What the hell is Alcantara anyway?

By Ian Wright

Recently I was sat in a mid 2000’s BMW M3 and the seller pointed out it had an Alcantara steering wheel. I passed on the car, but on the way home I was thinking maybe I should do a little Google when I get home as my current BMW steering wheel is a little worse for wear and it could do wi…

What actually is Alcantara?

I mean, I’ve driven cars with Alcantara being part of the interior and it’s a race car standard. I actually thought it was a type of suede but it seems rather too hard wearing for suede.

It very much occurred to me I have no idea what Alcantara actually is.

Of course, a whole bunch of people have probably snorted already and maybe clicked away. This stuff has been around for a long, long time. Since before I was born and I’m not really a young man anymore.

For those not snorting and clicking away, Alcantara is a fully synthetic material that can be a hell of a lot lighter than sueded leather, is much tougher in terms of scratching or ripping, and is highly resistant to sun fade. It also takes longer to heat or get cold than usual materials used in interiors.

As an added bonus it’s also extremely grippy – hence it’s popularity for steering wheel covers and shift knobs.

The material was developed in the early 1970s by a Japanese scientist called Miyoshi Okamoto working for the Japanese chemical company Toray Industries. Around 1972, a joint venture an Italian chemical company, Toray Industries formed Alcantara SpA to manufacture and distribute the material. That would explain it’s first automotive use being in the 1978 Fiat X1/9.

Audi started using Alcantara soon after, and in 1984 Lancia started using it in their higher end cars. By the mid nineties, if it looked like suede it was highly likely Acantara. It’s become so popular and useful it’s flame retardant version found it’s way into applications as high end as racing seats for Formula 1 cars.

At it’s heart Alcantara is a heavily textured blend of polyester and polyurethane. It was based on the same technology as Ultrasuede, also designed by Dr. Miyoshi Okamoto. In my research I haven’t been able to find a real distinction between the two other than Alcantara having more product lines aimed at automotive use.

Toray of course keeps the specific formula and production process secret. Alcantara SpA is headquartered in Milan and to this day it’s still manufactured at the factory in Italy not far from Rome.

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