Alcantara adorns a Porsche's steering wheel, shifter boot and hand brake lever. Racers like the material's grip and that it's flame-retardant. (JPM Coachworks photos)
It’s been more than a decade since I drove that BMW, but I still cherish the memory of grasping that steering wheel.
Why did this car make such a large deposit in my memory bank? Well, it really wasn’t so much the car itself, although BMW sedans and coupes are wonderful to drive.
Instead, it was the steering wheel that I remember. Actually, not the wheel itself but its Alcantara cover.
Alcantara feels a lot like suede, but it is not made from leather. Nor is it a woven fabric, said Andrea Boragno, president and chief executive of Alcantara S.p.A., the Italian company that manufactures the product through proprietary technology.
I first saw and experienced Alcantara on the steering wheel of racing cars, where it is used not only for its sure grip but for its flame retardant property. However, Alcantara’s automotive applications extend to seating material, vehicle headliners, dashboard covers, and door panel and other interior trim, including parking brake handles and the boot around the base of a gearshift lever.
Alcantara was created in the early 1970s by Miyoshi Okamoto, a Japanese scientist working for Toray, a chemical company. Toray and Italy’s ENI Group jointly launched the Alcantara brand, which has been promoted as an alternative to leather.
Boragno said the material, a “composite textile,” costs about the same as leather, but is more breathable, and lighter, just as functionally durable, easy to maintain and clean, can be produced in any color, can be embossed with various designs, and is produced by a carbon-neutral manufacturing process as the only place it is produced, in Terni, Italy.
Boragno is particularly pleased that Alcantara became Italy’s first carbon-neutral manufacturer.
To showcase what Boragno called Alcantara’s “unmistaken Italian style” as well as its versatility, the company recently joined with designer Silvia Arguello and her Rosa Clandestino label to stage a major fashion show in Los Angeles to showcase what Boragno called a marriage of fashion and contemporary art that produces “wearable art.”
Typically, Alcantara has been used in home interiors, consumer electronics, by the fashion industry, and in marine, aircraft and automotive applications, especially in high-end and exotic sports cars and in concept cars. But it also has had original equipment applications in luxury sedans and is available for aftermarket installation.
For example, Joe Pavich of JPM Coachworks in Smyrna, Ga., said his company usually charges $500 to resurface a steering wheel with Alcantara, or $4,000 to redo a car interior with Alcantara seating, door trim, steering wheel and more.
Most customers, he said, start with an Alcantara parking brake handle, shifter boot, sun visors, or with Alcantara seat inserts because the material provides excellent grip and doesn’t feel hot to the touch in the summer or cold in the winter.
Pavich said only a few shops across the country specialize in Alcantara installations.
Alcantara has two distributors in the United States, one in California and Gulf Fabrics Inc., in Florida. Joe Martinez of Gulf Fabrics said the usual process is for a car owner to go to a local automotive interior specialist, specify Alcantara for the interior, and for the shop to contact Gulf Fabrics with the specifics such as color or patterns the consumer wants.
Larry Edsall is a Phoenix-based freelance writer. You can reach him at email@example.com.