Whatever happened to seat covers?


By Al Vinikour   

Whenever the subject of new cars and new car accessories comes up the first and probably most important topic, at least to some, is the vehicle’s audio system. It seems unless you have a decibel level that will cause your ear drums to explode and blood to gush out of them then you might as well be listening to a talk radio station for all the good it is.

I don’t care how expensive an upscale audio system is I would not be able to understand lyrics to a Cee Lo Green recording. Hell, I had enough trouble understanding lyrics from Johnny Mathis and he had the clearest annunciation in the history of records. But do you know what you seldom, if ever, hear at such a gathering of car enthusiasts is, “What kind of seat covers did you buy?”

No, I’m not talking about upholstery — leather or cloth. I’m talking about good old-fashioned custom-made or generic seat covers. If you know what I’m talking about then you know what it’s like to outrun a stegosaurus on the way to school after being chased for 60 miles, uphill all the way there (and back) from your house. I can’t remember a new car my parents had when I was a kid that they didn’t put seat covers on, kind of like the plastic couch covers at Aunt Tilli’s house where your rear-end never touched cloth. We owned junkyards and an auto parts store and my Dad actually sold seat covers that were specifically made for certain cars.

Also, there were several prominent makers of seat covers. Among them was an oddly-named company called Fingerhut, out of St. Cloud, Minnesota. They made clear seat covers — mostly out of a strong plastic. If your vehicle had a unique pattern to the upholstery the clear covers allowed it to be seen.

However, air conditioning wasn’t a common accessory in vehicles during those days and that made summers even hotter. Sitting on those seats on a scorching day was what the first night in a state prison must be like. And forget about leaving the seat after a long drive – especially if you were dumb enough to have done so without wearing a shirt.

Fingerhut plastic seat covers

Sub-zero weather wasn’t much better. When you’d sit on the seat and felt the crunching underneath you the only prayer you could come up with on short notice was, “Please, Lord don’t let that be an expansion of my butt crack.” That these things didn’t crack and peel by the end of winter was actually a testament to their strong construction.

As with anything else there were always improvisers mostly brought upon by financial necessity. Not everyone could afford a set of seat covers for their car. So what did they do? The same thing my mother always did whenever she bought a new sofa (couch, in those days); unlike Aunt Tilli she put a bed sheet on it.

Often times we had these beautiful seats in our new Oldsmobile or Lincoln or even an occasional Cadillac. But you’d never know it by looking at the interior. It looked like a bed made by a college student at his dorm room. Yes, they did the job but it didn’t do anyone’s image any good when their vehicle would be tooling down the road with part of a bed sheet hanging out the door.

I don’t remember what year that seat covers were officially labeled “deceased.” It could have been as late as sometime in the 1960s. But just like some of the more popular accessories of their day, seat covers joined steering wheel knobs, ooga horns, Blue Dot Tail Lights, continental kits, full-sized spare tires, spinner hub caps (although spinners seem to be making a comeback on Escalades and Navigators in some parts of the country), et al, in the great “Remember When Junk Heap.” 

Now most vehicle manufacturers have developed fabrics and leathers that are almost totally resistant to punctures, scratches, flatulence and most burns. I’m sure there’s a hidden cost for this development and I would bet it’s much more than a set of seat covers would cost. However, even though I’m admittedly from Indiana, even I can’t see a Jeep Grand Cherokee with a clear set of Fingerhut custom-made seat covers or a Mercedes S-Class with a printed bed sheet covering its rich leather trim.

For the most part my youth may have been the good old days but at least now I don’t have to worry about leaving parts of my flesh on clear plastic seat covers on a 100-degree day.