Rebuilding the seats in a 40+ year old vintage car

A classic problem with many vintage cars is uncomfortable seats. The problem can usually be traced back to dried out and crumbling rubber padding. Modern materials can often cure the problem. Because rebuilding an automobile seat may be an expensive venture if hired out, you may want to consider the do-it-yourself approach. If I can do it, I'm sure that you can as well. Have faith. It can be done.

My "Winter's Project" in 2003 was to rebuild Her Majesty's front seats. The foam rubber was dried and brittle and crumbling all over the floor. The plan was to rebuild them using Kemmler gel padding, the same cushioning material used by some of the Formula 1 and Nascar teams. As crumbly seat rubber is a common problem, I’m posting the particulars. Your specific application may vary, but the concept is likely to be the same.

Since the backs were still in good condition, attention was paid to rebuilding the seat bottoms only. After 40+ years of service, the molded rubber seat cushions begin to harden and crumble, leaving one sitting on the springs and nothing more. Hard on the seat covers, not to mention certain other parts of one's anatomy.

I elected to reuse the seat covers since they were in good condition and all matched after years of wear. The factory molded foam rubber pad was intricately covered with burlap and sewn into shape as well as securely tied to the framework. The task was to duplicate, as closely as possible, the under-layment so that the covers would fit properly when reinstalled. If you’re lucky, you’ll have this much to start with.

The first task was to strip the seat, and check, clean and paint the frame. They do get rusty. Inevitable, some of the cross springs will have to be replaced.

Here is what the underside of the seat looked like before disassembly. Note the lack of foam padding in the center. This is because it dried out and crumbled away. Chances are very good they'll all do it sooner or later.

Cover removed from seat; padding has rotted away in the center

And NOOOOOOO ! The Abarth 750 did NOT come with a "potty seat" for those long road trips!

Stripped and painted seat frame

I always thought it would be fun being a stripper! So when I got the opportunity, I stripped the material from the seat frames, replaced the missing springs and gave them a fresh coat of paint. I was right! Stripping is SOOO much fun.

When finished, the frame was covered with a layer of burlap, pulled taut and laced securely to the outer rail. A layer of 3/16” closed cell foam padding was added and laced into place as a base for the gel and foam rubber core.

Burlap secured with twine to seat frame - bottom view

An 8-inch sewing needle was used to "sew" the material into place.

Burlap and foam secured to frame - top view

Already much better to sit on than before I started.

Next, two layers of 3/8” Kemmler gel pad were added to form the center seat cushion. Also a layer of ¼” open cell low density foam rubber was added. This brought the seat centers to the correct height.

The outer rim was made from a block of 2” thick open cell high density foam rubber, cut as closely to the shape of the original factory foam rubber form. An electric carving knife does a nice job on the foam rubber. This is the artistic part of the project. The rest is grunt work.

Kemmler gel pad in place on frame

Kemmler Gel pad, simply MAGIC. Note the 2" thick foam side piece in the back ready to carve.

foam block partially carved

Once all the foam was in place, another layer of burlap was draped over the Kemmler center to provide an extra layer of protection for the seat covers.

The center of the seat cover was sewn over the gel pad to the springs below. The trick is to keep the cover taut and as wrinkle-free as possible. Once the center is in place, the outer foam rubber rim is put into place and the seat cover is wrestled over it and secured with hog rings to the seat springs. This is not a particularly easy task. Much tugging and muscle is needed and a lot of pushing and stuffing of the foam rubber needs to be done in order to get things even and wrinkle free. But it can be done.

Original seat upholstery placed on seat, ready to be secured back into place

Where was Hulk Hogan when you needed him?

The first seat took about two weeks to complete — it took that long to figure out what materials to use, what to do and how to do it. The second seat took only a couple of days part-time. It's not too hard once you figure out how. With a little luck, this page might save someone a lot of time and energy someday.

The Results

When springtime of 2003 finally rolled around, as per usual, Syracuse had lots of rain and other assorted Fiat-inhospitable weather. However, undaunted, we managed a few road trips and the verdict is . . .

The seats are WONDERFULLY comfortable. MANY THANKS to Bruce Kemmler for inventing that exceedingly marvelous Gel Pad material.

Seats with new padding, back inside the Abarth

A Treat for your Tush. A Boon for your Butt. Makes you want to hop in and drive across country ( the back way) . . . Oh, wait, that's what the Abarth is for!