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Friday, October 12, 2012

Fiat 500 and 500 Abarth Door Panel Insert Mod

Fiat 500 Abarth with suede door inserts

The Fiat 500 and 500 Abarth interiors are high style and filled with interesting details. The body colored dashboard and concentric gauge cluster are just two examples of the Fiat 500's unique design and are favorites among owners. The one area that 500 owners mention that could stand enhancing are the door panels. The door panels are attractive and in keeping with the original Fiat 500's simplistic design, but are rather plain compared to the rest of stylish interior of the new car.

I decided to step up the design of my own door panels and set about looking for ideas. After spending many hours researching, I was surprised there are few examples of modified door panels on the internet. The only ones I found were either painted or had a flocking effect added. I knew the door panels were multi-piece and should somehow come apart, so this struck me as unusual that no one has added an upholstered insert to them before. After doing the job, I understand why this is rarely done.

The Good News
My idea was to upgrade the plain plastic door panel inserts with a synthetic suede material. Real suede has some issues in an automotive environment, and I was looking to have a practical surface that would last. I use my car daily, and it is not a pampered show car that never sees the light of day. The material Alcantara was my first choice, but do to time constraints to finish this project I went with SP Texuede "Faux Suede." This has a good reputation in the automotive world and has a nice, deep nap.

The door panels on the Fiat 500 do come apart, so it is a doable project.

The Bad News
The reason you don't see this done that often is the door panels on a Fiat 500 are an intricate, complicated design. Held together by 40 plus plastic rivets and 19 plastic welded areas that each have to be drilled, cut or pried apart. At anytime doing this job, a single mistake will render the expensive door panel useless. Professional auto upholsterers are reluctant to tackle this job for that reason and, if they agreeto do it, must charge for the many hours it takes to do this custom work. Remember, those rivet and weld totals are just on one door panel alone.

The way around this expense is to do it yourself. If you have the patience to spend several hours working on a project, and have some finesse working with plastic, you can save a lot of money by doing the time consuming work yourself. If you take the door panels apart, you can have a competent upholsterer glue the material down. I recommend having a professional doing that part because someone with experience needs to work the material to cover the complex, compound curves of the door panel. Just make sure your upholsterer has experience using the material you have chosen.

Let's Get Started
Good, I didn't scare you off, keep reading!

Fiat 500 Abarth door panel clips

Pull the door panels off the car. Take a soft trim stick or a credit card and remove the chrome bezel and black plastic cover (marked with red arrows). Remove the allen bolts that lie behind these covers. Use the trim stick or a fingernail to remove the round plastic plugs that cover screws that help fasten the door panel to the door (yellow arrows). Remove the 2 screws. The door panels are held on by traditional door clips, so use the trim stick and carefully pry the door panel off the door at the approximate locations shown (light green arrows). Start at the bottom and work your way up each side. Use firm pressure and a tug to disengage the retainer clips.

Once the panel is disengaged from the retaining clips, lift the door panel up and the panel will come off. Careful though, because the door panel will still be attached to the door handle assembly and cable. Use a torx head screw driver and unscrew the complete door handle from the back of the panel. On the drivers side, you will also have to unplug the power mirror switch. Once this is done, place the door panel somewhere safe where it won't get scratched or demolished.

If you need to drive the car, you can attach the door handle to the door with the allen bolts you removed and a few washers. You can also attach the arm rest once you remove it from the door panel. This way you can have a functioning car while you wait to have the door panels upholstered, etc.

Fiat 500 Abarth back of door panel

This is what the back side of the door panel looks like. By the time you are done, you will know it very well!

Fiat 500 door panel rivets

Gulp! The arrows mark the areas that hold the two pieces together. The red arrows are rivets that should be drilled out. The yellow ones are areas that are plastic welded and need to be pried or cut apart. Oh, and one more thing, I think I missed marking a rivet or two!

Close up of some of the plastic rivets used to keep the two door panel halves together. The grey part is the back of the armrest.

Start drilling! I first tried to cut the rivets out, but that proved to take forever. I gave up and broke the drill out. Use a large drill bit. I think this is a 3/8" bit. Be CAREFUL! Go EASY! The plastic is like butter and super easy to drill and it only takes maybe one second to drill the top of the rivet head off. The problem is if you don't release the trigger quick enough, the drill can very easily poke through the door panel.

This is what you want to do. Take the head of the rivet off. This isn't that hard to do, so don't get into a rush and become sloppy. A brief tap of the trigger works best, but soon you'll get the feel of it. Enjoy, because you'll have 80 plus of these to do!

There are a few rivets holding this foam piece on.

Drill the rivets out and remove the foam.

Done with the rivets? Good, that was the easy part. Now you have to tackle the 19 plastic welds. If you are lucky, you can pry on them and they will just pop apart. Use something plastic. This is a plastic pry tool I got from Harbor Freight. Wiggle it underneath each weld and most will pop free. Some you will need to cut, though. Plan on getting lots of scrapes on your fingers and knuckles.

Besides rivets and welds, there are also a few tabs that need to be carefully cut apart. The tab fits through a hole and then the head is melted over. Just trim the melted head off so you can reuse the tab. Two are by the speaker grill and there are a few on the armrest. When all the rivets, tabs and welds are free, carefully pry the panels apart.

You did it! The panels are apart! You can see the tool I used to pop the welds.

Backside of the panel. Remember to rest the door panel on a soft cloth or towel because, as many Fiat 500 owners know, the door panels are prone to scratching.

A look at the outer panel. I also used an X-Acto knife to cut some of the welds that I could not pop free.

This is what the panel will hopefully look like when you get it back from the upholsterer. It is important to find out up front that your upholsterer is confident he can follow all the contours of the door panel and has experience using the material that you have picked. The area around the door handle is particularly challenging. I bought 2 yards of SP Texuede and had plenty left over.

Another look at the outer door panel.

To put the door panels back together I used a black silicon adhesive. I chose this type of adhesive because it can be cut apart if you want to make changes down the road. You will need a clamping method to hold them tight. I used heavy books and let the adhesive set for 24 hours.

Fiat 500 Abarth with suede door inserts

The finished door panels! The SP Texuede I used has a nice nap and even smells like leather.

Fiat Abarth 500 with suede door inserts

Disclaimer: This is how I modified the door panels on my Fiat 500 Abarth and is provided for entertainment purposes. If you have any doubts on you ability to do this work or have any issues, I recommend having it done by a professional. I am not responsible for any issues arriving from you reading this post. Use at your own risk.


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Rodney said...

Beautiful results, bravo for taking the challenge! I have considered painting the outer panel of my Sport in the body color (giallo), or even a gloss black, thinking the finish would hold up to scuffing better than the soft plastic. Your post clarifies the scope of the task and fills me with hope AND dread.

LR said...

I was plotting how to go about these interior mods after I take ownership of my Abarth, really nice to see you tackle it! The step by steps and photos are fantastic!
Now, can you do the A-Pillars?