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Holler: Inside Secrets (car interior cleaning and restoration)

Since about 1970, Ma Mopar has been using plastic for interior trim.  The 1970 E-bodies had plastic door panels and rear quarter trim.  The 1971 B-bodies followed suit, and finally the 1972 A-bodies.  Since then, most cars and trucks incorporate some degree of plastic trim.  Plastic is reasonably attractive, durable, and inexpensive to manufacture.  However, over time the plastic gets cracked, scratched, faded, and even chalky.

car interior cleaning and restoration

Sprucing up the interior is not that difficult.  You can transform “old” looking into dazzling on a lazy Saturday with just a few hand tools and a couple of bucks.  Depending on how far you want to go, and how bad your interior is to begin with, you could add another $500 to the value of your toy for under $50.  These are the kinds of returns your investment broker only wishes he could promise.

Plastic can be painted with interior vinyl dye.  Generic colors like black and white are available from Plasti-Kote and Duplicolor.  They offer many other colors too, but they might not match your interior perfectly.  Having used both of these brands, I prefer Plasti-Kote.  It has a natural semi-gloss that Duplicolor just doesn’t have, and the color seems deeper and richer.  If you’re not going for a concours restoration, but just want to improve the look of your ’73 Satellite, then close enough is good enough.  If you want the absolute perfect shade for your above average show car, then a paint and body supply shop can custom mix interior vinyl dye with about as much accuracy as they can exterior paint.  Custom mixed dyes usually require a paint sprayer to apply.

interior trim

Step one is to remove the pieces to be reconditioned.  I beg you, don’t spray the pieces while they’re still in the vehicle.  That looks about as tacky as a Yugo with a hood scoop!  You will have overspray on everything, even the windshield (which would be a safety hazard and possibly fail on the safety inspection).  Take out the door panels, kick panels, arm rests, consoles, seat backs, whatever you want refinished.  When removing the pieces, look for that hidden screw when it just doesn’t seem to want to come out.  There are lots of screws that you don’t see at first, but will hold something in place.  Missed screws mean cracked or broken trim pieces if you force things.

fixing trim

Seat belts can be re-dyed while you spray the hard parts.  I’ve seen sprayed carpet and don’t recommend it.  The spray-on dye can’t penetrate the fibers, leaving a very uneven color pattern.  Though not covered in this article, this would be a good time to replace worn carpet and sagging head liner.

purple powerNext lightly sand out any scratches.  Since the plastic is textured you won’t be able to completely remove everything as you would on the body.  Just take off the high spots and loose pieces.  This little touch makes for a much nicer finished product.  A 180 or 220 grit paper works for me.

When you’re satisfied, thoroughly clean the surfaces with Simple Green or Purple Power.  Dishwashing soap has left fish eyes on previous pieces I’ve painted.  I used Purple Power for this project.  With the pieces still dry, spray and wipe/scrub with a clean soft cloth.  For deep dirt a soft scrub brush or used toothbrush can help.  Next hose it down with water to remove the dirt and cleaner.  Allow to air dry.  In the summer, pieces laid out in the sun will dry in about 5 minutes.  In the fall weather here in the Northeast, I let the pieces dry overnight.

If you have any small cracks in any of the pieces, now would be the time to fix them.  As long as there aren’t chunks missing, a dab of super glue along the crack will bond it back in place.  You can reinforce the back side with a hot glue gun afterwards, making it harder for the crack to reappear later.

Apply the dye with a light tack coat first and let it dry.  This acts as a bonding agent the same as when painting the body.  Once it’s dry you can apply a second coat.  If you are keeping the color the same then this second coat should cover well enough.  If you’re changing colors, a third or fourth coat will be required for decent coverage.  Magic will happen as you spray and watch the years disappear underneath the freshly laid (and nasty smelling) vinyl dye.

dyeYou can see how the dark red has faded, and has a pink tint on the surface.  The picture just doesn’t do justice to the disparity between the old and the new.  Allow the paint to dry well before reinstalling the pieces.  Until set properly, it is easier to scratch the finish.  Also, that nasty smell lingers for about a day after spraying.  The VOCs need time to work their way out of the new paint or your car will smell like a spray booth, and may even affect your alertness.  After the dye has dried, but before you reinstall it, hit it with Black Magic or Armour All to give it a nice sheen.

Reassemble in the reverse order you removed the parts.  Cleaning the heads of chrome screws will add that small touch that sets the better cars apart from the crowd.  Chrome and black oxide screws are still being used in new cars, so replacements for rusted pieces can be found in the junk yard.  They’re free when purchased with something else (yea, I grabbed the screws for “it,” too).

High wear areas like seats are NOT good candidates for vinyl dye as the coating wears off too easily.  Still, the cloth portion of the seats can be steam cleaned and the vinyl parts can be scrubbed and treated with a protectant.  I like a product called Black Magic.  Steam cleaners can be rented for about $50 a day from the grocery store.  A gallon of solvent for another $10 and you can make the wife happy by doing the house, then hit the car before returning the machine.  Don’t just clean the seats.  Remove the seats and clean your vehicle’s carpet with it also.  A lot of those stains will come out, and the color will look better than it has in years.

steam cleaning

Small scratches and tears can be repaired with kits from Eastwood (part number 40013, “Vinyl and Dashboard Repair System”, $24.99; Eastwood discounts available through www.RebateZone.net) and other hobby specialty shops.  The instructions are pretty simple to follow and the look isn’t too bad.  Maybe I’ll do an article on hand stitching a custom interior one of these months.

I don’t know about you, but every time I make improvements to my car I fall in love with it all over again.  With a nearly new looking interior, you feel more comfortable driving, and you feel pride when others get to see it.  I wish you well with it, and enjoy your efforts.

Mike Holler, known on Allpar forums as mpgmike, also contributes to mpgResearch.com. He has contributed many columns to Allpar:
Interiors Budget interior restoration: making the inside of your car look like new again
Red carpet treatment: Installing new carpet in an old car
Headliner repair
Porting Porting heads for performance: step by step
Head porting example, part 1 | part 2
Intake manifold porting
Exhaust manifold porting (turbo)
Poly Quad heads: porting revisited

Turbochargers Turbochargers - all you need to know (interview)
Turbocharging the slant six for power and economy • Revisiting the turbocharged slant six
Budget turbocharger rebuilding (and Turbo Rebirth)
Installing a boost gauge

Other Powder-coating for a brilliant, durable finish
Custom pistons: roll your own!
Prepping valves for performance: grinding and polishing
Old cars: an opinion
Discuss Mike’s articles! (if you are not registered for the forums, register first )

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