Nice to Have: A New Story About Old Upholsery

Nice to Have: A New Story About Old Upholsery

In the world of hot rodding, all parts fall into two categories: “need to have” and “nice to have.” The former list is usually a long one. On it, you’ll find engines, transmissions, wheels, tires, axles, etc. It’s the same for most builders. But what about the “nice to have” list? What types of things go on there?

There’s no straightforward answer to that question; it varies by person and by project. On my car, the list is mostly made up of old chrome parts, homemade odds and ends, and two big ones—paint and upholstery.

I’m an optimist, but I knew that I wasn’t going to have either of those any time soon. The paint is no big deal. (The friends and I are going to break out the brushes in the driveway sometime next year.) The upholstery, however, is a little tricker.

When I bought my roadster body in 2020, there wasn’t the slightest trace of its past. No paint, no upholstery—nothing. Through the years, I’ve worked to make it inhabitable for long and short drives. Creature comforts include a school bus seat with cut-down foam over a custom base, a rubber floor mat and stock-style wood bracing. It’s a roadster. What more could you need?

Somewhere in the depths of my mind, I dreamt of finding old hot rod upholstery. That kind of thing just doesn’t show up. And when it does, it’s either completely thrashed, very expensive or a dastardly mix of the two.

Well, earlier this month, something unexpected happened. As I was scrolling through Instagram, I stumbled upon an ad for a handful of early Ford parts. In the pile there was a banjo steering wheel, a Model A radiator, some cowl lights—and some old upholstery. My eyes jumped to the bottom of the list.

-30-31 roadster old interior panels. Rough but neat character. Could be saved.

I couldn’t believe it. I immediately messaged the seller and struck a deal. In our discussion, he shared that they were originally stitched for a high school hot rod project in 1962. They aren’t perfect, which makes them perfect for my project.

Soon after they arrived, I began sizing them up. Of all the six panels, some fit better than others. Right away, I installed the passenger side. I went for a cross-town blast with my roommate, who said the upholstery improved the riding experience.

The following week, when my brother was in town, we handled the rest of the installation using the stock screws, some staples, and a strip of terrible Velcro. Every part of this upholstery is fragile, from the cardboard backing to the red and black Naugahyde that makes up the tuck-n-roll. Nonetheless, we figured it out.

The result is nothing if not authentic. The upholstery doesn’t match the seat, and it’s constantly falling apart from all sides. Yet, when you sit in the car, it feels completely different. It doesn’t seem like a hot rod that was built in 2020. Instead, it takes on the character of a well-worn, well-loved survivor. It feels more substantial—more solid—like an automobile rather than a project.

Throughout the whole weekend my brother was here, we referred to the car as a street rod. (Hey, it is upholstered after all.) We debuted the new look at the local Ocean Beach car show, and we put plenty of miles on it around town. It rattles less and is a little bit quieter (I think). I still have to clean it up, but I can say for sure that this “nice to have” is growing on me. Who knows: maybe I’ll find some upholstery for the seat next.

—Joey Ukrop

Upholstery always looks best in motion.

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