Are your seatbelts worn and faded? Have the original belts been replaced with aftermarket belts? Are you changing the interior color of your restoration project? Whatever your motivation, seatbelts are an essential component of your interior. Poor seatbelts can detract from your interior’s appearance. In this instruction we will cover the process for restoring your seatbelts to virtually brand new condition.
I wanted the seatbelts in my 1966 Mustang restoration project to have the appearance of original factory seatbelts. Unfortunately, my car no longer had the original seatbelts when I purchased it. I searched for original equipment belts but the prices for a full set of belts and seat belt hardware were far more than I wanted to spend. I shopped on eBay for used seat belts but everything I found was dirty, stained and not even the right color. After searching without success for a couple of months I decided to compromise and purchase aftermarket buckles and new webbing to complete my interior.
Shortly after my aftermarket buckles arrived I found a complete set of original equipment Mustang seatbelts on eBay. The color of the original Mustang seat belts did not match my interior but I had discovered that I could successfully vinyl dye the plastic shell on the original buckles through experimentation with the after market buckles I had already ordered. I knew then that I could match the original equipment belts to my new interior.
When the original equipment belts arrived the metal hardware had 45 years of tarnish and rust. The plastic clamshells looked just as bad. I thought that maybe I had made a mistake in trying to restore these old seatbelt. I realized that more work would be required if I wanted to use the hardware from the original belts. Even if you have the original belts and they are the correct color for your interior you will still want to clean them up before you put them back into service.
Before you begin taking the belts apart take a good look at how they are put together. Measure the length of each belt. Notice the orientation of the mounts for front seat belts and back seat belts. If you have a camera take photos of how the belts are stitched together. You’ll be thankful for this reference later on when you get ready to sew the belts back together with your new webbing.
My seatbelts measured the following approximate lengths, NOT counting the webbing that was folded back and sewn together at the ends:
Front seat metal flat piece (fixed length clasp): 22.5″ Front seat plastic clamshell (adjustable length buckle): 34.0″ Back seat metal flat piece (fixed length clasp): 18.5″ Back seat plastic clamshell (adjustable length buckle): 40.0″
NOTE: When you cut your new webbing be sure to allow about two extra inches on each end of the belts for sewing the ends.
Your first task is to disassemble the belts to clean up the metal and plastic surfaces. Again, make sure you have thoroughly documented how the belts go back together. For the 1966 standard interior seatbelts the plastic clamshell buckles are secured by pins on each side where the buckle pivots. The pins must be pushed or driven out to disassemble the buckle. A punch, ice pick, or even a long nail can be used to drive out the pins with a hammer or mallet. Patience is a requirement for this task. I spent over 30 minutes trying to get the first pin out. Once I learned the correct technique (by process of trial and error) the other pins came out much more easily. The pins only need to be tapped out just a bit so you can get a grasp on the head and extract the pins with pliers or the nail puller of the hammer. Be careful when extracting the soft aluminum pins. They can be bent and damaged by too much force. I ended up ruining a couple of pins that simply refused to budge. Fortunately, substitute pins can be fashioned with #10/32 5/8″ stainless steel screws. In a later illustration you can see one seat belt where I used stainless screws in lieu of the original pins which were too damaged to reuse.
All the metal pieces can go into a tumbler with a mild abrasive to remove the rust and polish the metal surfaces. If you don’t have access to a tumbler then use fine grade steel wool to remove the rust and tarnish. You will be pleasantly surprised with the cleaned up pieces. I hit the cleaned metal hardware with a coat of clear lacquer to protect the metal and slow the process of future rust and tarnish. I cut pieces of paper to cover the knurled piece that the webbing slides on from the lacquer clear coat.
The plastic pieces will need cleaning too. Hot water and dish washing detergent is the cleaner of choice here. Rubber gloves and a cleaning brush can be used to hand scrub each piece multiple times. Again, you will be surprised and pleased with the how much dirt and grime will come off with a good cleaning.
I set the plastic pieces out in the sun to dry before spray painting vinyl dye spray paint. Don’t rush the painting process. Don’t try to entirely cover the pieces on the first or the second or even the third coat. Experience is the best instructor and experience has taught me that 10 very light coats of spray paint yields far better results than one or two thick coats. Hold the spray can about 12 inches away and keep the spray moving quickly all the time. Remember, spray many light coats. To make the clamshells really stand out I added several top coats of clear lacquer. The clear coats appear to help protect and harden the vinyl dye finish. Clear coats also add a shine to the dyed finish which has a rather dull finish without clear coating. Let the painted surfaces dry completely overnight.
New webbing in most major colors is widely available over the Internet. Domestic webbing will be delivered much quicker but it will cost more, too. If you have the luxury of time (I’m talking about nearly 4 weeks) and you don’t mind buying webbing from Hong Kong or mainland China you can get replacement webbing for a real bargain. You will also need heavy duty thread, as heavy as you can find. If you are not picky about the color you can probably find black heavy duty thread at an upholstery or awning shop. As each length of new webbing is cut you should run a match or lighter across the cut edge to melt the thin polyester threads and prevent fraying. Move the flame quickly so you don’t melt too much. You will pick up the proper touch with just a few attempts.
You may need a heavy duty sewing machine to sew through the folded layers of webbing. I volunteered my wife, an experienced seamstress to sew my new webbing. I gave her the thread, I cut the webbing to length, I even handed her each piece and showed her exactly how it was to be sewn. I also took her out to dinner the next night for helping me out. It was a win-win situation for both of us. If you can’t enlist your wife or sew yourself contact an upholstery shop or awning shop that has a commercial grade heavy duty sewing machine.
Your new seatbelts will look great and you will enjoy them in your favorite pony for many years.
Copyright 2012, Robert B. Whitaker, all rights reserved