As long as there have been cars on our streets, there have, of course, been seats in our cars. The earliest known reference to an automobile seat comes from a Canadian magazine called Old Autos, which described the padded leather bench with springs mounted directly onto the frame of a Benz patent motor car.
Benz Patent-Motorwagen (source)
Since the early days of driving, automotive seating has evolved along with the demands of motorists and manufacturers for comfort, safety, durability and ease of manufacture.
Early car seats
In the early days of automobiles, the primary concerns regarding seating were neatness, comfort and durability. Car seats were much like regular furniture. They were large and comfortable, using materials like cloth, cambric, muslin, buckram, cotton and even down feathers.
1976 Cadillac spring seat (source)
Springs were used in all car seats until around the 1970s, when special foams replaced them as the primary method of absorbing impact from bumps in the road. The best springs were woven, coiled springs, interlaced and bound with metal and injection-moulded plastic clips to ensure they remained in place after repeated contraction and expansion. The springs were often embedded in foam and then covered with heavy topping to prevent any discomfort. Many different types of springs were used, and many manufacturers patented their special designs.
Before specially engineered seating foam became commonplace, animal fibres were the most popular choice of filling for car seats. Horse, cattle and pig hairs were used. Pig hair was the most popular due to its having the highest degree of curl and so the best interlocking capability.
Animal hair was the primary choice up until the late 1930s, when latex foam seating became more popular. Initially tested as a material for use in mattresses, latex foam was first installed in London bus seats. It was subsequently adopted as the seat filling material for the majority of car models.
In 1957, polyurethane foam (PUF) overtook latex foam as the dominant material of automotive seats. PUF offers high levels of comfort and durability. It’s also able to withstand fluctuations in humidity levels, resistant to hardening from repeated pounding and resistant to tearing.
Today’s automotive seating
Today, PUF is still the most widely used filling material for car seats. The challenge now is to make automotive seating cheaper and less harmful to the environment to produce. To this end, use of biopolyols has been promoted over the use of petroleum-based polyols. Vegetable-based polyols from sources like palm and soy are alternatives. However, they haven’t been widely adopted, and are unlikely to be until engineers create vegetable-based substitutes that are as good as, or better, than petroleum-based chemistries.
Modern contoured sports seat (source)
A study performed by Johnson Controls, which designs and engineers car seats for several manufacturers, found that consumers pay the most attention to the number of seats in a car, the appearance of the seats and the level of comfort they offer. They’re less concerned with exactly how the seats are constructed, which means there’s little pressure on manufacturers to switch to more environmentally friendly materials and production processes.