2012 Outstanding Automotive Interior

Congratulations to "Stitches"  Tony Miller

 

Interior restorer brings history and style back to classic cars

Tony Miller sits in a 1957 Ford Fairlane he is restoring at his shop Stitches in Poulsbo. (Amanda Layton / Special to NWautos)

When Tony Miller was in high school, he loved working on cars with his friends. One day he realized that although they were all great at body work, nobody knew anything about interiors.

Find Miller

Facebook: Stitches Custom Auto Upholstery

On a whim, Miller decided to enroll in a technical college to learn the art of restoring custom upholstery. It turns out that rebuilding interiors in half-million-dollar classic cars is a trade that's in high demand throughout Western Washington.

The 30-year-old Poulsbo native has been in the restoration business for only a few years, yet he has gained attention up and down the West Coast. This year, his projects have won the Street Achievement Interior award at the Portland Roadster Show and the Al Slonaker Memorial Award at the Grand National Roadster Show in Pomona, Calif.

"Higher-quality upholstery takes the car to the next level," he says. "It shows that the owner spared no expense on their car. It's fun because I get to use my imagination to create something cool that no one else has seen."

Most of the customers at Miller's Stitches shop are affluent retired hobbyists who want to build "retro rods" -- cars that feature original styling but have modern features such as MP3 docks and air conditioning hidden in the interior.

"I try to blend and incorporate modern features into my designs," he says. "If a car uses circles or ovals, I match that. Or if the finish is aluminum, chrome or black anodized, I look at it as a challenge to try to incorporate everything together."

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Tony Miller shows his interior work on a 1936 Ford Cabriolet. (Amanda Layton)

Because restorers often want their cars to look like they did when they rolled off the line, Miller's biggest challenges include reproducing vintage stitching techniques and locating replica vinyl or mohair carpet in the colors and grains used in the '30s, '40s or '50s.

Recently, he restored a 1933 Packard Super Eight Phaeton -- one of only three in existence. The car used curtains and snap-on canvas instead of side windows. Miller had to match the sewing on the burlap and tack the upholstery rather than use modern materials like glue or hog rings.

Little touches make big impact

While most methods have remained unchanged for decades, Tony Miller uses a few modern techniques to set his work apart:

  • Panels made from fiberglass rather than plywood can trim 10-15 pounds off a door.
  • Leather and vinyl are a must; tweed will date an interior to the 1990s.
  • Stainless steel accents embedded in the doors are small features that make panels pop.
  • Thick thread is a subtle component that enhances a unique design.

"It took me a month to finish that car," he says. "You're more aware of what you're doing around old cars, especially when you carry sharp objects around like seats or drills."

Occasionally Miller has to talk people out of bad ideas -- like the customer who requested a purple-on-purple interior.

"People are looking for something different and new, but at the same time it has to flow with the car's overall look," he says.

Restoring vintage cars often leads to unpleasant discoveries. He frequently finds nests or mice skeletons behind interiors. And plenty of foam seats need rebuilding thanks to cat urine.

Older cars used cardboard backing on panels and seats, Miller says, which warps over time. To replace it, he starts by sculpting a replacement framework out of plywood or fiberglass. After that, foam, leather and fabric is mounted with a combination of glue, staples and clips.

The creative possibilities are endless -- Miller's shop is filled with cowhide and fabric swatches, and he tries to imagine new designs for every car so that no two look alike.
It typically takes him from four to eight weeks to overhaul a car, which can cost upwards of $16,000.

"I love to be able to work on beautiful old cars," he says. "Having a customer tell me they've been restoring a car for 10 years and can't wait to see my work, and they chose me to do it for them -- I see that as an honor."