Refurbishing Magnette Seats

By the time you reach the re-trimming stage of a rebuild, much work will already have been done on the body and the mechanicals, so there is a great temptation, founded on impatience for the finish, to start exceeding budget and giving the last part of the marathon to a professional to complete. And whilst most amateurs will turn their hands to a bit of Mig welding  and engine rebuilding, the prospect of using scissors and a sewing machine can feel daunting, not to say downright effeminate! There is also the fear of not reaching a good enough standard.

 I had a couple of old front seats in store, so before deciding on whether I was capable of re-covering the ones in the car, I decided to experiment on the old ones to see what was involved.


The actual anatomy of the seat will become clear as this article progresses, but I will explain first of all that a Magnette seat is constructed on a unique one-piece steel frame, with the seat and the back permanently joined together at a non-adjustable angle. (This fact alone has prompted owners to seek alternatives  in order to gain the advantage of adjustability, so before laying out cash for new leather seat covers, you might want to consider whether a cheaper alternative would be to find a pair from another car in a scrap yard and adapt the support brackets to suit. More information on suitable alternatives can be found on discussion forums). The front seats are handed, so it is not possible to swap a lightly used passenger seat for that split and sagging driver’s seat. The frame has a cut-away to accommodate the transmission tunnel, so it can only be used on the side for which it was designed.

 The steel frame is upholstered with a combination of rubber foam cushions, rubberised horse-hair pads and kapok. The seat itself is finished with an all leather cover with piping and a fluted centre panel. It is mostly held in place by steel clips around the bottom edge of the steel base, with some secret tacking to the rear edge. The seat back is more complex. The front face panel is also leather with a fluted centre panel, but the sides are leather cloth, which looks like a victory of budget over quality. The same applies to the seat back panel, which is separate from the leather/leather cloth cover and is made of fibre board covered with leather cloth, invisibly tacked to the frame. The back panel also has a carpet scuff-panel at the bottom and this is folded under the frame and holds the bottom of the panel in place. Where items are tacked to the frame it has small strips of fibre board riveted to it to accept the tacks.

One of the arts of the upholsterer is to achieve a perfect finish with no visible fixings and the Magnette seats are no exception. What becomes clear as one strips a seat down  is the complexity of the construction and how carefully it has been put together to achieve elegance, comfort and a shape that gives the driver a bit of support. This was, after all, a car for the driver with some sporting pretensions.


One of my motives in stripping a seat down was to establish whether it would be feasible to patch the seats in my car, where damage and the signs of wear tend to be limited to individual panels that might be replaceable. Some parts of the leather are actually in reasonable shape, albeit discoloured. Discolouration in itself need not be a problem and there are refurbishment kits available to restore leather to something approaching its original condition as long as it is fundamentally sound. Over the years leather dries and becomes brittle, so the risk is that although it may look OK, it actually has the characteristics of blotting paper and this only comes to light when you start to lift it from the frame and it starts to tear. So if you are planning to repair the covers and put them back on I would recommend many months of re-conditioning using neat’s foot oil (from saddlery suppliers) or hide food before you attempt to remove them. They need to be supple and flexible. If you are engaged on a full rebuild, this is something that could be done at regular intervals while the structural and mechanical work is being done, so that when it is re-trim time, the leather is already in good shape.  Another tip is to store the seats somewhere where vermin can’t get at them because they offer a cosy place for mice to nest!

On balance I have concluded that it is unlikely that satisfactory repairs can be achieved, other than re-stitching seams that have come apart. Once you start to try to introduce replacement panels or patches, there is a strong likelihood that adjacent panels will split or that the stitching line will prove to be unsound.  A line of holes is, after all, an invitation for a tear to start.


Work on a low table or Workmate, so that the work is always at a convenient height without bending. You will need to manoeuvre the seat into various positions so that the part being worked on is presented for best access.

IMG_3920So where do we start? The answer is with the back panel. If you examine it round the edge, you will see that it uses a concealed tacking system (see photo). The tacks that hold it in place are hidden under the edge of the leather cloth next to the piping. Before you start easing these tacks out, remove the ash-tray by depressing the spring clips at the side, to bring the top edge clear of the sprung slide at the top. Once the rear edge is free, the ash-tray can be lifted out by taking the two lugs out of their holes along the bottom front edge. The shell can then be removed from the seat frame by extracting the two small Phillips screws that hold it in place.

The easiest way to remove tacks is to use the purpose-made tool, which has a flat blade with a V-cut in it so that you can get under the tack heads and lever them up (see photo). Some of them will have lost their strength with age, so the top will either break off or distort, allowing the leather cloth to come free. You just need to go back later and clean up the tacking panels to make sure there are no old tacks left in it or tacks that resolutely refuse to come out are driven below the surface with a punch. IMG_3923Work from the top of the seat back down each side until the back panel flaps down, like the cover of a book, held in place only by the carpet panel. With the back panel folded down, it is now easy to insert the tool and ease out the remaining tacks, so that the back panel now comes free. Put it aside carefully for attention later. With the panel removed, more of the underlying structure will be revealed. You will see the edges of the leather cloth side panels drawn round the frame and tacked in place. There are also hessian panels tacked at the side. Their importance will become clear later. The bottom corners of the side panels are folded under the bottom frame and held in place by the same steel clips that hold the seat cover. IMG_3921There is also a Phillips screw with screw-cup holding the last corner on each side. (photo, right) Remove these and fold the fabric back. You will also see where the rear edge of the seat bottom cover is pulled through and secured to the frame, so from this you will understand that, when re-covering the seat, the back and seat bottom covers both have to be fitted before the back panel is replaced.

The tacks holding the side panels can now be eased out. This time I decided that working from each bottom corner towards the top was best, so that as the fabric is released, it is easy to lift it to reach the next tack. When the side panels are free, fold them forward but do not try to pull the face panel off yet.

You will see that the seams surrounding the fluted centre panel also incorporate the hessian panels that pass through the frame and are used to tension the centre panel and make the surrounding panels sit proud of it, giving the cushion shape that grips the driver. Carefully remove the tacks that hold the hessian, unfolding it in the process.  Then remove the remaining tacks that hold the bottom of both the cushion covers.

Carefully ease the front panel of the seat back away from the frame, pulling the hessian panels through between the rubber central cushioning and the shaped horse-hair side cushions. The cushioning material is covered with kapok that will try to lift off with the leather cover, so separate it gently as you go, trying to maintain the underlying structure as much as possible.

Now turn your attention to the bottom cover. The operation is similar but instead of tacks holding the bottom edge there are spring clips. IMG_3924These are not especially easy to remove but I found that by using a blunt-edged screwdriver tapped lightly with a hammer, they could be persuaded to pop off. If your leather is in poor condition, this is where it will be revealed because it will split as the clip is removed and at worst the clip will take a chunk with it. The photo on the right shows the lower seat corner after the clips have been sprung off.

With all the clips removed, double check that you have removed all the fixings from the leather cloth back edge that  folds up onto the back framework. Then the cover should come free easily. There is no hessian on the bottom cover. The shape comes from the cushion and padding materials alone.


At this point, the seat is stripped of its covers and you can judge the quality of what is left. If the rubber foam panels are intact and undamaged, then  they can be left in place and reused. The one on the seat bottom covers the whole seat and is stuck in place round the edge, though not in the middle. I would imagine that this was intentional and allowed a bit more freedom of movement into the centre and avoided damage from the stresses imposed by the weight and movement of the seated driver.

The simple square cushion on the seat back is bonded to a shaped board that is, in turn, riveted onto the steel frame and is definitely best left undisturbed if possible. The three shaped rubberised horse-hair cushions that surround it are just pushed into place and held by the tensioned leather cover. It is important that the two vertical slots between the rubber foam and the horse-hair are clear to accept the hessian tensioning panels that pass through them.

If the rubber foam cushions are in poor condition they will need to be replaced with more modern equivalents. The back piece is simple enough but the seat cushion may need some shaping if an exact match cannot be located from trim suppliers. Because the foam cushions are stuck to the frame it is virtually impossible to remove them without damaging them but it should be possible to retain enough of the shape to give you the basis for copying.

All the cushions are covered by a layer of kapok and it is this that can be replaced if it was damaged or badly disturbed during the strip-down.

The following paragraphs describe the process of rebuilding the seat, so will apply whether you are re-using the old covers after repair or are fitting new purpose-made covers.

Re-assembly is basically a reversal of strip-down but requires care and attention to detail. The covers need stretching and tensioning over the frame to give the end result a smooth plump finish. This applies particularly to the tensioning panels that give the seats their shape and create the support cushions at the sides. Even stretching is important to avoid creases in the wrong places. I suggest that tacks are initially placed and part driven in at strategic places to hold the cover in place. Only drive them fully home when you are sure they are right and then fill in the gaps with more tacks in between, a bit like welding along a seam. The rounded corners are the toughest parts and require the most closely placed tacks to form a smooth curve.  On straights, wider spacing is adequate.

If you are lucky, the back panels will be structurally OK and just require re-covering. The tricky bit is the stitching that holds the piping and forms the cover for the invisible tacking. Or better still, if they are not faded then a good clean may be enough. However, the original carpet panels are prone to fade, so if the leather cloth is sound, it may be worth trying to dye the carpet without unstitching it.

When all the upholstery is done, re-attach the seat runners, lightly grease them and fit the seats back in the car.


#1 Paula Arnould 2015-07-16 22:32
Can the colour of green leather seats be changed using leather dye? Thanks

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