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Project Apollo VII: Shake some back seat action!

Published in blog.hemmings.com

The Apollo’s newly reupholstered back seat. Story and photos by Joe Essid.

Whatever your personal experience with back seats (please do not give us TMI in the comments) restoring that part of a vintage car requires some care. As ever, I hope to inspire some of you who have not tried doing restoration work yourself. For reupholstering, however, I needed expert help.

I could find seat covers for GM X-bodies easily, but I wanted to have things custom-made, preferably by an old-school shop. After a bit of searching, I found Ray’s Upholstery, a father-son business within half an hour of my home.

Ray Melton’s dad started an upholstery shop, specializing in repairing convertible tops, a long time ago. Ray admits that he fell into redoing car interiors because of his love of old cars, with “The ’57 Chevy being the best automobile ever made,” as well as a family tradition of working on autos.

A decade ago he sold the shop to John DiNardi and his father, who now run Ray’s Upholstery and DiNardi’s Classic Cars and Rods in the same space. It’s testimony to the DiNardis’ good character that Ray can still be found there, redoing car interiors in his old shop.

Inside Ray’s Upholstery.

In back, the bays are full of customs under the wrench, including a ’56 Chevy that had my head spinning with the builder’s attention to detail. At every turn, the upholstery work was simply top-notch, something I verified when I looked at the albums of projects in the front office.

Score.

For Project Apollo, I was not after show-quality work, but John’s shop more than delivered and did so within a week of my dropping off my seats and dash. My vision, as I noted when John looked over the tired original back bench seat, was “to build the sort of sleeper that a 70s teen would crave, if he had a reasonable budget.” I then dropped the adjectives “subtle” and “sinister” in the same sentence, something one does not associate with too many Buicks save for certain GNXs, Rivieras, or Skylarks.

The Apollo’s rear seat before…

…and after. Note the reworked dash pad in the foreground.

John was familiar with the ProCar 80 seats I discussed in my last installment about this car, so we sat down in his shop to go through bolts of vinyl, as picky as any dressmaker suddenly transported to New York’s Garment District. Being married to a woman who sews and collects couture fabric, I know the drill and really enjoy fabric shops, something many spouses dread. But instead of the usual “husband’s chair,” you can find me among the bolts, checking textures and patterns. In another life, I’d have made my own suits. And I’m just as picky about the dress clothes I buy off the rack for my teaching job, at a school where many faculty do dress up smartly. So John and Ray had an exacting customer on their hands.

After we found a close-grained satin vinyl that matched the ProCars closely enough for my needs, I met Mike, who would do the stitching. The seats posed no problems for him, but he admitted that the Buick’s dash pad would end up with stitching visible. He was reluctant to do that, as the original GM work has nary a thread showing.

I beamed as an idea hit me. I love handmade gun holsters, preferring not the fanciest cowboy stitching but working rigs for farm or field that show the skill of the maker’s hand. “Make the stitches show boldly, to play off the pointy edge of the dash,” I advised Mike.

Again, my goal was not stock but something the ended up like a well-made field holster. The results came back a week later, and they really hit every mark I had set.

As the last bits of the interior came together, I found time to focus on details again. First, I sourced a good-enough replacement for the damaged package shelf in my car. Classic Industries offers a heavy polyester cover that snugs down with Velcro. It stayed in place with 65 mph winds racing over it (I estimate…. The Buick’s speedometer is still not working, and it’s not the cable, instrument cluster, or speedo gear).

Second, I found that the VHT vinyl dyes, while good enough for areas that don’t get much rubbing from feet or hands, do not work for areas like seat-belt retractor covers. I’m in and out of the back seat constantly to work on little things, so the dye soon scuffed off to reveal the original sage green.

For now I’m considering lots of interesting options that would not involve removing the belts from their retractors, including covering the scuff-prone retractor covers with thin black leather or vinyl. I’m not Ray, but I used to make my own belts and pouches. My stitching is good with an awl, and I’m not far from a Tandy Leather store.

One thing that had been damaged on the original car got an upgrade. Many backyard restorers forget to replace water shields in the doors of a car. That can mean trouble later, if a car sits out in the rain; the shields channel water into the door cavities and away from the vinyl and plastic door panels.

I found a good set in heavy plastic and used butyl rubber roof sealant, sticky all over and sold in rolls, to position the guards. I put all the hardware back on while working on the last interior bits: sail and door panels. That way I can drive the beast.

Am I ready for a paint job? Not quite. As I drove the car, sometimes really hard to check the transmission shifts, I heard persistent noises from the body-mount and rear suspension bushings after I’d been on the road for 10 miles or so. Getting rid of these squeaks, creaks, and occasional bangs—my winter 2018 work on the car—merits another installment. That project is coming together now, one fastener at a time.

But, finally, we have a back seat and a good source for repairs on our other cars. More parts I’ve removed are back on the Buick than on the shop floor.

For what it’s worth, my original Apollo, shown below with some tacky teen pinstripes I added in high school but yanked off in grad school, was a hatchback with a fold-flat rear seat. You could roll out a sleeping bag back there.

Ahem. Moving right along…

Joe Essid is a farmer and writer based in Goochland County, Virginia. You can follow his exploits at TractorPunk.blogspot.com. Catch up on previous parts in his Apollo restoration project here.