rip or a cigarette burn in the original seat cover that’s bugging you, and you know it will become major damage sooner or later.
If the damage is in a cloth section of the seat cover, you’re looking at a seat cover replacement. Those iron-on fabric patches might cut it for elementary-school fashion, but not for our discerning (yet some might say still juvenile) muscle car palates. But if the damage is in a soft vinyl section, you’re in luck and can repair the damage without removing the seat cover.
Permatex offers a kit that does just that, and it’s usually available at your corner parts store. The kit seems to be good for damage up to about the diameter of a tennis ball, and can be implemented in a day.
As with most other repair processes, the first step requires you to clean the area with denatured alcohol, and to remove the loose threads or chunks of vinyl from the damaged area. If the material is charred, bubbled, melted, distorted, or otherwise heat damaged, remove the entire damaged area with a razor blade.
Included in the kit is a swatch of plain muslin cloth. Cut a piece of the cloth slightly larger than the damaged area itself, then place the cloth behind the damaged area, pushing it through with a dull instrument. Use the spatula included in the repair kit, or even a popsicle stick will work.
Step-1: Vinyl Repair
This small tear in the back of our otherwise decent bucket seat’s cover didn’t warrant replacing the entire seat cover, but we still didn’t want the tear there, nor did we want it to expand beyond its current size. We found a vinyl repair kit at our local parts store that promised to do the trick.
Step-2: Vinyl Repair
We began the repair process by cleaning the area surrounding the tear with denatured alcohol to remove grease and grime from the vinyl surface. It’s funny how a surface like this looks rather clean and uniform until you get up close to it.
Step-3: Vinyl Repair
We probably didn’t need to cut off a section of the backing cloth for a repair this small, but we noticed that the fibers behind the tear had already started to come out, so we thought we’d play it safe. For larger repair areas, you should definitely use the backing cloth.
Step-4: Vinyl Repair
Using the provided spatula, we shoved the small section of backing cloth into the tear and made sure it laid flat behind the vinyl. It quickly became apparent that all we were really doing here was replicating the cloth-backed composition of the vinyl seat covers.
Step-5: Vinyl Repair
A tube of adhesive and filler is supplied to actually make the repair to the vinyl cover. A little of this stuff goes a long way, so we squeezed out a dab and used the provided spatula to smear it up and down the length of the tear, then let it sit overnight.
Step-6: Vinyl Repair
The kit included three pieces of grain paper, each with different grains that would replicate the pattern embossed in the seat cover. None of them were spot on, but we chose the one that seemed closest. In actuality, it was much further off than we suspected, but it’s the best we could do.
Step-7: Vinyl Repair
While waiting for the repair to dry, we compared the kits listed colors with the color of our vinyl. To position the colors closer to the vinyl, we cut off the white border on the left of the chart. We really should have done this under natural lighting to ensure a proper color match.
Step-8: Vinyl Repair
Following the instructions on the chart, we mixed up what was supposed to be the correct color. We tried several batches to come up with a good match, keeping in mind that the white lightens the color, while the yellow brightens it, and the black darkens it.
Step-9: Vinyl Repair
We found a combination that seemed to work, so once the adhesive dried, we spread a section of the color paste over the repair area. The kit’s instructions suggest you feather the color paste over the surrounding areas, but we later found that the feathered areas flaked away from the vinyl.
Step-10: Vinyl Repair
Using the piece of grain paper we selected earlier, we laid it over the repair area. The color paste sticks to the grain paper until it has been heat cured, so once you set the grain paper in place, you can’t make adjustments without making a mess.
Step-11: Vinyl Repair
Following the instructions, we placed the metal tip of the supplied dowel against a hot iron. The heat from the iron should transfer to the metal tip, which is supposed to immediately transfer to the grain paper.
Step-12: Vinyl Repair
The heat is then supposed to transfer through the grain paper to the color paste and cure it with the grain pattern of the paper embossed into it. You can understand how this takes quite a while, and doesn’t really work as advertised.
Step-13: Vinyl Repair
We decided to leave the grain paper and bust out the heat gun, moving it quickly over the entire section. This cured the color paste in record time and embossed the paper’s grain into the paste.
Step-14: Vinyl Repair
However, the instructions failed to mention that the color paste darkens as it cures, leading to a blob of mismatched color. Also, we were a little overzealous with the heat gun on the left side, as evidenced by the parting lines from the grain paper. But at least you can’t see any evidence of the tear. If we found the right shade of vinyl dye, we could eliminate the mismatched colors. This is why we’re sticking with black vinyl interiors from now on.
Next, use the adhesive/filler included in the kit to fill in the damaged area until it becomes level and smooth against the surrounding undamaged vinyl. If repairing a cut or tear in the vinyl, lift the edge of the tear and dab a small amount of adhesive between the vinyl and the backing cloth before applying the adhesive/filler to the tear itself. Try to use as little of the adhesive as possible—it spreads quickly and doesn’t easily come off a vinyl surface, so it can make a rather large mess in a short amount of time.
Though the adhesive/filler sets up quickly, it should dry for about 4 hours. Drying time can be reduced drastically, however, by aiming a hair dryer or heat gun set on low at the repair for about 15 minutes. Keep the heat moving; concentrating it in one place for too long will melt the vinyl.
While the adhesive’s drying, it’s a good time to do a couple things. First, you need to match the vinyl grain pattern to one of three samples included in the kit. Most vinyls should come awfully close to one of those three, if they don’t match the grain patterns outright.
Second, you need to match the color of the vinyl to the colors on the card supplied in the kit. We found that by cutting off the white border of the color card, we could see which color matched the vinyl better.
Find a clean surface on which to mix the colored pastes provided in the kit and follow the mixing directions on the color card. Experiment now—the kit provides plenty of colored paste material—to make the color mix as close as possible to the color of your vinyl. Here’s where it pays to have a black vinyl interior— one color of paste and you’re done!
Keep in mind that the paste will darken in the next step, so experiment through the next step on a scrap piece of vinyl. If you find it difficult to match the exact color of your vinyl, consider as an alternative using simple white paste and then hitting the area with a matching vinyl dye at the end of the repair process.
The colored paste only sets up with heat, becoming a somewhat pliable rubbery substance, so you have plenty of time to work with it, apply it, and shape it on the vinyl. Spread the mixed paste on the repair area, just enough to cover the dried adhesive/filler, and make it as smooth and consistent as possible.
Here, I’m going to depart from the kit’s instructions. The instructions recommend feathering the edges of the paste over the undamaged vinyl, but that only results in edges that bubble and don’t fully adhere to the vinyl. I recommend you keep a sharp edge all around the paste and wipe away excess paste with a clean popsicle stick or spatula edge.
As for applying heat, the kit directions recommend laying the grain paper over the color paste and using the metal tip of a wooden dowel to transfer heat from a household iron through the grain paper onto the color paste. That method, quite simply, sucks. It takes forever and the results are messy. Sure, it covers the repair, but the results then need their own repair.
A better method involves hitting the bare paste with the low setting on a heat gun. Once you start to see a little white smoke come from the color paste, it has started to set. At that exact second, remove the heat, apply the grain paper to the still-hot color paste and apply pressure to the grain paper (not with your bare hands; use the metal-tipped wooden dowel). The paper should impress enough of a grain on the color paste and any surrounding area that might have gone soft from the heat. Slowly peel the grain paper away from the vinyl once the area has cooled.
As long as the grain and the color of the paste match your existing vinyl, you should have a seamless repair. Running your hand along the repair, you shouldn’t be able to feel a ridge as long as you didn’t use too much adhesive or color paste. Making the color and grain correct is the most difficult part of this repair, so time should be spent making sure the right color is mixed and the right grain is selected. If possible, practice the repair on a junkyard seat or on seat covers that you’re going to replace anyway.
Seat Belt Restoration and Replacement
The National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Lyndon Johnson on September 9, 1966. It requires all new vehicles sold in the United States to have, among other safety items, head rests, shatterresistant windshields, and energyabsorbing steering columns. The Act also mandates seat belt installation on all new cars, which is why you will not see a car without seat belts from the 1967 model year on.
Of course, seat belts had been around for decades before that, and installing seat belts was nothing new for the factories. Since the 1950s they’d been installing belts (or at least the mounting points for optional or dealer-installed belts) in many of their cars. So the structures and the seat belts exist for most 1966 and older muscle cars. Studies show that a threepoint belt offers a significant increase in safety over a two-point belt, so if the mounting holes exist allowing an upgrade to a three-point seat belt, converting is highly recommended. In the rare case you have a car not originally designed for seat belts, the street rod market—specifically companies such as Juliano’s and RetroBelt—offer seat belt retrofit kits.
Seat belts are unique in that their primary function is not for aesthetics, comfort, or control of the car. Instead, it’s for safety, with aesthetics a distant secondary function, so any thought of seat belt restoration must keep safety at the forefront of even the most minor decision.
Anybody with serious racing experience knows that the SFI Foundation, which issues and administers racing equipment standards, not only specs out racing seat belt and harness standards, but also tests and certifies racing belts. These standards stipulate that seat belts should be inspected and replaced or re-webbed every two years, largely because studies show that nylon webbing—the main component in seat belts—loses half its strength in a year with outdoor exposure. After two years, webbing loses more than 80 percent of its strength. Recall one more time the study mentioned in Chapter 2 regarding UV exposure on plastics; same concept with seat belts.
Sure, a typical muscle car nowadays doesn’t see race speeds, and the seat belts do not have constant outdoor exposure. Nor do we see any campaigns by safety advocates to replace seat belts in everyday street-driven cars every two years. On the other hand, if the rest of your 40-year-old muscle car’s interior has seen enough UV exposure to significantly weaken and stress the dashboard and other plastic components, then perhaps it’s seen enough exposure to significantly weaken the seat belts as well.
The very-fine-threaded bolts securing the seat belts to the floor of your muscle car tend to require a star bit and an awful lot of force to make them budge, especially if your muscle car has been undercoated or has a good amount of rust on the underside. If you can’t find new reproduction belts, companies such as Ssnake-Oyl provide seat belt restoration services that involve re-webbing the original belts.
You should also replace your seat belts if you know the muscle car has been in a collision or if you see even the slightest amount of damage. Either circumstance weakens the seat belt enough so that you might as well not be wearing one in a collision.
If you trust your life to 40-yearold seat belts and simply find them a bit dirty or stiff, some restorers recommend soaking the belts in a solution of Simple Green or other mild cleaner for a couple hours, then scrubbing them with a very softbristled brush before rinsing them off and hanging them up to dry. Unless they’re severely rusted, stainless or chromed buckles can usually be cleaned up with 0000 steel wool.
As for the retractor and latch mechanisms, ensure that they are in proper working order. That means checking to see that the pendulum in the retractor moves freely and contacts the lockbar. Also be sure that the lockbar engages the entire tooth on the sprocket, not just the tip of the tooth. It may be necessary to apply a little white grease to the retractor mechanism for smooth operation.
Written by Daniel Strohl and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks