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Automotive Leather: From Bulls to BMWs




Leather interiors are both tangibly and intangibly appealing, offering aural and tactile sensations superior to those of cloth or vinyl interiors as well as a feel of warmth, worth, and that all-important air of achievement. Even today, when most cars on this side of a Mitsubishi Mirage offer leather interiors, buyers still appreciate and admire cars with leather, so suppliers and automakers constantly develop new styles and treatments to keep consumers on the hook.

“All leather used in automotive trimming comes from bulls — boys only,” according to Nicola Fox, McLaren’s senior color and materials designer. Car leather makes up a tenth of the whole leather industry, and all automotive leather is a byproduct of humans’ insatiable beef consumption; hides are seen as waste in the food industry. The best hides go to the fashion industry for handbags and shoes, while scraps go to the automotive industry where leather is rejected often for imperfections; barbed wire scars or bug bites leave marks on the bulls, which is why high-end automakers are anal about their leather’s provenance.

Imperfections in a hide’s grain can be reduced or removed during tanning to achieve consistent look and feel, but doing so affects the leather’s durability. The tanning process immerses a hide in a liquid bath, traditionally of chromium sulfate, to soften it and give it an even appearance before dying and treatment. How suppliers and automakers treat and process leather varies, as do the kinds of leather they use, with top- and full-grain hides like Nappa (soft and smooth) and semi-aniline (finished with a minimal amount of pigment) being some of the most desirable.

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Stately names automakers give their leathers, like Caithness or Strathmore, are dreamed up by marketing teams following in the footsteps of advertising agency Bozell that in the ’70s coined the term “Corinthian leather” to describe the tufted leather in the Chrysler Cordoba.

Full-leather interiors are reserved almost exclusively for top-dollar cars, while most interiors have leather swaths selectively surrounded by sections of vinyl and other synthetics. Faux leathers have gotten so good that they’re difficult to differentiate from the real thing, and as such suppliers and automakers are embracing different leather styles and treatments to set apart the animal-based product. Innovations in tanning processes have opened up new marketing angles for automakers that now use planet-friendly, plant-based chemicals, including agents extracted from olive leaves. Leathers are being set further apart from synthetics with capping methods like quilting, embroidery, laser etching — which BMW used in the M4 — and intricate design work, like the beautiful brogue in the all-new Aston Martin DB11. More and more, manufacturers turn to saddlery, which highlights and celebrates natural grain, texture, and scarring instead of trying to conceal it.

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Toronto-based MariClaro turns reclaimed car seat upholstery into boutique leather goods. This well-worn bag, made from the original material out of a ’52 Mercedes cabrio, costs just under a grand. Visit mariclaro.ca to see more.

New opportunities will almost certainly open up for leather when autonomous driving is more widespread. Supplier GST AutoLeather predicts we will soon want a comfortable, lounge-like experience inside the cabin, with seats as cushy as our living room couches; today’s car seats are firm because automakers don’t want them to have wrinkles. Printing patterns and designs directly on leather is becoming popular, and chances are good we’ll see more automakers offer one-off, custom interior programs, not unlike Ferrari’s Maranello-based Tailor-Made program, which assists owners who want to spec special designs and other materials from sources outside the automotive world.

While leather on the whole is less extraordinary, automakers and suppliers are going to great lengths to ensure its continuing place as a luxury feature. Does anyone foresee a leather-free future? Not unless there’s a significant reduction in the availability of hides from the food industry. And even if there were, automotive leather is unlikely to vanish altogether. “There aren’t any other ‘natural’ alternatives that offer the same level of quality, feel, appearance, and touch,” says Fox. “And advances in processing leather, developments in weight reduction, coloration, and embellishment give us a product that is capable of meeting a wide variety of needs and tastes.”

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November 28, 2016