Restoration of My 1948 Prefect
Interior and Upholstery
As I said back in the Prefect History chapter, we soon replaced the original leather upholstery with fabric and vinyl in pleated patterns that matched the leather. Unfortunately, leather by that time would have been several times the cost of the $40 option that it was when the car was sold new. My mistake, of course, was doing the job too cheaply. I used cheap interior fabric. In all honesty though, I really did not expect the car to last very long anyway. So that's my excuse. The vinyl held up all right but it didn't take long, exposed to sunlight, for the fabric to just begin to disintegrate.
The car had no headliner when I got it so I made patterns as carefully as I knew how then constructed a new headliner from light weight vinyl. The fit was so bad that I just scrapped the whole thing and got some wide, stretchy double-knit fabric and started over. It really looked great, even a pretty good imitation of an original wool headliner. But, again, it was apparently not intended for automotive use. It also deteriorated at almost the same rate as the seats. This photo gives a rough idea of its condition as well as what the door panels looked like; same fabric and similar pattern to the seats but not as badly worn. The main visible problem with the door panels is too much padding causing the window cranks to wear through. The fabric is quite crisp and fragile though.
So on with the restoration then. The first step was to remove the seats as shown above. The back leg of the driver's seat had been broken and badly patched with a screwed on piece of steel by the DPO. I removed that, straightened everything and welded it back properly with just a small reinforcing strip where some of the original metal was missing. The front seat frame is a one piece unit with the seat and back spring units removable. The rear seat has no actual frame. The seat spring unit sets on a riser on the floor. The back spring attaches to a piece of plywood that attaches to supports on either side and the package shelf at the top. After removing the spring units, I cleaned them as much as I could, including some sand blasting with a spot blaster as there was a little surface rust. The springs for the rear seat were actually in pretty good condition otherwise. The front showed a lot more signs of use, as might be expected. Some of the individual coils, particularly on the driver's side, appeared to have lost some of their tension and had to be stretched back into position. I also had to cut several pieces of suitable wire to tie several of them to all their neighbors. I don't remember now whether some ties were just missing or had never been installed originally. Anyway, these repairs made them almost as good as new. The only thing left for the spring units then was a good coat of Rustoleum Rusty Metal Primer followed by a coat of epoxy primer and 2 coats of catalyzed industrial black enamel. On the left and right here are the seat and back springs for the rear seat, respectively. The front looks about the same except the seat is much less complex.
With the springs repaired it was time to begin upholstery work. Well, in truth I lost a couple more years before starting. Anyway, each of the spring units was prepared the same. The first step was to hand stitch a layer of burlap over the top, followed by a layer of jute padding. This photo of the front seat back is how they all looked at this point. There is a roll of jute tightly wrapped around the perimeter wires before the padding to add roundness. You can see here how the hand stitching was applied. Professionals often advise to stiffen the corners on old coil springs by tightly stuffing them with cotton. The other photo shows that stuffing on the rear seat back. The others are similar.
With the jute padding and corner reinforcements, the springs were sturdy and ready for additional padding and shaping. The spring tops are quite flat so a few stepped layers of cotton were added to give some crown as well as padding for the passengers. After sewing a layer of heavy muslin over the cotton, I decided the front edges of the seats and the tops of the backs still needed more roundness. I added more stepped layers of cotton there to round them out more then another layer of muslin to hold it all in place. The left photo shows the crown on the seat cushion before the additional edge padding and some of the additional padding on the back before the final muslin cover. The other is the front seat back with the additional padding, including some more at the sides too. With the structural stuff done it was now time to turn attention to the actual covers.
I actually purchased materials for the seat, panels and headliner before that All British Car Show but was just now finally getting around to using them. The fabric is a modern fabric but it is an excellent simulation of period correct materials, both the seat covers and the headliner. I originally intended to use cotton for stuffing the pleats as foam just didn't feel right for a 1948 car which probably would have used cotton or horsehair. Since acquiring the other materials, however, some new padding material has been invented. It is related to polyester quilting but much denser and thicker. It is made for internal stuffing which is then wrapped with regular poly for upholstered cushions. It is a pretty good imitation of horsehair padding. I forgot to mention that I also bought a consumer-grade, walking-foot sewing machine. I'm not sure when but probably about that same time. I have two 2x4 foot typing-height tables that I built years ago so I built a larger wood top to put on one of them with a built-in recess for the machine. This gives a nice working surface for dealing with sometimes cumbersome seat covers. Actually they are always cumbersome after stuffing the inch thick pleats.
I started by checking my materials. First, I was a little concerned about having enough of the main fabric, especially in the event I messed some of it up. Gipson's Trim Supply, where I originally purchased it, said they could still order it but at $35-50 per yard depending on how much I needed. Seems it is a good thing that I bought it when I did; not sure I could afford to do that today. I decided my 10 yards would surely be enough to make up for one mistake if I used due caution. Next I checked the vinyl and found the first real problem. It had been rolled but apparently without any rigid core. Being stacked on end for several years allowed it to bend and sag in several places, causing extensive creasing and wrinkles that will never come out. Much of it can still be used but not for any large pieces. Fortunately, Gipson's was able to match the color exactly with only a very slight difference in thickness so I bought another 4 yards to replace what would not be usable of the original.
The first time we reupholstered this car, we didn't know much. I say "we" because Judy helped a lot; in fact, I could never have stuffed the pleats without her help. The fabric was a fairly loose weave with a slightly rubberized back. By the way, I did the sewing back then on my old National Two-Spool, treadle sewing machine. I cut the foam to the right, although tight, fit but the only way we found to stuff it in the pre-sewn pleats was to squeeze it between 2 wooden yardsticks and push it through. Poly foam does not slide at all against rubberized fabric. This time I think I know just a bit more and I have discovered that professionals use a device called a "pleat stuffer". These are typically thin metal strips, cut to the right width for the pleats and curved somewhat on the edges to ease insertion into the pleats. The stuffing is again squeezed between the halves and somewhat contained on the edges by the curved sides. These pleat stuffers replace the yardsticks we used before and exhibit almost no resistance compared to them. My friend, Harold, made me a set for the narrow pleats, turning the edges on a sheet metal brake he had access to at the time; I assumed, mistakenly as it turned out, that I could stuff the wide ones without tools. I had to make a somewhat rougher set by hand for those.
Using some scrap fabric about the same weight, I made several small test panels to determine the exact size for the pleats; there was enough of the old covers (rear seat mostly) to determine the general pattern of the pleats but not enough to get measurements. I finally settled on wide and narrow pleats sewn at 4-3/4 and 1-3/4 with stuffing at 4-1/2 and 1-1/2, respectively. I got more heavy muslin for the backing and marked the stitching lines carefully with a sharp permanent marker. Then I carefully pinned it to the back of the fabric and machine stitched the marked pleat lines. I made these panels one-at-a-time and they were all made the same way so we'll move right on to stuffing the pleats next.
With the pleats sewn it was time to make the stuffings. I wanted 1 inch deep pleats and the dense poly is available in 1, 2 and 4 inch thicknesses but the only thing I could find locally was 2 inch and at 40% off at Hobby Lobby, it was a bargain. So, I bought it, intending to split it. The only thing I found to cut the stuff was large scissors. It was just too thick for a rotary cutter and a box knife shredded it too much. Even with sharp scissors, it is hard to cut and certainly wears on the hands. Separating the pleats into 2 one inch pieces was fairly easy by hand. The fibers are not in distinct layers though so it was necessary to tear a few at times to maintain a fairly consistent thickness.
I started with the front seat, the back and then the seat. The fabric, on the roll, is 60 inches wide and the individual panels vary from about 36 inches long for the front seat to 48 inches for the rear seat back. My pleat stuffers are not quite long enough for that longest panel but I think I can make it work. I think I stated earlier that I would change the seat backs from the original box style to a waterfall top. The back frame is just a bar that runs around the perimeter of the top and sides then extends below the seat frame and forms the back legs. The spring unit is then supported by a plywood panel that mounts to that frame. The left photo shows the frame. The other shows the seat frame with the bare back cushion in place. Its spring unit is supported by coil springs instead of plywood. The back cushion is temporarily held in place by a few wire ties. Unlike the original box section that was just slipped over the back, the new one will be stretched around the cushion and frame and stapled to the plywood support. The back will then be covered by a separate panel (see later).
The stuffing material comes on a roll and is only 27 inches wide. Except for the rear seat back, which is taller, that is enough for the look I intended. Cutting pleat stuffers along the roll looks to be much more complicated so I will have to worry about that cushion at the time. So I cut all the stuffers for the back panel and inserted them. This was not as easy as I had hoped but with a second set of hands it was still much easier that the old yardstick method. With all the pleats stuffed, we stretched the cover over the seat back to get the best look on pleat separation then marked, but did not yet cut, the excess fabric at the sides. The next step was to determine the pattern for the vinyl end caps. To this end, I first pinned some muslin where I thought looked about right and did a trial fit. I lost count of how many of the trial fittings were done before a workable pattern developed. This is the final test with the pattern hand sewn to the cover. The other is with the cover removed and both end caps added and top stitched, ready to install. This turned out to be a difficult job. First, it was impossible to control the cover with the pleats stufed so the stuffings had to be removed. Then the end cap extends over the shoulder to the first pleat, making a double compound curve and one 90 degree corner. The only way to get it done was to hand baste everything. It was still a real challenge! Fortunately, the top stitching was a little easier although getting to that same corner meant the rest of the cover ended up over my head. Good thing I have a light on the machine. Should have got a picture of that but it just didn't seem that funny at the time.
Then the next problem presented itself: being a waterfall seat, the cover makes a full 180 degree U-turn as it goes over the top. The pleat stuffing, of course, has to follow. With the end caps attached, it would not be possible to distort the cover enough to enough to stuff the last pleats next to them with the rigid stuffers. The next ones barely managed to work. Another method had to be devised. My solution was to cut a slit in the backing on the last pleat just below the shoulder. Through it, I could stuff the U-turn curve. Then I would stuff the rest of it in the regular manner from the bottom. Finally, I carefully hand stitched the slit closed. There really should never be any strain on the seam so I don't expect any problems with this solution. With that problem solved, I was finally able to put the cover on and staple it to the back. Here is the end cap actually on the seat back.
The final step for the seat back was the panel to cover the outer back (that's the back side of the back). It is the same fabric with pleats stitched the same way but the stuffing is just thin regular poly quilt stuffing. That gives just enough padding to give some thickness and make it just slightly soft to the touch. The interesting things about the back panel are the buttons and the vinyl welting around it. The welting was made from strips of the wrinkled vinyl sewn around a 1/4 inch welting rope. The buttons are plastic discs attached to spring retainers that push into holes drilled in the plywood back. The same vinyl was glued to the button disc to match the rest of the upholstery; this was a tedious job. The whole thing was then wrapped around a piece of 1/8 inch plywood, glued and stapled then installed on the seat back with the prepared buttons. Here is the panel being test fitted to the plywood. This also shows the top of my sewing table with the sewing machine in its place. The other is the finished panel, with the welting sewn on, ready to be applied to the plywood. A finished view comes later with the seat cushion installed.
The pleats for the seat cushion are about the same as the back. The first difference is, the 27 inch stuffings are not long enough to cover the full length. This is all right though as I wanted a vinyl strip at the back and the bottom edge of the front to match the original, well at least match the ones I just took off; I don't really remember that much about the originals anymore. The other difference is the last pleat at each end does not wrap over the edge like the back. That meant that the pleat could still be stuffed after the end cap was sewn on so that slit in the backing was not necessary. So here it is, temporarily installed with scrap fabric pinned to it as patterns for the vinyl end cap and the strip at the bottom front. These are just clamped to the frame while I get everything adjusted. Eventually I will make paper patterns from this cloth and smooth any irregularities before cutting the vinyl.
With the vinyl sewn to the pleated fabric, the only remaining step was to attached it to the frame. The Spring unit is attached to the frame with some included clips. In the photos above, you can see how it fits. The upholstery then extends down to the bottom of the frame where it was originally tacked to a tack strip under the bottom frame rail. That tack strip is just tightly twisted paper that was then crimped into the rail. The tacks I removed when we replaced the upholstery the first time were slightly longer than the thickness of the strip. When properly installed their ends hit the steel rail and bent over slightly, forming a sort of hook. I imagine this was deliberate to make them less likely to pull out on their own. I again used the same length tacks with the same result. The bottom line is, pulling those tacks damages the paper strip. After the second time, I was afraid there was not enough integrity remaining to reliably hold the new upholstery. I elected to pull the vinyl around the frame and include listing pockets all the way around. These pockets were then fitted with stiff listing wires which were then tied to the opposite side of the frame to hold the cover in place. I am satisfied the system will work well. Time will tell. The next photos show the end result.
The rear seat cushion was much like the front with a couple of exceptions so I won't go into as much detail but concentrate, instead, on the differences. The photos below show it from the side, front and top. The first main difference is the end caps. Notice the shape of the frame, particularly the rail; it has a distinct curve in both directions. It was not possible to cover that very smooth and tight without some pleats and tucks which I did not want to do. Besides, except for a couple of inches at the front corner, the ends are completely covered and hidden by the arm rests. So, those slight distortions are not bothersome. The second difference is the last pleats next to the end caps. Notice that they are not consistent in width but taper from front to back. This makes it impossible to stuff them from the opening at the back. My solution was to cut a long slit in the backing fabric from near the front to near the back then cut a stuffing to fit and insert it through that slit. I decided to hand sew a patch to close the slit. The final difference is the frame at the back. It has a cutout to clear the prop shaft tunnel. This complicated the configuration of the listing pockets and wires at that point.
The pleats are sewn in for the rear seat back and ready to be stuffed. This photo shows the shape of the frame with jute padding installed. It is wider at the shoulders than the front. It is also taller which means some changes in stuffing the pleats will be necessary. I think I can make the end caps from single pieces but, like the seat, except for a few inches at the shoulder, they will be hidden by the body sides. The delay at this time is, I need to install the seat then fit the back to it so the pleats line up. That means in the car. Right now, it is undergoing some body work and is just too dirty for new upholstery. I could go ahead and stuff the pleats but then it is more difficult to store than in its current condition. I'm not sure when that may happen.