Restoration of My 1948 Prefect
Steering Wheel Restoration
The steering wheel was badly cracked and generally pretty ugly when I got the car. My solution then was one of those simulated leather, lace on covers in a nice deep tan color. That made it tolerable to the hands and even looked much better. Of course, it did not help the spokes or center. Well, I just ignored it for all those years, I guess.
Actually, it didn't look all that bad, at least not in this photo. You have to look
pretty hard to see the cracks in the spokes and those in the hub are more on the back
side so out of view. They do show up a little better in the larger image. The following
photos, taken after getting the wheel from the car and removing its cover, give a
much more vivid idea of the problems.
As you can see, the back is much worse than the front. Although I had lived with it for a very long time, the existing condition would not be suitable for a restored Prefect. For a time I considered just repairing the spokes and hub then removing the bakelite from the rim and making a wood rim for it. I have read a couple of articles on the web and am convinced I can do it. The more I studied the shape and design of the wheel, the more I appreciated it. The final decision was to restore the whole thing an probably wrap the rim in real leather. Of course there was always that other nagging background thought. What if I ruined the rim and, for whatever reason, could not replace it with wood?
The next step was to wash it down several times with mineral spirits, then lacquer thinner and finally dish washing detergent. After that, I found some small rotary files for the Dremel and proceeded to grind out the worst of the cracks and file away the resulting raised areas. This took considerable time as I had to stop and wait for the tool to cool numerous times. The final result looked like these photos. In all the larger cracks, the metal structure is exposed. The bakelite seeming to be fairly sound, I decided it was not necessary to grind every crack down to base metal. Time will tell whether that was the right decision.
I purchased a small, $5.85 tube of PC-7 epoxy to fill those freshly ground-out voids. My first mistake there was not remembering just how hard cured PC-7 gets. The wheel, having no flat surfaces, is fairly difficult to fill without a lot of overage. I applied it with a one inch putty knife and made little attempt to control the shape. I wasted a whole lot of time sanding it back to original shape. Fortunately, that 60 year old bakelite is considerably harder than epoxy so no damage was done. Naturally, I missed some places and some other problems presented themselves once I finally got it back to a reasonable condition. The second coat was more carefully applied with a very small screw driver and a toothpick. Finally, a third application and sanding proved to be the key. At that point, it was ready for primer.
I had most of a quart of PPG K-200 urethane primer/surfacer left over from painting the firewall. It still appeared to be good so I devised a method of mounting the wheel to a vise, mixed an ounce and a half of paint and began painting. The mounting rig was a bolt tightened through the wheel center with another loose nut near its end. That nut was then clamped in the vise to hold the wheel so that it could be rotated to easily spray the whole wheel evenly. The obvious flaw in the plan is that the back, or under, side would be most difficult to spray. I did think of that ahead though. The plan was to hand hold the rotating nut with the wheel below while painting the back then mount it in the vise to finish. This did work but was still not ideal. I was to discover later that the back side did not get enough paint, probably due to the problems in holding and rotating it. It also proved difficult to get it into the vise without touching or otherwise damaging the wet paint. See below for how I solved this problem before the final finish paint.
Here is the wheel in primer, after an initial light sanding. The photo of the back side shows the first evidence that not enough paint was applied. Note several spots where I accidently sanded through to the base surface. Of course, the finger grips did make it a little hard to not sand through but I'm sure there was just not enough there. I then decided to apply a second coat of the K-200 before continuing. Estimating that the mounting jig was part of the cause, I revised it. See the details below. This time I did manage to get plenty of paint applied and it sanded then finished off with Scotch Brite before finishing.
To overcome the rotisserie problem evident in the primer phase, I revised the device.
I got a longer bolt and a second loose nut so the whole thing could be mounted laterally
in the vise. This much improved device is shown here. With it, I could now spray both
the front and back easily. The first step was to visit my friendly auto paint vendor,
LM Auto Color in Edmond. The paints I had used in the past were no longer available so
I needed some re-education. Besides, I needed an expert color match. I took the horn
button for a color match. The proprietor was more than helpful. I know he spent at
least a couple of hours getting the sheen
just right. The color was matched
by the computer rather easily. After that, he almost apologized for not being able to
mix less than a half-pint. He definitely gets my future business. The paint used was
Matrix Systems acrylic urethane and it is very nice to spray.
The photos above show the finished result. The front one was shot with flash and appears a bit too red but it does show the detail quite well. The rear is a pretty good color representation. This photo doesn't show the detail as well but it is much closer to the true color. The horn button photo gives an idea of how the color and sheen matched although it can be difficult to really determine that from photos shot at different times and then rendered on a computer monitor. I could have used just a little more light on the horn button but the turn signal switch was also painted at the same time as the wheel. Maybe that gives a better comparison.
Well, the end result is that I am extremely pleased with the outcome. I am glad that I did not make a wood wheel although I still intend to do that with a badly deteriorated Jaguar XK140 wheel that I have. Also, I like the looks of this wheel, the shape as well as the color, that I doubt I will ever cover it with leather or anything else. In fact, I have come to like the color so well that I have just about changed my decision on the color for the car's fenders. Originally, I thought about brown but finally settled on black instead. I feel pretty sure now that I will go back to that original thought and paint them this same brown instead. That is, of course, without all the dulling agent.