Leathercloth. Naugahyde. Ambla. These are just a few of the words that car-makers have used to name vinyl upholstery. Name and euphemistically disguise a badly hidden truth in fact, because vinyl has almost always been seen as inferior to cloth trim or the leather whose texture it mimicked.
Almost, because there was a brief period when vinyl upholstery was excitingly new and considered superior not only to fabric but leather too. Which is how the very earliest, cheapest Minis came to provide cloth seats, while the pricier versions offered Vynide, and unconvincing conflation of the descriptors for the unmentionable vinyl and hide.
You’ll still find vinyl in a modern car, covering door trims, the bits of the seats that you don’t sit on and often plenty more. But what you never find, or so I thought until this week, is vinyl completely covering the expanse of the seat that you sit on.
Why? Because if your car does without air conditioning, your limbs will be stickily adhering to vinyl whenever the cabin gets hot. That doesn’t happen with cloth or fabric trim, which after two decades of sill-to-sill vinyl in the 1950s and 1960s, became a highly desired option. Leather, meanwhile, has long been the preserve of high-end cars, because their air conditioning prevented your beshorted legs from gumming themselves to the upholstery.
But some bright spark at Mercedes long ago realised that in an air-conditioned cabin, the sweaty drawback of man-made vinyl would surface as rarely as it does in a similarly chilled interior upholstered in cowhide.
Which is how what Mercedes calls Artico man-made leather has come about, not only as a material with which to upholster the bits of the seats that you don’t sit on, but also the entire facings for some models. Such as the latest Mercedes C-class, which I sampled the other day, and the C-class before it.
No big deal you might think, especially as Artico really does look and feel as if it had previously encased a field-chomping quadruped.
But at one time, the idea of selling a luxury model like a Mercedes with vinyl seats would have seemed preposterous, unless it was about to embark on a half-million mile duty cycle as a taxi.