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Mustang Seats Holds New England Traditions

Thursday, June 27, 2013
Old world New England craftsmanship is alive and well in Three Rivers, Massachusetts, home to Mustang Seats factory. It takes place in an 80,000 sq. ft. facility that used to be an old textile mill and continues to serve the manufacturing world. The historic building sits at the point where the Ware and Quaboag Rivers meet to form the Chicopee. Besides their old world approach to manufacturing, Mustang Seats injected new life into an old building that
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might have been condemned otherwise, preserving a vignette of American history with their efforts.The motorcycle seat maker still does things the old-fashioned New England way, much of the work done by hand as the company takes great pride in every seat that rolls off its production line. The factory is an integral part of the surrounding community and provides one of the more sought after jobs in town. This is proven by the fact that it has many tenured employees, some of them with 30-plus years experience.

The company was formed in 1980 by Al Simmons. A mechanical engineer by trade, he opened up a small specialty seat shop and had an intimate knowledge of the industry after working as a sales manager for Mike Corbin. His partner at the time happened to own a die-cast company that made chrome replacement Harley parts. According to Mustang’s Marketing Director Marilyn Simmons, sister of founder Al, the partner was also an avid aviator and owned, among other WWII planes, a P-51 Mustang fighter plane.

“Seemed like a great name to use given the mystique, independence and power of the Mustang plane and wild Mustang horses,” Marilyn said.

What started out as a small operation with a half-dozen employees has blossomed into an 80,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility that stimulates the economy of the Three Rivers, Massachusetts area by providing approximately 100 jobs. Simmons could have moved production elsewhere but stayed loyal to the area he called home.

The Mustang Seats factory in Three Rivers was once a textile mill.
The Mustang Seats factory was once a textile mill but now is a state-of-the-art facility that even has rooftop solar panels.
As an engineer, Simmons prioritized quality and comfort. That’s one of the reasons quality control is assured by doing everything in-house. They don’t outsource anything, from making their own foam to cutting and bending the brackets that go on their seats. Mustang knows how important things like lower lumbar support are for riders and addresses issues like this in the design room.

All Mustang Seats start in the “Research and Design” room. The company will buy various motorcycles or get one on loan from manufacturers, take off the stock seat and measure mounting points, then start researching and designing prototypes. Gary Kendrick, Vice President of Design, is the creative driving force behind just about every Mustang Seat, and works closely with the design team to get the process started. The initial patterns, at times nothing more than cardboard cutouts, are then digitized. While we were visiting, Mustang had just rolled in a BMW R1200GS and Kendrick and his posse were busy scrambling around tearing it down and inspecting its construction.

The digitized patterns are then made into a physical prototype. Foam is carved into the desired shape, then covered with a thin coating of Bondo for reinforcement. Eventually fiberglass is added to the molds which are used for both baseplates and seat foams.

In Department 2, they make the fiberglass baseplate molds used for the actual seat. During the “fiberglass chop” phase, a black gel coat mold is sprayed with fiberglass from the “chop-gun,” before heading to the next station to get resined. In this process, known as “rolling the pan,” the objective is to get an even thickness with no air bubbles. After
Spraying fiberglass in the fiberglass chop stage.
Spraying fiberglass out of the chop-gun in the 'fiberglass chop' stage.
that, the product is set on the shelf to allow the resin to harden. When they’ve had enough time to firm up, another employee will pull them off the rack, tap the form with a hammer, and a finished fiberglass baseplate is done. Then it’s off for a quick layer of powdercoating before they’re ready for the next phase.

This next phase is called “Fiberglass Finish.” It contains four primary components. First the edges of the baseplate are sanded, then holes are drilled. The edge trim is applied over the sanded edges and the accompanying hardware is riveted on. This finished sub-component is then paired with the appropriate foam and cover, then it’s off to be assembled into a final product.

In addition to fiberglass baseplates, Mustang makes steel ones as well. The templates for these are also digitized, and the coordinates are punched into a computer controlling the plasma cutter. The machine cuts out the base pattern before heading off to a powerful hydraulic press which stamps them into shape with approximately 4000 psi of force. Then the steel baseplates get deburred and cleaned up so that brackets can be added. Some pieces can’t be pressed and have to be hand-welded and sanded, and some processes like adding metal wings have to be done by hand as well. The steel baseplates are powdercoated and then baked to get that glossy black finish. Mustang has an area exclusively for making its own brackets, a full-time job for one employee who is constantly cutting, grinding and drilling.

In the foam department, Mustang has a variety of fiberglass molds they’ve made for the various seats they sell, from metrics to Harleys. The molds are filled with a mixture of two chemicals, called simply “A & B.” When mixed, the chemical reaction causes them to expand, harden, and fill the mold. An employee simply punches in the number of the mold which tells the machine how much mixture to spray. The mixture hardens in five to seven minutes, then the foam density is checked before heading to a foam compressor that squeezes out any air pockets while simultaneously breaking in the seat and “Voila,” you’ve got the foam padding for Mustang’s seats.

The leather used to cover Mustang’s motorcycle seats is cut out in another department called the staging area. It starts with huge rolls of material that are lined up before layers are stacked five deep, ready to be fed into the Lectra Systemes machine. Once again, patterns for the seat leather have been digitized so they can be programmed into the Lectra machine. The cutout rolls that have been stacked five deep
Mustang Seats plasma cutter uses digitized patterns to cut out baseplates.
Mustang Seat's plasma cutter uses digitized patterns to cut out baseplates.
The seamstresses at Mustang Seats are the rock stars of the company.
The seamstresses at Mustang Seats are the rock stars of the company.
The finished products are put on display outside the Mustang big rig that travels the country to various motorcycle rallies.
The finished products are put on display outside the Mustang big rig that travels the country to various motorcycle rallies, most recently Laconia Motorcycle Week.
are then fed one at a time into the machine, held into place by a vacuum seal as a small device they said is “part drill, part samurai sword” quickly cuts out the designated pattern. After all the patterns are cut out, the pieces are collected and the Mustang Seats logo is carefully stamped into the saddle piece with a radio frequency machine.

The assorted pieces of cutout leather patterns head to sewing next. This is a complicated process because to see the assorted swaths of leather unassembled resembles a jigsaw puzzle. Studs are added to some and hot glued to ensure quality, braids are sewn on, and then the pieces are fed into sewing machines by hand as the sewing crew carefully puts the leather puzzle together. During our visit, 14 sewing stations were stitching away, feeding the leather into their machines with great concentration and skill. Karen Lundquist is one of these skilled seamstresses who has been with the company for 32 years. While this step could be automated, it goes against the principles of craftsmanship Mustang embodies and machines don’t take pride in their work while craftsman at Mustang do.

At this point, a cart is filled with a baseplate, the correct foam, and leather covers before heading to final assembly. There workers put the pieces together, stretching the leather over the foam, attaching it to the base plate, and making sure the final product is neat, shiny, and ready for shipping to customers. The seats receive one final inspection before heading down the assembly line where they’re wrapped in plastic and packaged for shipping, ready to be reopened by an eagerly waiting customer anxious to have a new seat for their ride.

There are a few other substations, too, like a mini-assembly area specifically for sissy bar pads and another one for driver backrest assembly. Much of Mustang’s work focuses on passenger comfort as well because Marilyn stated almost half of sales are pillion accommodations. It is their attention to detail and refusal to cut corners that helps make Mustang a world leader in motorcycle aftermarket seats, landing accounts with heavy hitters like Tucker Rocky and Le Mans.

Mustang distinguishes themselves by collaborating with popular personalities in the custom bike scene. They carry a Roland Sands Design line whereby Roland comes in to help design them while Mustang executes his vision. They also did a recent project with Dave Perewitz for a Perewitz line of seats that debuted in Daytona during Bike Week 2013.

We came away from our visit to Mustang Seats factory impressed with their operations. The amount of work that goes in to just one seat was surprising. The fact that many of the processes are done by hand even more so. And while some of the steps could be automated, that’s not the Mustang way. The company is acutely aware of the rich history of manufacturing started in the area hundreds of years ago and is proud to keep the old-fashioned New England traditions alive.
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