When it comes to automotive projects, interior refurbishment doesn’t typically rank very high on most enthusiasts’ wish lists. It’s easy to understand the apprehension. There’s no chart with torque specs to provide assurance for the job’s completion. And there’s the perception that you’ll struggle with upholstery, make an irreversible cut and ultimately end up with coverings that simply don’t look good.
Speaking from experience, that’s not an entirely unfounded fear, but we’re here to encourage, prod and push those of you with a shabby interior into taking the upholstery plunge. You’ll need patience, attention to detail and more patience, but if you approach the project with enthusiasm, you’ll likely find it’s not as challenging as you anticipated. In fact, the quality of interior restoration materials has increased dramatically in recent years, making projects all that much easier.
We discovered that recently when we tackled an interior re-do on a 1990 Mustang convertible. It may not seem like such an old car, but it’s just about 25 years old now and its cabin was definitely showing its age. The central problem was the condition of the white leather seats, which, in a word, was terrible. Like so many cars of the era, the quality of the hides used by Ford was not good. They quickly hardened, cracked and split – and it’s a problem found even with lower-mileage cars.
Fortunately, replacement covers are available. We got ours from TMI Products (www.tmiproducts.com), along with a myriad of other interior trim parts for the car from them and longtime Mustang parts supplier National Parts Depot (www.npdlink.com). Here’s a rundown of the parts we obtained from each:
- Seat covers
- Seat foam
- Door panels
- Convertible top headliner and boot cover.
National Parts Depot:
- Interior paint
- Door panel fasteners
- Floor mats
- Scuff plates
- Safety belt shields
- Mounting kits (hardware, fasteners, etc.)
- Hog ring pliers kit (with hog rings)
- “Plug and chug” cup holder.
Removing, stripping and recovering the front and rear seats pretty much takes all day, while the other items were installed on another afternoon, making the interior rehab a weekend project. Better still, you don’t need air tools for the work, you can leave the torque wrench in your tool chest – and you’ll be glad to add hog ring pliers to that chest.
By a long shot, the most time-intensive aspect of the project was replacing the leather seat covers and that’s the primary focus of our accompanying how-to photos. Truthfully, the rest of the updates were basically remove-and-replace tasks, and there simply isn’t room to show all details of the procedures, but our overview provides a good idea of the work involved. And believe us: If we can do it, you can do it.
And by doing the work yourself, you’ll save on labor costs, meaning the cost of the materials is pretty much the extent of the investment. Yes, real leather upholstery cost a few dollars, but after you check out the before and after images, we think you’ll agree the results are worth it. In fact, on our special-edition “7-Up” Mustang, it gave the car the look, feel and smell of a new car.
One more thing: Although the work outlined here was performed on a Fox-body Mustang, the general tips and procedures outlined in our photos in caption apply to countless other vehicles. The steps and fasteners my differ, but the core aspects of the projects are universal. You’ll also find working on cars from the Eighties and Nineties is often a little easier than cars from the Fifties or Sixties, although you have to be more careful with admittedly cheap plastic parts that can be easily broken.
Be patient and you’ll be thrilled with the results.
National Parts Depot
Our project was the well-worn, white-leather interior of a 1990 Mustang “7-Up” special edition. Besides the obviously worn-out leather seat covers, the interior suffered from a number of other maladies common to the era, including a number of discolored and/or cracked trim parts.
Making the weekend re-do much easier was the accumulation of all the necessary parts and installation hardware ahead of time. From TMI Products, we ordered new leather seat covers and seat foam, well as new door panels, visors, a headliner for the convertible top and a top boot cover. From National Parts Depot, we ordered a ton of trim components and hardware, as well as interior paint, new “5.0” floor mats, scuff plates and more.
Although most of the popular cars from the muscle car era are well-covered by the restoration industry, that’s not necessarily the case with later-model cars, but National Parts Depot has recently introduced an entire line of 1979-93 Fox-body Mustang parts, which includes plenty of NOS and reproduction interior trim parts, including many of the parts prone to high wear such as the scuff plates and safety belt guides. The drop-in cupholder is a nice addition, too, for cars designed before America deemed them essential.
We dove right into the seat cover replacement by yanking the seats out of the car and dismantling them. Separating the bottom cushion from the seatback isn’t difficult, but requires attention to detail, because the bolts and fasteners are specific to each position and it’s imperative to get them correct during the reassembly.
With the seatback separated from the seat bottom, the headrest was removed next. On many vehicles, including our Mustang project car, the job can involve reaching under the cover to release a locking tab or catch. It’s worth jumping online to query the procedure if you’re not sure about it, because the odds are somebody has addressed the task on a forum. That’s what worked for us.
There are typically numerous rods and/or wire supports that hold the cover to the seat frame and the seat foam to the frame. If you’ve never done the job before, you’ll likely not know where they’re all located, so the key is working slowly and tugging gently at the cover or foam. If it doesn’t release immediately, look for another rod or connecting wire – which are often attached with hog rings that must be removed.
With the retaining rods removed, the old cover slides off easily. Or so we thought. As we got it right to the top of the seat foam, there was a hang-up that prevented the cover from pulling off completely.
The culprit was another retention rod buried in the foam that was impossible to see until we had pulled the cover up that far. Like we mentioned earlier: Work slowly and carefully. Had we ripped the cover off without care, we would have likely bent the thin rod, which would have put a damper on our restoration project.
Next, the original seat foam was pulled off the steel seat frame. There’s obviously no reason to keep the old, threadbare seat cover, but there’s also no use for the worn foam, which had lost its capacity for support in the last quarter-century, so off to the trash can it went.
A quick comparison of TMI Products’ new foam (right) with the old shows it’s a good replica and, frankly, a better-quality piece than the original. It will not only fill out the seat cover for a brand-new appearance, but provide noticeably better comfort.
Re-installation begins with attaching the foam to the seat frame. Like many seats of the era, large plastic hooks are stretched over edges of the frame to hold the foam in place.
Next, the seat cover is prepped for installation, which means using the original rods and wires and inserting them in the corresponding sleeves stitched into the cover. As was the case with out Mustang covers, a knife is often required to open the sleeves at both ends.
Here’s where you’ll need your shiny-new hog ring pliers. They’re used to connect the cover to the foam to hold everything together. We got a kit from National Parts Depot that included the pliers and a large box of hog rings – and we used most of them. Importantly, it was not a difficult procedure. We ruined a few hog rings with bad first attempts, but once we got the hang of it, they were installed quickly and easily.
Anxiety comes when you have to take a blade to your new cover, but it’s inevitable when it comes to make room in the cover for the recliner button and other accessories attached to the seat. Make the smallest cut you can and triple-check the fitment of the cover before making the cut. Fortunately, most cuts are covered by a trim plate, but again, make the smallest cut possible to make sure it’s entirely covered by that trim plate.
In other cases such as the safety belt guide seen here, there’s not a protruding component to deal with, but fastener holes beneath the cover. The screw has to be driven through the new cover, so it’s vitally important the installer knows exactly where that screw or bolt is going.
Perhaps the most difficult part of the job was stretching the headrest cover over the cushion. To ensure it’s tightly wrapped appearance the cover simply looks too small to fit over the cushion, but a heat gun or hair drier is figuratively and literally the hot tip to make it work. Once the cover is heated, it becomes pliable enough to install. It’s not easy – even when heated – but it’s the only way to install the cover.
We turned our attention next to the seat bottom, which required removal of the seat track. Again, attention to detail is vital and the installer must pay close attention to the orientation of the tracks so they’re re-installed in the proper positions. It’s easy to get it incorrect, meaning you’ll be installing, removing and re-installing it several times before getting it right. Trust us on that!
Removal of the cover and foam was pretty much the same as the seatback, but it was clear the bottom cushion took the brunt of nearly 25 years of punishment. It offered about as much support as an old t-shirt tacked to cardboard.
Again, installation of the new seat bottom cover mimicked the procedures of the seatback cover. The proper installation of the support rods and wires not only properly attaches the cover to the foam, but ensures the pleats in the cushion are firm and crisp.
After the cover was installed, we had to fish the wiring for the power accessories, including lumbar support, through the frame – and, of course, the spring-loaded seat tracks had to be re-installed.
Our 1990 Mustang also featured separate, adjustable knee support pads that also required re-covering. Unfortunately, we were working with original components that were frankly cheaply produced, which made the job more difficult. Thankfully, the kit from TMI Products included new metal backing plates, which made it all somewhat easier.
Finally, it was time to reinstall the seats. We also recovered the rear seat, but it was a comparative snap. You can also see the reconditioned interior panels, which we renewed with white interior paint from National Parts Depot. It made a world of difference in brightening up the interior, while also eliminating the yellowed appearance that had appeared on some of the smaller parts over the years.
A few things to note here: First, the recovered seats look amazing! Secondly, the repainted white plastic components on the console look brand-new, too. We also complemented the renewed parts with replacement safety belt sleeves from National Parts Depot (arrow), and the “5.0” floor mats add that extra finishing detail that takes the project to a higher level.
We also got new door panels from TMI Products and added a headliner to the convertible top, which significantly reduces road noise. In all, we couldn’t be happier with the appearance of our Mustang’s renewed interior and we surprised ourselves at how straightforward the various tasks were – and how much our investment paid us back way more in visual dividends!
Published Dec 31st, 1969