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A New Headliner for the Land Rover Project

posted by on 14 February 2011 in Project

It’s a fact of life — time and gravity will eventually take their toll, leaving behind what can best be described as loose, sagging and wrinkled. And let’s face it, once this happens, they’re just not much to look at anymore. We’re talking, of course, about headliners. Especially those fuzzy, foam-backed ones glued to fiberglass shells in most modern European cars. Our ten-year-old Land Rover is no exception.

The cloth you feel above you is bonded to a layer of foam about a quarter-inch thick when new, which is then glued in place on the lightweight backer board in a press. This method is fairly universal these days, and it results in a clean, luxurious look when the car is new. Over time, the continuous cycle of blistering sunshine on the car’s roof works against not only the adhesives, but also the thin foam layer between the cloth and the board. After all, the headliner panel sits right up against the metal roof, with only a small gap in most places, and with no sort of thermal insulation separating them.

While we continue to search for the correct new (and by “new” we mean cheap and used) fuel lines that would allow us to reinstall its rebuilt engine, the Discovery has enjoyed the toasty confines of our heated workshop over this cruel winter. A shot of optimism about actually finishing the project before springtime meant we were going to have to address the disheveled headliner at some point. There being no time like the present, we went ahead and got to work on it last week.

Back in the summertime, when we pulled the old Disco into the shop to pluck its dead lump, we took advantage of its indoor status to pull the headliner down and start preparing it for its inevitable repair. Roughly an hour was needed to carefully remove the A- and B-pillar trims, the rear window surrounds, the sun visors and overhead console, and the grab handles, being cautious to pair all the hardware with the correct bits. Next came the actual removal of the board, which required patience more than anything to avoid bending or tearing it.

With the whole assembly out, we laid the eight-foot-long panel on a platform and pulled the old fabric off its solid background, fully revealing the extent of the damage. The once pliable, spongy foam had deteriorated into a crumbly, gummy substance barely holding the cloth to the panel in most places, while in other spots it had given up altogether. The remaining foam/adhesive layer was expunged with the aid of a stiff, stainless steel wire brush and a shop-vac.

Sourcing new material meant a trip to our local upholsterer’s shop, but not before stopping off at the neighborhood craft store first. The same national chains where your grandma shops for patterns and crafting supplies also sell automotive headliner fabric — pre-bonded foam and all. Their prices are generally pretty good too, but the problem often comes down to color selection. Our local store had a fairly standard stock of black as well as a single shade each of tan, grey and dark blue, plus dark red if you’re retrimming an ’80s-era LeBaron. Problem was, the Land Rover’s sky panel floats somewhere between tan and grey; it’s almost a seashell color, and none of the stuff at the craft store was satisfactory.

One trip to a proper upholstery shop cured that. With a piece of the Land Rover’s plastic trim in hand, the guys at Riggs Brothers quickly located a bolt of the right stuff. The color match was truly impressive, and it seemed worth paying the extra two bucks a yard they demanded.

Three and a half yards of material allowed for complex contours and edges. Unlike the factory method, which uses a press and heat to force the fabric into all the compound curves and tight corners, the manual method involves a lot of small spray-and-tack steps, starting at the center and working outward. The Discovery’s headliner, with its two sunroof recesses and overhead storage net niches, is a veritable sweeping dune of complex surfaces. The spray adhesive required to hold the new material down can only be pulled and repositioned so many times before it either starts losing its adhesion or pulls the foam away from the cloth entirely. Patience and a little forward planning are required to get a decent lay (no pun intended).

In the end, the new material went down pretty well with only a few minor waves. Most of the imperfections we noticed disappeared once the panel was reinstalled in the truck, with all the trimmings back in place. More important, the cloth is no longer hanging down from the ceiling as a constant reminder of age and neglect in the rear view mirror. Funny how a little lift and tuck can make you feel excited all over again.

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