It’s amazing that, after over 100 years of car production, the material most car buyers dream of having on their seats remains unchanged: leather. But is it really unchanged?
In fact, the leather used for car seats now is very different from those early days. It’s still cow hide, but the way those cows are bred and the way their hides are treated have changed dramatically over the years. Even Connolly hides, for 125 years the ultimate British car leather until the company’s demise a few years ago, became thinner and softer with production and processing developments, while other manufacturers went even further.
The thickness of the hide is the biggest difference. Hides now are grown larger, with intensive farming techniques; they are stretched significantly to increase their size and they are split to extract two layers of leather (the lower layer being sold as suede, or nubuck). The result is that leather seats on modern cars feel far softer and more compliant than the seats on cars of the 1960s and earlier ever were. The leather is more elastic and can be stretched over more complex shapes without the need for stitched seams.
Some of that softness comes from the chemicals used in the tanning process, which ‘cures’ the leather to prevent it rotting or smelling. Modern processing chemicals are different from those used in the past and, as well as making the leather look different, make it smell different too: gone is that wonderful aroma that greets you when climbing into any leather-trimmed classic. If you want it, you have to add it: some leather treatments such as Gliptone are specially perfumed to give that old car leather smell.
Protection and care
If you have leather seats in your car – old or new – a little time spent looking after them will save untold misery later when they dry out and start cracking and splitting. There are quite a few products available for cleaning and protecting leather, but it is important that you use the correct ones. The wrong type of cleaner can take all the natural oils out of it and even the color, leaving it weak and brittle. Saddle soap, beloved of horsey folk, is not suitable for car leather, being too aggressive and designed for thicker, tougher (and dirtier) leather surfaces.
The leather care products suppliers listed at the end of this article can supply gentle cleaners that will lift dirt off the surface of the leather without damaging the natural oils. Even so, it’s important not to clean too often or too aggressively. A gentle wipe with a damp cloth is usually all that’s necessary – only use the cleaner when the seats are actually dirty. Equally, don’t use a wet cloth, as too much water will wash out the oils from the surface of the leather and make it go hard.
Some products, such as the original Connolly-spec leather cleaner from Leathercare Direct, specify that they are only suitable for pre-1990 leather. Other cleaners are available for newer leather. More important than cleaning is protection and preservation. ‘Hide Food’ from Connolly used to be the only product for this; now there are more, but the original is still available from saddlers and others listed, now called Connolly Hide Care. A largely natural product, its main active ingredient is lanolin, derived from the natural waterproofing grease found on the fleece of sheep.
Popular now and highly recommended is Gliptone Liquid Leather, which soaks effectively into the surface of the leather to soften it and also leaves it smelling good. Don’t think, though, that a one-off application on seats that have been neglected for years will do for the next few years: Gliptone recommends re-treating every three months and, if you don’t, you may find that the leather will deteriorate more rapidly than before.
Repair and restoration
So, you’ve got leather seats that are badly creased, with the brown undercoat of the leather showing through the creases, worn almost through the color in places and even split on the top where the sun has dried them out. Ditch them?
Absolutely not. All this damage can be retrieved to a point where the seats will look lightly worn, with a patina that suits the age of the vehicle. If you want it to look like new, get it retrimmed, but most people prefer patina to the new look of retrimmed seats.
First, you need to clean the seats (as above). If you have any splits, the covers will have to be removed so that you can glue a patch, or even a small new section of leather, to the back.
Once the seats are clean and damage is repaired (re-stitching, which is often all that is needed, must also be carried out with the covers off the seats), the next stage of the process used to be called Connollising. The specialists listed can still supply dyes and pigments to enable you to color damaged areas to match the original seat colors.
One suitable product is Woolies’ Car Leather Trim Renovation Kit but there are several others. A very inexpensive kit for minor repairs is Frost’s Leather & Vinyl Kit, containing colors that you must mix yourself to the correct shade. Beware of some cheaper non-specific recoloring agents, which will end up looking like paint on the surface of the leather.
If your seats are beyond redemption, you will have to resort to replacement. You can still buy hides in all colors and grains and even Connolly hides are still stocked (by Neumann Leathers), but the leather is actually quite different from that originally used in a classic.
One option is to have all the seats retrimmed in new leather, but it will never be exactly the same as the old leather: it will be softer and more supple and it may not have the same grain.
If originality and patina are of more importance to you, then the answer is to find old leather of the same type that can be patched in. Classics with leather seats are still being broken for spares – it can always be recolored.
If you’re really lucky, you may find a seat with a suitable piece of leather in exactly the right color that can be stitched in, magically restoring the original appearance of your seats.
Published Dec 7th, 2015