"Obsession" can be a dangerous word in the wrong context. It's thrown around too easily in place of "enthusiasm," but witnessing actual obsession gives the term license. At the Recaro factory here in Metro Detroit, you'll witness obsession.
Recaro has kept a relatively low profile outside the enthusiast world, but since you can have performance seats in Ford compacts now, they're becoming more familiar. That's come with some grumbling from fans of the brand who lament it's becoming less exclusive, but they can rest assured the same quality found in a Boss 302 Recaro seat is spread across all Recaros.
I visited the Recaro factory in Auburn Hills this week (one of two facilities in North America, the other in Mexico), where about 200 workers throughout the year produce 45,000 seats annually for racers and OEMs. Things heat up in March when more orders are placed for racing season, but it's still busy now with Recaro's major clients: Mercedes, General Motors and Ford. This small army of inspectors, tailors and engineers take care to make sure your ass is taken care of when you get behind the wheel.
Even before they get to work, another team of engineers and product specialists in Germany spend a lot of time studying your asses to make sure you'll be comfortable when you get behind the wheel. When developing a new product for an OEM, it takes an average of two dozen meetings to determine the simple details, like stitching patterns, and ratio of leather to cloth to suede, before the design is finalized and sent to the factory for production.
First, Recaro must source leather from the finest of bovine. "I've been told the best hides come from Austria," Markus Kussmaul, Recaro's vice president in the Americas, tells me on the tour. Once those hides are cut, they must pass through a leather inspector at the factory with a large piece of chalk — "grease," they call it.
The inspector checks the hide for bug bites, scars and other imperfections. Here's where "obsession" begins, because I'm watching a guy with his chalk going over a large hide, enough to cover, say, a small bathroom or entry way. He's picking up things I can't even see. If there's a scar, for instance, it'll show up later in production as a large wrinkle, akin to a bubble in plastic sheeting. If there is a flaw, the entire seat has to be taken apart. "We don't want to make anyone redo their jobs," the inspector says.
If for whatever reason the leather inspector misses an imperfection, other people in other workstations — Recaro eschews the term "assembly line" — are trained to pick them up.
Next, the hides are cut up with a machine for the individual parts of the seat: head rest, back rest, cradle, all dependent on which seat goes in which car. This is probably the most robotic of the entire operation, but it is overseen by an operator.
Sewing machines. There are so many sewing machines here. I grew up with a grandmother and aunt who made dresses, suits, Halloween costumes, upholstery and other linens for our entire family, so I know about the calluses that come on your hands, the laser-sharp attention to detail, the paralyzing fear of getting your hand caught under the needle. It takes six months of training for a potential Recaro employee to work the sewing machines. Some are assigned to sew the cloth and leather to the foam undersides, some get to embroider "SS," "Z/28," "ST" or whatever trim to the headrest and some have to follow the careful stitching patterns laid out in the two-dozen meetings Recaro had with the OEMs months before.
There is a master seamstress here leading a demonstration with other employees all watching carefully. Once, Nissan called on Recaro for a one-off show car where they needed custom seats for a 350Z. The day before the unveil, Nissan execs discovered the "Z" was machine-sewn upside down in the head rest, so our seamstress carefully unstitched the "Z" by hand and had the entire seat redone by day's end. No one noticed.
Finally, the stitched hides and cloth move on to a number of workstations where they are carefully stretched — sometimes it's a two-man operation — over the parts of the seat. (This type of training can take up to two months for potential employees.) The skeletons of the seat are put together here in a different workstation. But getting the fabric over the skeleton is one of the bigger challenges, because it has to be a tight grip to keep your ass in place. If the fabric has to be taken off, it can take hours; this must be avoided because the material can tear or be stretched out of place. And Recaro goes through dozens of lint rollers monthly keeping the seats clean before they're delivered to their respective assembly plants.
Recaro doesn't have a set number of seats they have to put out daily or monthly because quality trumps quantity, Kussmaul says. And they're not afraid to push back if an OEM's demands become too much.
But because Recaro's profile is growing, they are conscious of adjustments they have to make. For one, although many dealers are familiar with the Recaro name and the heritage behind it, Recaro would like to work more on making sure that all buyers of cars with Recaro seats are familiar with the product. That includes some extra training with the people that sell them.
Next, because Recaro is in demand, it means they are constantly tweaking their current offerings — making things lighter, looking for wider uses of other materials like carbon fiber, adjusting to make our American asses more comfortable — to keep up with OEM requests.
Craftsmanship is still top priority for Recaro regardless of the circumstances, and that's driven by their obsessive employees. And maybe enthusiastic, too.