Considering that hot-rodding is a visceral hobby defined by smoke, flames, and deafeningly loud sonic pulses, it's only natural that we gravitate toward the mechanical components that create these intoxicating sensations. In the quest for big compression, big cams, big rpm, big horsepower, big-stall converters, and big tires, rehabilitating the interior is often an afterthought. The irony is that the cockpit is where you'll be spending most of your time once that hot rod hits the road, and as such, getting poked and prodded by broken seat springs in a ratty interior gets real old, real fast. The good news is that interior restoration doesn't have to break the bank thanks to companies like TMI Products. It offers everything from seat covers to headliners to carpet to door panels to center consoles for your Bow Tie. If you have the chops to assemble a short-block from scratch, chances are you can tackle recovering the seats, too. In order to get a better handle on all the different available options when restoring a muscle car interior, we sat down with Tim King of TMI Products to get the details in addition to some helpful DIY tips.
Although TMI Products might not yet be a household name amongst Bow Tie enthusiasts, the company has been offering top-notch restoration components for decades. The company was founded in 1982 by four brothers, the Taccinardi's, who began building Volkswagen door panels in their parent's garage. More than 30 years later, TMI has expanded into the muscle car market, now offering seat covers, sun visors, headliners, consoles, and replacement carpet kits. Throughout its history, TMI has placed on emphasis on matching the fabrics, stitching, and overall quality of its interior restoration components to OEM manufacturing specifications. Today, the company designs and manufactures all of its products onsite at its 139,000 square-foot facility based in Corona, California. "Our Chevy products are our newest product line, and we are aggressively expanding our catalog to encompass more GM models. We currently offer a full range of interior restoration products for first-gen Camaros and 1964-72 Chevelles and El Caminos," TMI's Tim King explains.
Seat Restoration Kits
Aftermarket racing buckets offer the ultimate in lateral support for track-oriented applications, but aren't always the ideal solution for cruisers and street machines. As a cost-effective alternative, TMI offers seat restoration kits that allow replacing the worn-out factory seat covers and foam. "Since most aftermarket seats are universal and aren't designed specifically for a certain make and model of car, color matching can be a problem, and there are lots of headaches associated with sorting out the seat tracks and seating position," Tim explains. TMI's seat foam is manufactured from flexible polystyrene, injection-molded foam for comfort and durability, and attaches directly to the factory seat frame for easy installation. "Replacing only the foam and upholstery allows people to transform stock seats into a more performance-oriented seat that looks custom. Our seat restoration kits are available with additional bolstering as well."
DIY Cost Savings
Some enthusiasts think they need to take their seats to an upholstery shop for a set of custom covers. Since TMI's seat cover and foam replacement kits can be installed at home by any competent DIYer, they offer substantial cost savings over custom upholstery. "A full custom interior shop could charge anywhere from $3,000-$6,000 or even more to restore the front and rear seats, whereas our seat restoration kits can be purchased for about $800 for the front and rear," says Tim. "Since we are a large scale manufacturing facility, we have an assembly line that significantly reduces costs on our upholstery. This allows somebody to pick up a set of Sport-R seat covers which look custom, but for a fraction of the cost of a custom one-off interior."
Assessing the condition of seat upholstery is easy enough, but what about the springs? "Once you have removed the factory upholstery and stripped the seat down to a bare frame and spring assembly, you'll want to inspect them just like any other part on the car. The big thing to look for are broken springs," Tim explains. "After 40 years of use, it's common for them to break. You can either replace only the broken springs, proactively replace all the springs, or buy all new frames and springs. All three options are available through Ground Up (ss396.com). As an added bonus, they are also an authorized TMI dealer."
Although retaining the factory seat frame vastly simplifies the restoration process and reduces costs, it's still possible to design seats in a wide range of styles to suit a variety of tastes. "TMI has a wide variety of materials we use to make seats out of depending on how the original equipment manufacturer produced them. We have factory-matched vinyls, cloths, suedes, and even leather," says Tim. "Our foam is higher quality than factory, offering greater comfort and feel. Our Sport seats have better lumbar support over a factory seat, along with bolsters to hold you in the seat. This allows you to sit in the seat, not on the seat. The increased bolstering not only offers functional performance benefits, but it also gives you a much better-looking seat. TMI's Sport seats offer increased bolsters but original patterns, grains, colors, and pleating. When stepping up to something more custom, such as our Sport-R upholstery, we use a combination of vinyl and suede. The Sport-R series is a step above the Sport seats, offering suede inserts with contrasting French seams on the side. These are a much more modern looking and feeling seat."
Think seat cover manufacturing, and the first image that comes to mind might be a bunch of little old ladies feverishly stitching away by hand. In truth, TMI's modern production techniques rely heavily on automated machinery to ensure quality and precision. "Quality control is taken into every single aspect of the manufacturing process. From the very start, all of our patterns are digitized into a computer," Tim explains. "We have computer-controlled cutting tables that use these digital patterns to cut every piece of material to within a 1/16-inch. This means that every time material is cut, it is perfect. We follow these same strict standards on down the line. Similarly, our foam is run through a machine that checks density, so we have an exact scientific measurement to determine how hard or soft the foam is instead of merely squeezing the foam by hand."
Chances are the interior and seats will be one of the last areas of your project car to receive restoration love. There may be some apprehension involved with tearing into the factory seats for the first time, but patience and careful documentation go a long way in ensuring a successful seat restoration. "When disassembling your factory seats pay attention to how things attach. Look at how the upholstery is attached to the frames, and where those attachment points are," Tim advises. "Take note of any sort of padding or reinforcements, side moldings, and emblems. This is all standard procedure when restoring a car, and it also applies to the seats. Since you'll probably have a smart phone in your pocket as you're disassembling the seat, go ahead and take some photos along the way that will provide a good reference point during the re-assembly process."
Tools of the Trade
One of the most common excuses for paying someone else to work on your car is claiming that you don't have the right tools to get the job done. Fortunately, common hand tools are all that's need to restore the seats in your muscle car. "All you need are basic wrenches, screwdrivers and pliers," says Tim. "The only real specialized tool you would need is a set of hog-ring pliers to attach the covers securely to the seat frame. TMI and Ground Up sell a hog ring plier kit that includes the correct pliers and hog rings. A hair dryer might come in handy to help warm up and massage the upholstery as well."
Going the extra mile during the muscle car restoration process goes a long way in ensuring parts longevity, and the seats are no different. Lining the seat springs with batting material or burlap is a common upholstery shop technique that pays dividends. "While this is not necessary, it is always a good idea. You can reuse the burlap that is on top of the springs from the factory," Tim explains. "This helps prevent chaffing between the foam and springs, which would eventually cause deterioration with the foam. You can use just about any material in place of the burlap as well, such as towels, extra vinyl, and any sort of fabric. Doing this only takes a few extra minutes, and the payoff is eliminating one more variable that can create wear."
As a pliable material, seat covers can be more difficult to install in colder climates. That doesn't sound appealing for rustbelters who usually turn wrenches during the winter, but fortunately the fix is simple. "We recommend installing seat covers in a room temperature room, but if the covers are too stiff, letting them sit in the sun for a bit is a simple solution. No excessive heat is necessary, and a household hair dryer is a handy tool for loosening up small sections of stiff upholstery," Tim advises. First-timers may also encounter some wrinkles, which are also easy to remove. "The most effective way in which we prevent wrinkles from forming in the first place is in the design of our foam and upholstery. We pattern all our seat upholstery off our foam to ensure a snug fit. If wrinkling occurs, it's usually the result of the cover not being pulled tight enough. The solution is to simply re-hog ring the cover tighter."
If you think that the bench seat in your muscle car makes it look too much like grandma's car, you're not alone. "Switching over from bench to bucket seats is something that a lot of people do. The biggest hurdle is finding factory bucket seats, or purchasing new ones," Tim explains. "To successfully perform the swap, you need the complete bucket seat assembly as well as the seat tracks, since the tracks don't transfer over from bench seats to buckets. From there, you would have to purchase bench-to-bucket conversion brackets, which are welded onto the floor itself. Although the swap isn't a difficult process, it does require pulling up the carpet and console."
Door Panels and Carpet
Just like the seats, the door panels and carpet in your typical 40-year-old muscle car have probably seen better days. Plus, once the seats are all spruced up they'll look out of place if the rest of the interior is still ratty. The good news is that TMI offers just about every component necessary to completely rehabilitate your Bow Tie's interior. "Currently, we offer door panels for Camaros, and we are in the process of developing door panels for Chevelles as well. We use only the highest quality materials that we can find, and these panels feature beveled pleats that accurately emulate the look of the stock panels" says Tim. "For example, we use an MDF backboard on the panels instead of the cardboard backing used by GM. This helps with water protection. We are also now starting to make the panels out of plastic, which offers even better water protection and long-term durability. Likewise, our carpet kits are all pre-molded and use the factory styles and colors to ensure a correct factory look. We can also produce them in a more modern cut-loop style fabric to help update your interior. Since these carpet kits come pre-molded for the floor, the only thing that you would need to do for a tight fit is to lay the carpet out in the sun for a few hours. This will get the carpet to pop back into shape and be more pliable for ease of installation."
Late-models might be boring, but at least they have a place to put your drinks. Since Starbucks drive-throughs didn't exist in the 1960s, TMI has developed a cool center console for muscle cars with integrated cup holders. "People really like the cup holders in these consoles, but other notable features include matching factory colors, single- or two-tone upholstery, a padded arm rest, deluxe chrome strips, a map pocket, a storage compartment, and even a coin holder," says Tim. "To simplify installation, they attach using a strip of Velcro. This allows leaving all your valuables inside the storage compartment, then locking the entire console in the trunk for protection from burglary while at a show."
Although TMI's seat restoration kits offer an affordable way to transform the factory seats into something much sportier, customers always ask the company if it offers a complete replacement seat. "Based on these inquiries, we saw it as an opportunity to better serve our customers. As such, we have developed an all-new replacement seat that should be unveiled at the 2013 SEMA show by the time you read this," reveals Tim. "These seats will be more of a custom application, but they will still be a complete bolt-in seat that looks at home in your classic. These will come complete with the upholstery, foam, frames, and tracks. They will have plenty of bolstering as well as the ability to recline."