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How to articles; classic car restoration

How to know when a classic car is restorable.

Page 12


The classic car interior is where you take a seat back in time, and re-experience the same feeling you had at the controls in your youth. Not only do you feel one with the machine, but this is where you instantly recall the fond memories of things like first dates, cruising with your friends on a warm summer night, and pulling into the drive in theater with a trunk full of people.

The condition of the interiors on restorable classic cars can vary widely and you will need to be aware of a couple of potential problems with the classic car's interior.

Old upholstery problems

One problem that is pervasive and in-escapable is that the stitching and vinyl will harden or dry rot over time, even on a classic car that has a seemingly perfectly preserved interior. The upholstery may look as good as it did when the car was on the show room floor, but if it is 30, 40, or 50 years old, you only need to sit on it a few times before the seams start to come apart. Any cloth inserts will start to tear immediately. The car will need to have been stored at room temperatures, and never exposed to sunlight in order for the upholstery to escape this problem.

Where the classic car has been stored will give you an indication of what to look for. For cars that have been stored in barns, mice and other small rodents can leave the seats so torn up on the underside that there is nothing left to re-use when you re-upholster the seats. Often the smell is impossible to get rid of without completely discarding everything except the seat frames.

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Re-upholster or re-cover the interior?

Re-upholstery can be easy in one case, or would need a seasoned professional in the other. Can you guess which one?

In the case of the well preserved interior and upholstery, this can be dealt with a few different ways. If you are inclined to dis-assemble the interior and take the seat coverings apart, you have a perfect set of templates for each of the panels, and they will be easy to copy and sew back together. If your classic car has suffered at the teeth of the rodents, you need to decide if you are better off finding another set of seats, or if the upholstery materials are available for your classic car, working through the interior restoration. The molded foam inserts can be the hardest thing to find if your choice of classic car is not very common and a reproduction aftermarket insert is not available.

In a lot of cases, upholstery materials are available but you'll find that some suppliers really protect their customer base of trades people and will not sell to anyone without a business license and tax ID number. There are enough upholstery materials suppliers out there that will sell to you, but as always, after paying their prices and doing a lot of the work yourself you find it would have been easier to have a professional do the job. A professional re-upholsterer could pretty much guarantee your satisfaction with the finished classic car interior.

Should you buy an interior kit?

Reproduction interior kits are available for most classic cars if you know where to look, and the cost for the kits is really very affordable in comparison to hiring a professional. Where your choice makes the difference in quality, is that the professional is likely to replace everything from the springs up to the seat coverings and everything in between. If you install an interior kit yourself and don't replace all the upholstery materials, your interior may look new, but you could still be left with things like seat sag where the springs are weak and the foam is compressed from years of someone being in the drivers seat.

Door panels

Classic car door panels had some of the simplest construction ever. For the most part they were literally made out of heavy cardboard and covered with a vinyl matching the rest of the interior over a thin padding, if any. The vinyl was often molded. Most of these door panels start to fall apart near the bottoms of the doors due to the abuse they get from being kicked and from the condensation on the door metal running down the back side of the door panel. Most door panels had a plastic sheet between them and the door, but it only extends the life of the door panel. Once moisture gets into the backing board, only time stands in the way of the cardstock disintegrating.

Reproduction or custom door panels for your classic car are made with a fiberglass, or plastic backing so they aren't subject to coming apart from moisture and humidity. They should last a lot longer than the original door panels. When A/C is installed in a custom classic car restoration, this backing material is literally a must have. The differences in temperature will cause a pretty serious condensation problem.


Headliners on a classic car are usually the first to go. The intense heat from leaving the car in the sun will dry rot the headliner to the point that you could simply put your index finger through it with ease. The headliner on most classic cars is held in place using a series of ribs made of steel. The cloth is sewn in sections to create a "piping" or channel behind the headliner that these ribs will slide through. The ribbing is fastened to the edges of the roof just above the side windows.

New headliners are not expensive, and are easy to custom make, but can be difficult to install without tearing. Installation can involve removing interior trim and a bit of stretching to get out some wrinkles. You will need to wear a dust mask since there is likely a lot of insulation dust between the headliner and the roof that will rain down on you when you remove the old headliner.

How much work would you do?

No classic car is beyond having the interior re-done, whether that means stripping it bare or simply fixing a tear in the seat. It all depends on what level of restorer you happen to be. Obviously a level 5 person would not have a problem with restoring a really bad interior, and on the other end of the spectrum is the level one person who might not even want to buy a car in this condition, let alone do any work on it.

In conclusion...

I think this article has given you the general idea. Finding a restorable classic car has more to do with knowing what you are capable of working on, or paying someone else to work on. It's an evaluation that is unique to you.

I've provided some tools on the next page to give you some guidelines to follow.

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