Monday, December 29, 2014

Fallen Headliner

When the headliner falls down, what do you do?

One of the problems with keeping a car a long time, is that a lot of little things go wrong - little things that are expensive to fix, particularly if you are not handy with tools.   So yea, power seats sound really cool, until they stop working.   You go to the mechanic and he wants $600 to fix them, and that is more money than the car is worth.   Unless you are handy like I am, you basically hope the seat broke in a position that is comfortable - and then drive the car until it dies.

But eventually, enough of these "little things" add up until owning the car is just an experience in frustration.   If the A/C goes (or worse, the heat!) or defroster fan, the power seats are broken, one or more power windows break (usually the driver's side) and so on - the car becomes an annoying pain in the ass to drive.

One of these really annoying things is the headliner.   Once a car gets to be a decade old or so, these can rot out and fall down and you look like a dork driving down the road with this drape hanging down.  Worse yet, with the windows down it flaps in the breeze and bangs against your head.

Is there a cheap way to fix this?   Sadly, no. 

Are there lots of people willing to sell you various cans, jars, or spray cans of glue "guaranteed" to fix it?  Sure there are.  None of them work.

The problem is that modern headliners are not the fabric-and-bow type that cars from the 1960's had.   Sometime in the 1970's, they started using these composite headliners, which were a large piece of cardboard with foam glued to it.   Glued to that is the fabric that you see as the headliner material.   If the car is left out in the hot sun a lot, the foam eventually breaks down and turns to powder.  The fabric is thus no longer attached to anything, and sags and falls down.

The glue hasn't failed - the foam has disintegrated.   And the problem with trying to "re-glue" the fabric is that you are trying to glue fabric to powered foam, which resists all attempts at gluing.

And since the fabric is often thin, the glue soaks through and you get a big gluey mess on the inside of the fabric.

I have tried just about all of the headliner glues and other ho-made techniques in the book, over the years, and none of them have been successful.   The spray-on "headliner cement" sold in auto parts stores (by 3M) might work (for a while, anyway) only if you first remove the headliner completely (including the cardboard backing panel), scrub off all the powdered foam that has disintegrated, and then carefully follow the instructions on the can, and apply new fabric to the panel and then apply some sort of weight on top (perhaps using a sheet of plywood as an intermediate layer) and then letting it set for a week.

The only method I have found that really works is buying a brand-new headliner from the factory.   This had to be truck-shipped, and as top-freight (shipped in cardboard - cardboard shipped in cardboard, basically) and hopefully will arrive undamaged.   The installation is much easier - remove the trim screws, install the new headliner, re-install the trim screws.  The only sticky part is that sometimes an edge may need to be glued.

But failing that, ho-made repair attempts, such as pots of glue and such, basically aren't going to work, unless, as I noted above, you basically take the entire headliner backer board out and rebuild it with new fabric (the old fabric will be porous to the cement, and it will shrink, leaving edges exposed.   The best bet is to use a large sheet of automotive-grade fabric (if you can find something wide enough) and then cut off the excess.

Of course, the best thing to do is keep your car in a garage.   What kills these headliners is heat, which breaks down the foam layer between the cardboard backer and the fabric.   And cars parked outside in the hot sun can experience temperatures of 140 degrees or more - enough to dry-rot the foam in the headliner - and even the fabric itself, as illustrated in the photo above.

Fallen headliners are one reason I say that most folks should think about fishing further upstream when it comes to older cars.   Trying to get heroic mileage out of a car can often be more costly than simply selling the car and buying something newer.  Every piece of equipment reaches a point in the Wiebull curve where it basically has to be rebuilt - or discarded.

Paying a lot of money to repair and older car - while living with things like broken A/C, fallen headliners, and broken power accessories, makes no sense at all.