Avoidable Contact #91: Hell bent for cloth
My 1986 Mercury Grand Marquis coupe is superior to my old 1979 Mercury Marquis Brougham coupe in every way. It has the fuel-injected 302 instead of one tended capriciously by a “Variable Venturi” carburetor, cruise control that works without fail, fabulous Town-Car-esque ribbed alloys instead of steel wheels behind covers, full-width tail lamps instead of poverty-spec items surrounded by dull black plastic. It’s a better car, in better condition, even though it arrived to my custody in late 2020 instead of early 1989.
There’s just one little problem: As a Grand Marquis with the LS package, my new one is a fetching black-with-black-roof over … a dreary grey leather interior. My ’79 was bright red, with a white top and rich red velour to match its red doors and dash. The day I brought it home, my mother looked out the window and said, derisively, “I see you now own a pimpmobile.” Naturally, I beamed with pride in response, being part of the generation that didn’t see Ron O’Neal in the theater but had nevertheless absorbed via cultural osmosis that such a thing would be deeply cool.
I hate the leather interior in my Marquis. Hate it. With the proverbial passion. So I’m going to do something about it at the earliest opportunity, and that “something” will be to have the seats reupholstered. I could do black velour, which would be fun. Alternately, since this is an occasional-use vehicle, I might try getting a few yards of a proper bespoke fabric from Scabal or Loro Piana or Zegna. It would be truly lovely to have cloth seats, and I can make it happen. The only barrier is money, and that is why God invented ramen noodles: to help you save money for cloth seats.
If only it were that simple in, say, my Lincoln MKT. Or my Silverado. Or even my Accord. All of these vehicles have black leather interiors, of various quality. The Lincoln’s is excellent, buttery-soft from the folks at Bridge of Weir. The Chevy has something that more closely approximates plastic, while the Honda’s leather is the lowest of the low, somehow cheaper-feeling than all other leather seats and the vinyl alternatives. Any time someone asks, “How did Honda make an unbreakable, 31-mpg, stick-shift, 270-horsepower coupe for $31,000?”—not that this happens a lot—I send them a picture of the seats, because they are trash.
I can’t get the chairs in any of the above-mentioned cars fixed, because they have airbags. Nobody wants to reupholster airbag seats. It’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. So it’s leather-for-life on those cars. Not so with the Marquis. That can be addressed, albeit at a cost exceeding the car’s value. One has to ask, however: Why did the ’86 Mercury have leather in the first place, if the ’79 didn’t?
The answer is simple: everyone was doing it. The Grand Marquis LS still came with velour as the standard interior, as seen above, but most dealers opted to order them with the extra-cost leather. They weren’t alone in making that choice. The use of leather in cars doubled from 1982–92, and then again from 1992–97. At some point, it became the majority choice for seating materials. Honda, as is almost always the case, was the last holdout against this trend. As recently as 2014, when my Accord was built, customers who wanted to sit on a dead animal’s skin needed to stretch for the EX-L trim—L for leather. Today, EX-L is just one of many leather-trimmed Accords, the same way that the “E” on the back of a Benz no longer means Einspritz because they are all Einspritzed.
The Big Three would rather sell you a leather-lined truck than a cloth-equipped one, and the model strategies reflect that, particularly in the case of Chevrolet. Lexus and Infiniti gave up on cloth a long time ago. The famous $35,000 base price of a 1990 LS400 included very nice cloth seats as standard, but the dealers wouldn’t accept those allocation slots so almost immediately the LS became leather-only, with the fabric seating saved for the home-market Toyota Celsior.
What makes this extra-frustrating is that leather is usually the worst possible choice for a car seat. Cold in the winter, hot in the summer: cloth and velour don’t do that. Vinyl does do that, but good vinyl (think MB-Tex) lasts in a way that leather simply cannot. Comfortable, affordable, durable: pick any two. Cloth is affordable and comfortable, vinyl is affordable and durable. But leather is usually none of the above.
Yes, leather made sense in certain home-market British luxury cars that were under the care of professional staff such as butlers and valets and batmen. The very best grades of Connolly leather, as seen in Rolls-Royces and Daimler Double Sixes (think Jaguar Vanden Plas in the States) could be astoundingly fragrant and pliant and lovely to touch, like a set of Edward Green shoes on which you could sit. The problem was that they needed weekly maintenance to survive, even in British weather. Put them in Phoenix during the summer, or Michigan during the winter, and they simply disintegrated. The only way to make leather live in those conditions is to plasticize it to Chevy Silverado levels. At which point you really have vinyl-covered leather, which is horrible.
Something should be done. Unfortunately, the “something” the automakers have in mind is “vegan leather,” which really means “crummy vinyl.” It doesn’t help that our long-envisioned autonomous future (which, of course, will never really get here) has “communal usage” as one of its many Satanic aspects. Any New York cabbie will tell you that “communal usage” means industrial-grade vinyl seats and rubber floors, because they can be hosed out.
In whatever time remains between now and the imminent dystopia, however, I’d like to see some automakers try offering cloth as an extra-cost option over plasticized leather, the same way a few sports cars offered the manual transmission for additional cash in the previous decade. It should be nice cloth. Maybe not Holland and Sherry level, but something nice-ish, like what you’d find in the better Brooks Brothers suits. Scotchgarded, of course. It would eventually display wear, but it would be a charming sort of aristocratic threadbare wear, not the crack-and-flake of disintegrating leather. Give us a couple different colors while you’re at it.
I’d personally pay, oh, let’s say, $2500 for a first-rate cloth seat as an option on my next car. Chances are I’m not the only one. And once people saw how nice a good cloth interior can be, the idea would pick up steam. Genesis is the right brand to try it, although Lexus could make it happen with literally a press of a button since it still does cloth interiors for Japan. The Germans offer some nice fabrics at home as well. Maybe we could have some of those.
No reason to hold my breath on this. Instead I’ll put my money where my mouth is and start doing it for my own cars. If anybody knows an upholsterer who isn’t scared of airbag seats, please let me know in the comments. Regardless of that, I’ll hurry up and get started on my Grand Marquis. You’ll see us on the roads this summer. Panther-platformed, square-rigged, vinyl-topped, and hell bent for cloth.