The Dying Art of… Custom Upholstery: Aftermarket Leather Manufacturers Up Their Game

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In the beginning, Man created the Automobile. Now the Automobile was roofless and open to the elements, divots and muddy ruts were over the surface of the roads, and the desire for spirited driving in all forms of weather was itching to break free. And so, a smart engineer at Cadillac said, “Let there be a closed-bodied Automobile,” and there was progress. Man saw the closed-bodied vehicle was good and sensible, and so the industry for comfortable automotive interiors was born.

We spend plenty of time on The Engine Block discussing modifications for your next project car, from the popular to the lesser known. But perhaps none is quite so under-appreciated and overlooked than custom upholstery. Like most dying arts that are performed by a dwindling number of skilled tradesmen, the work is often so well-done, and blends so seamlessly (no pun intended), that it actually goes unnoticed. We drool over power upgrades and paint jobs, but the space where we spend the most amount of time—the actual interior—never seems to get its fair share of the spotlight (or the budget).

A Rich History in Custom Upholstery

In truth, trimmers, or automotive upholsterers, are some of the most skilled workers in the auto industry. Their craft has roots that extend long before the automobile ever existed, and their method of training is one of the few that still requires serious apprenticeship work.

For early automobiles, trimmers filled a large gap in the manufacturing process. They efficiently constructed and installed soft tops and bench seats to Tin Lizzies on Ford’s production line. And as cars became more popular and more capable, drivers demanded more amenities and more individuality. Upholstered dashes and door panels gave way to tailored seating and flooring. Comfort became a major selling point, and automotive upholstery became a booming business. As the first and second World Wars and the Great Depression left their marks on history, the art of skilled trimming stayed strong. But it wasn’t until the post-WWII years of economic regrowth, increased spending, and some of the best-looking cars ever imagined, that custom upholstery really began to shine.

Back When Cars Had Style

Before consumers became inoculated with the brain-numbing, minimalist and cost-effective designs of modern automakers, OEMs were pumping out some radical interiors in the mid-century days of super luxury. Leopard print dashboard covers, alligator-grain vinyl tops, and interiors that looked like they were assaulted with deep red velour and pearl trim were just the tip of the iceberg of factory options. But as tastes and trends changed, safety regulations grew stricter, industry accountants had more to say, and consumers became more concerned with mechanics than style, custom upholstery designs began to take a figurative back seat.

Today, outside of your Grandmother’s vintage Monte Carlo, it’s mostly just enthusiasts who are keeping wild custom upholstery alive. But while the trimmers’ craft may qualify as a ‘dying art,’ it’s far from dead. We spoke with Garrett Pahlke—the CEO of Top Coverage LTD, a renowned auto upholstery business located in Elgin, Illinois—about where the industry is headed and how his family is continuing its passion for the craft.

Top Coverage LTD Changing with the Times

Top Coverage LTD is a long-standing name in the business. For over 40 years, it has been revamping appearance and comfort with quality installations. “The foundation of this was started by my father [Henry] back in 1977,” says Pahlke. At the start, the company primarily focused on working with convertible tops and simulated convertible tops, but eventually moved to aftermarket sunroof installations and leather seating.

While many of the demands of custom interior work have been relegated to restoration enthusiasts, hot rodders, donk owners, and the like, quality leather seating will always remain popular. Despite widespread advertising touting a car manufacturer’s ‘highest luxury option,’ cloth seats remain the norm. And while the average consumer (and PETA) are content with a cloth interior, “there are always people that want leather,” says Pahlke. “Many can’t afford it with the way trim levels are currently priced—such as one coming with navigation, a panoramic sunroof, or maybe a few other bells and whistles. All they want is a leather interior [upgrade], and that’s where we come in,” he continues.

It’s All About Quality

Consumers have long had the option of buying aftermarket leather seat covers for their vehicle, but finding the right fit can be difficult. So, for many, the solution has been to tailor custom covers from scratch to fit over factory seats. Today, there are several great options when looking for quality covers that fit like a glove. Top Coverage LTD calls on none other than Katzkin and Roadwire, as it feels they are the best aftermarket names in the business. “The leather we put in the cars—if it’s not factory, it’s damn near factory,” says Pahlke. “We only put in the highest-quality brands that we have available to us.”

For those who don’t know, to properly install quality leather seat covers, the seats must be stripped of the factory upholstery. “We completely remove the cloth,” shares Pahlke. “It definitely takes quite a bit of skill to make it look nice.” And patience. Pahlke adds that even with years of training, each job presents its own unique challenges. “Sometimes it’ll take eight hours just to do one car, others we can get done in an hour and a half.” Luckily, Top Coverage employs a seriously talented team of professionals with combined decades of experience who not only ensure each vehicle comes out looking better than it started, but that the company maintains its excellent reputation.

Alive and Well

Top Coverage LTD knows a thing or two about custom upholstery and the quality of aftermarket leather.Obviously, the trade of custom upholstery has changed, both from its utilitarian beginnings and wild heyday. And though the days of mohair velvet seats and tweed inlays may be firmly in the past, Pahlke expressed that consumer demand for modern upholstery designs continues to grow.

Top Coverage LTD is a great example of a company that is excelling in customized interiors for today’s consumers and vehicles. And that continued growth and success proves what we hope to validate in the Dying Art segment: These crafts may not be what they used to, but they’re still alive and they deserve our recognition. So, the next time you’re working out that project car budget, don’t forget to set aside a little extra for the custom interior. We promise it won’t be a wasted investment.

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