Academy News

Revitalizing Vintage Cars

Vintage Vehicle Upholstery Restoration instructor Ken Downes uses his artistic talent and expertise to give classic cars a new lease of life 

By Nina Tabios

Before he started teaching at the Academy of Art University’s School of Industrial Design as the Vintage Vehicle Upholstery Restoration (AUT 230) instructor, Ken Downes has been restoring automobile interiors longer than most of his students have been alive.

Ken
School of Industrial Design instructor Ken Downes. Photo courtesy of Ken Downes.

Recently named among the Top 20 Restorers in the recent Keith Martin’s Sports Car Market magazine, Downes rebuilt, re-upholstered and revitalized the insides of European and vintage American cars for over 30 years.

“I always knew I wanted to work on cars since I was a kid,” he said. “I was already working on engines and doing mechanic work … By the time I was a senior in high school, I was doing show cars, Porches, and Mercedes.”

Downes started working in an upholstery shop at 16 years old (he learned how to sew on his mother’s sewing machine at 12 years old) and at 19, he opened his San Rafael-based shop, European and American Auto Upholstery. After three decades in the restoration business, Downes’ expertise and focus are about maintaining the integrity of classic and rare cars and staying true to the aesthetics that make them collectible.

His more recent project was a complete interior restoration of a 1971 Mercedes-Benz 280SL, using only original materials. There aren’t too many vintage restorers of his caliber out there, Downes said, and believes his work requires, “a lot more artistic creativity.”

“What I do is very artistic, I call it that way because you take raw goods—leather, imported vinyl, and wool carpets—and you turn them into these interiors. And they’re all handcrafted,” he explained.

As an instructor, Downes passes on his knowledge of interiors to students with the hope they can apply it to their more modern-day designs.

“My favorite part is seeing how my students progress and see their accomplishments,” Downes said. “I teach them all the bits and pieces, all the stitches, and when it starts to come together and start to click and I see the results of my teachings. When I see the results of their projects and what they learned, that satisfies me, seeing the growth.”

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