Budget Interior Restoration

Budget Interior Restoration

When good enough is just that

So you were driving your old classic the other day, when your cell phone slips right through the giant gash in the seat and off into some netherworld. The next 30 minutes are spent digging through what seems like a spider-infested hay bale (German car owners, you know what I mean) to retrieve your communication link with the world. Hey, maybe it's time to invest in a new interior.

Final Frontier

The interior is usually one of the last items completed in a restoration project. It should be done after the paint and bodywork to avoid the inherent overspray and dust that fills every crack. The insides should also not be given much attention until after major mechanical modifications and restoration because of the grease and other potentially fabric-damaging aspects of such labors.

The difficulties of interior restoration are many. It is relatively easy to buy some seat covers and a carpet kit for even the rarest cars. But the difficulties lie in the more unusual parts. Where do you buy a door panel for a 1957 Fiat? What about all of those molded foam panels inside of your classic German cars? No one makes them new, and the used ones you find in popular online auctions are usually high priced and of questionable reputation.

As usual, the first thing you must decide is how you plan on restoring the car. Is it going to be a no-holds-barred, all-original restoration? Or are you going to have it as a daily driver that sees a lot of wear and tear?

Getting Started

Either way, here's the path to saving money and getting better quality workmanship: find yourself an auto upholstery specialist. These people are true craftsmen, tailors for cars, if you will. They know all of the fabrics, leathers and vinyls available and can steer you in the direction of original parts or something that is cheaper, but of similar quality.

The secret is that the auto manufacturers do not make their own materials for interiors. They simply select it from material that is already available from large textile manufacturers or, on occasion, special order the material for a certain color or texture.

A good auto upholsterer will know where to get all of these materials, new and old, and how to cut, trim and sew them into something that looks like it did when new from the factory. Remarkably, they are often less expensive than buying the materials already sewn into shape and installing it yourself.

The vehicle in question today is a 1972 Porsche 914. Porsche purists beware, you may not like what I have done, but let's be practical. This car was originally a joint venture by Porsche and Volkswagen and in its most common four-cylinder configuration, quite slow. They are, however, fun to drive, so it is now my fun commuter car that can be taken to the track occasionally.

Out with the Old

Unfortunately, most of the interior pieces are quite expensive. The carpet and vinyl are all of the special Porsche variety, and we all know that Porsches cost more than Volkswagens. To make matters worse, it is an open-top car that allows the direct rays of the sun to beat down unrelentingly on all its vulnerable plastics. In view of the above, here's what I've done to keep costs down, but still have a car I enjoy driving. (Feel free to pick and choose from these approaches to suit your particular situation.)

Seats: The material used on them was originally from Porsche. It looks very much like the material used in Volkswagens. Not exactly, but it's difficult to tell the difference. They are from the same manufacturer and of the same quality, so I copied the crusty old seat covers with new Volkswagen material. I can't see it when I sit in it and it feels the same through a pair of shorts. If you are a Porsche fan, then have the upholsterer buy original material; it costs about three times more. Even so, it is still far less expensive than purchasing ready-made covers from a Porsche aftermarket supplier.

Carpet: Nearly all that applies to the seats applies to carpet as well. The Volkswagen carpet is very similar, and involves less money. However, it is easier to identify from its more expensive cousin than it was with the vinyl. But it looks good to me, and I will not have to cringe when someone with muddy paws climbs in.

Carpet, Too

There is much more available in carpet styles and textures, but beware. Some versions of carpet are of very low quality, and soon you will find these versions shedding themselves all over your new shoes. As a quick test, try to pull a small strand out from the backing. It should be fairly difficult to do with your fingers.

Door panels: The same material used in the seats is used here as well. However, there are also molded plastic armrests and map holders attached to the door interiors. These have suffered tremendously from age and sun, so it is time to make a decision regarding them as well. It would be very difficult to make entirely new ones, and used ones in only slightly better condition are expensive. To top it all off, I keep bumping my arms on them.

So I take a queue from racing Porsches of old-the RS-style door panel. Basically the 911 RS performance model had a door panel devoid of all unnecessary items, such as armrests and flashy chrome bits. Adding to the excitement was a red nylon strap as a door-pull and latch release. This style was copied in my 914 to be reminiscent of the older racing 911s, red door-pull and all.

Did 914s ever come this way? No, but it looks good, was inexpensive, and I have room to move. Is there an option to my unrelenting purist hacking? Yes, read on.


Molded Plastic Gismos: These would include things such as armrests and center console lids. They are often made of molded plastic, with a hard or soft foam molded around them and finally covered with a vinyl. It is sometimes possible to sand down cracks in the vinyl just like you would with flaws in the body of a car, then recover them with new vinyl using special contact glue and heat guns.

If you have ever tried to buy a part like this in good condition from an older or obscure car, then you will understand why the effort of recovering these parts often makes sense.

The dash is also very expensive to replace. There are companies that make a hard molded plastic overlay that glues down to the original dash pad. If installed correctly, it is difficult to tell that the overlay has been used, and this can save you hundreds of dollars.

If the part is made out of solid hard plastic and has faded in the sun, or is just the wrong color, then another option is available to you. Paint. Yes, paint. There are special paints designed just for plastics and vinyl for car interiors. It actually penetrates into the material, so that it is nearly impossible to wear off or chip or scratch. In reality it is more like a spray-on dye. Regular use and even sanding will not wear through to the original color because it has soaked into the plastic, re-coloring it. Make sure to match colors before trying this option. Once you have sprayed it, there is no going back!

Hopefully there is some information here that will make your interior restoration more tolerable and less expensive. Shop around for a good upholstery shop, and ask to see some of the work that they are doing. Make sure to communicate exactly what you want done with the car. (e.g., full factory restoration, or low-budget quality). Being specific will help the business to order the correct materials that you want without having to guess as to your intentions.

Unless you are skilled at working with fabrics, plastics, paint, special adhesives and industrial sewing machines, then you are often money ahead to find a reputable upholstery shop rather than trying to assemble it yourself. Enjoy those cozy new seats and armrests!

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