A fine-running baja leaves the driver happy. Even on the street, the smooth motor, stiff suspension, good gauges and so on are a pleasure to behold.
Good seats are likely the most enjoyable component in your baja, for every time you open the door and sit down you enjoy the benefits of your handiwork. A weak motor still runs, and a soft suspension still rolls, but a bad baja seat will ruin your day!
Your choices in baja seats include:
Aluminum buckets (Beard seats)
Another consideration includes Seat Belts, which is also addressed here.
Most people are going to use stock VW seats. This is allright, but a few things deserve mention.
High- or Low-Back?
Early VW's came with lowback seats. They're easier to work with, since there's lots of room to put things in over the top.
The baja fanatic has different concerns - namely, what's supporting your head when you offroad? This is how whiplash happens - car snaps forward, head snaps back unsupported, then recoils forward. Any good gulley will cause this effect, and spinal injuries are not our friend.
First and foremost: get a set of highback seats. They came stock in superbeetles and fit on the stock rails!
Rails get bent
The biggest complaint of stock seat users are that they don't adjust for @#$%. The rails get bent when you offroad, or an exceptionally large mother-in-law settles in to them.
They can be fixed. Simply use screwdriver to angle up, and hammer to pound down, and keep adjusting until they work better. Keep in mind the side-angles when adjusting - stock seats grab from the inside edges and top & bottom, so if the rail is angled it'll cause fit problems. Some grease the rails, but grease attracts dirt, so what's the advantage?
According to Gary of Gary's Driveway VW Repair, as written in the book My Bug, edited by Michael J. Rosen, "Beetle seats are stuffed with natural sisal, the stuff used for making twine. I gather it comes from some kind of agave plant, and it shreds into cords or fibers, kind of like hemp - although it can't be too much like hemp, or lots of Beetle owners would have come to me over the years to restuff their seats. Anyway, when it warms up, (I don't mean the car, just the weather), or when moisture gets in the seats, the sisal "gasses," and gives off that characteristic odor. But, come on, it's not a bad smell. It's not like you see Beetle owners hanging pina colada air fresheners from the rearview mirror."
This is good to know, surely, but natural sisal my not be the best material for a mudbogging baja. Foam pad has better qualities, but it's downside includes breakdown with age and water-absorption.
However, metal springs in the backside are the ultimate insult to you by your baja. Draw blood or burn me if you have to, but not that! Therefore, I'll recommend a foam pad stuffed into the seats to make things right.
An affordable alternative to the stock seat is the fiberglass bucket seat. Mark V Fiberglass, premier provider of fiberglass for baja bugs, offer them for as little as $28 and $25 for a seat cover. They keep you from sliding around, and being as how they're fiberglass they're easily modified for seat belt configurations.
The biggest problem with fiberglass seats is - they're blinkin' uncomfortable! I hear nothing but complaints from owners of these seats. If your woman's a good cook, your hips are gonna chaff. Padding is inadequate (I've heard it said - no matter how much padding is installed, it's inadequate!). Every time you sit down, your pager/cellphone/leatherman, whatever's on your belt, will hit and will be removed and will be placed in some other interesting location in the baja, so you'll spend much time tracking down devices that were placed god-knows-where before they got bounced to god-knows-where-else.
Another problem worth mentioning might be more historical than present reality, but it's serious enough to mention. Not long ago, there were a dozen makers of baja fiberglass. I recently learned there's ONE. Any quality problems are hereby blamed on those other out-of-business outfits until I learn otherwise....
Fiberglass bucket seats were known to break. I've seen more than one sandrail limping back to camp with the passenger propped up god-knows-how because the seat back had cracked and folded. Some had bloody shirts, since the razor-edge of fiberglass had hacked their backside. Recommendation: 3 strips of steel 3 inches wide by 50" (?) long, depending on the seat. Hammer and contour to perfection, then drill & rivet into the back/bottom of the seats from the head down to the knees. This'll absorb the shock enough to keep the seat from exploding. Use good, long rivets, and washers to spread the force along a good surface area of fiberglass.
But they will still be blinkin' uncomfortable. By the time you're done fabricating you can probably afford better seats.
I'm led to believe that fiberglass bucket seats often come with stock seat attachments, thus fit on stock rails. This is hard to beat.
At Phoenix Bugorama '99, I had the distinct pleasure of working with Mr. & Mrs. Ed Beard. Great folks! Mrs. Beard helped me choose the right fabric. Mr. Beard pointed out to me a different style of seats that would better fit my needs without being so restrictive.
Shortly after I placed my order, Beards sold to Trust Me Tie-Down Corp. in California. This made for an interesting experience. I don't really know what to say, since it was a fresh sale and things had to be worked out. My data on selection could have easily changed by now. Surely their knowledge has increased, and my 3-month delay before receiving the seats should be a thing of the past.
Mr. Beard has re-awakened his race car and won class 10 at the Holbrook 250 last summer. Will Trust-Me build a race car?
It's also worth mentioning that Motorcraft, RCI and others make excellent seats.
But Beard Seats are the Best.
The major styles of Beard seats seen in magazines are Street Seats, Super Seats and Ultra Seats. The street seat is relatively tame. Super seats are wonderful, and Ultra seats are pretty much full-race. Ed Beard told me of a style called a Low-Side Ultra - it's easier to get into and out of than the full ultra, so it's decent for daily use, but still has good side-support and a tall headrest.
In addition, they're offered in a 2-inch-wider configuration. I purchased my passenger seat as wider (fat-bottomed girls you make the rockin' world go round!) and discovered, there's no 2-inch-wider brackets available. I bought 1" tube steel and adapted the seat to the brackets. Let it be known - the baja is rather crowded, the emergency brake is accessible but barely, and I don't think that two 2"-wider seats would fit.
Depending on your seatbelt configuration, you can order cut-outs where the harness can run through the back of the seats. Side cuts on the Ultra seat allow the lap belt to run correctly. My beard seats take up some of the slack from the seatbelt, so it's a bit more of a challenge to slip into the harness when wearing a bulky leather jacket, but this isn't a big problem.
The only real answer to the choice of seats is, sit in them. $200 ea. seats are no easy thing to choose, so choose wisely.
Beard seats are made from aluminum - different grades for different models, with the Ultra sporting the heaviest. No cracked fiberglass. I've heard of one breaking, once - the Ledzema race team had moved their beard seat from racecar to racecar over maybe a 10-year span. It broke during the Laughlin Desert Challenge 98, and Mrs. Beard gave them a new seat (sans cover). She was displaying products at Vendor's Row, and gave away her demo. (I wonder if TrustMe will be on vendor's row someday?)
The fabric is the same as offered by GM, Chrysler and other automotive manufacturers. You browse a stack of fabric swaths, inquire whether your choice is available, and it's custom-built to order. Offerings include either vinyl-side or fabric-sides (referring to the inside edges of my low-side ultra seats), depending on the fabric - my configuration was only available in vinyl-sides.
Beard seats don't fit on the stock rails. You can order brackets or fabricate. I ordered brackets, with a sliding driver's side and hinged passenger-side. Maybe not the best value, but time is money for many people and fabrication is time-consuming! The brackets bolt directly to the floor pan, with 4 tabs on the seat to bolt to the rails. They have feet in front of the stock rails, and behind. I had to grind steel to get them to fit right. When I called Trust Me to ask about this, they thought I had to remove the stock rails. Guess what, stock rails are welded in. They could be removed but that's not the design intent.
Early VW's came with no seat belts whatsoever. Bad news for the baja fanatic! Above and beyond the fact that being thrown around in an accident is a leading cause of injury, when offroading you're likely to lose control on big bumps. Big bumps are the time you really want to keep control.
Plan A - buy a stock set of VW lap belts and a tap. Drill & tap the center tunnel and heater channels and bolt 'em in. Both places have strong steel and will hold, but if you find a way to reinforce with a nut that's not a bad plan, either. I've seen 10-inch bolts run through the center tunnel.
Plan B - 4-point harnesses. Everyone talks about 5-point harnesses, but you'd be suprised how little that 5th point is used. Besides, being a manly lizrd, that fith point between the legs scares me - would I really want to use it?
4-point harnesses are much more useable and relatively more affordable. There's aircraft-style latches (standard foldover lock) and serious racing linkages (hook the points in and close a lever). I favor the aircraft style for average baja, so you don't have to tell your passengers how to latch it every time they sit down.
Attaching the 4-point harness can be interesting. The bottom points probably will attach to the stock mounting points - I had to drill the brackets but hardly a big deal. Rollbars are positioned almost over the head of the driver (for obvious reasons) so attaching to this bar is workable, but with stock seats, it's likely to chaff your ears and neck. Rather irritating! I welded a bar across the rollbar about 8" further back and use that to tie to. With the right seats, you can run your harness through a slot (slots) in the seat back, then anchor down to the floor pan, but this destroys any semblance of backseat floor useability. Seats don't fold forward correctly, either. If you don't have a rollbar, I strongly recommend you get one! They're $60 at the swapmeet, might save you from crushing your skull, and provide a fine place to tie a harness to.
I hope you're sitting pretty!
So What's Next?