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Project Tortured Affair GTI: Part II: Headliner Preparation

I can’t remember the last time I really enjoyed driving my car. It must have been sometime in winter of 2005, before the hit-and-run accident that led to my decision to have the car entirely resprayed, which is in turn what motivated me to pull the headliner to be recovered. Based on the ubiquitous headliner DIYs on the forums, I had no idea this would become such an ordeal. Once I get the notion that something will be a certain way, though, no alternative will suffice. That quirk pays off in some ways, such as when I finally score a specific part. In other ways, I suffer.

When my original attempt at headliner restoration failed miserably (I couldn’t find an acceptable fabric, and the fiberglass we used to repair the broken board cured in such a way that it no longer fit properly within the pillar trim) I decided rather impulsively that I’d rather go without than deal with the creaking, the resin fumes, and the paint flakes. The morning I left for Waterfest 2006, I punched the board, cracking it in a few key places, enabling me to pull out and discard the pieces without even removing the trim. I regretted this as soon as we got stuck in a traffic jam in NYC, and I could hear nothing but the rattle of the roof. I’ve since driven the car as infrequently as possible, thanks to the addition of a 2007 Rabbit to my family’s collection.

Flash forward to now; I am committed to finishing this component of my project if for no other reason than the fact that my editors are expecting a story. After flipping through a few auto upholstery books and doing some research on the Vortex forums, I found out that some model years of the MKI were constructed of fabric panels suspended from bows installed along the curvature of the ceiling. This system is commonly used for hot rod restorations, since they can be adapted to virtually any vehicle. I read a few auto interior books and did some research on kits from various hot rod supply shops (overall, a rather snobby contingent who seemed perfectly content not to sell a few hundred dollars’ worth of assorted metal pieces – I don’t expect I’ll be switching teams and joining that realm anytime soon).

The bow system appeared to have significant advantages over the board system. Materials are more rugged and can stand up to the stress of installation (unlike the foam board, infamous for possessing all the physical resilience of the communion host at Sunday Mass). The bows suspend fabric at intervals like a canopy; edges are finished by tucking into trim panels. Adhesive is used only for finish work, which means that fabric won’t separate from its backing over time, resulting in the dreaded saggy pouches. Most suppliers offer an array of precut vinyl with channels already sewn to fit the bows. It would have been quite simple to go the nondescript, subtle route. The bows’ biggest advantage, though, was that I finally saw a way to construct the headliner I’d envisioned for years: interwoven seat belts.

I’d been fantasizing about my “dream headliner” for years (I know, I’m not a normal woman). I like the look of seatbelts, functional and practical. I like using OEM materials in unexpected ways. Although I’ve seen hundreds of custom headliners over the years, I’d never spotted one like this, and it seemed just complicated enough to drive me (and my husband) insane. My resolve was strengthened when I received a Harvey’s Seat Belt Bag as a gift; why shouldn’t my headliner look as awesome as my purse?

Seatbelt material’s key benefit, strength, contributes directly to its key drawbacks, weight and cost. My headliner wouldn’t be saving lives or even bearing the burden of my wallet, phone, and keys. Lightweight, consumer-grade nylon weave would do the trick for a fraction of the cost of safety-rated webbing. Fortunately, the real deal is unnecessary here, thanks to the popularity of lightweight seatbelt-like webbing for applications such as bags, backpack straps, and pet leashes. I decided to work with 2” webbing since it’s relatively easy to find, and chose black and gray to coordinate with my awesome gray cloth Recaro interior. If you attempt this project yourself, though, I highly recommend ordering all belt from the same supplier. I shopped around to save a few bucks, and as a result, my roll of gray belt was slightly heavier and more authentic-looking than my roll of black belt.

When I ordered the bows, Automotive Interiors, of Belchertown, MA, was the first shop to indulge me with a response, and were thus rewarded with my credit card number and a mention in this article. The Automotive Interiors kit is designed to fit over the OEM headliner panel, if one was originally present in the car. As much as I’d prefer not to work with the board, this technique has its benefits. First and foremost, it’s a sound insulator, the importance of which I cannot overlook after going without for so long. It’s also easy to measure and mock up bow installation with the board on the floor.

Despite our best efforts at preparation, we ran into a few issues. I hoped to debut the headliner at Chicago Volkswagen Organization’s Midwest Treffen in August, but time wasn’t on our side. So yes, this update is a tease, though we’ve got about 40 hours into the board so far and a few pictures to share. Part III of Project Tortured Affair GTI, coming next month, will document the headliner’s completion from front to back, along with a comprehensive photo gallery. Winter is the perfect time to tackle a project like this, and we hope our DIY guide will provide some inspiration and motivation.

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