Some time ago, I was sat in a 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 my current BMW steering wheel is a little worse for wear and maybe I should look into getting it covered with Alcan... What actually is Alcantara?
For those not snorting at my ignorance, Alcantara is a fully synthetic material that is often a lot lighter than sueded leather. It's also much tougher in terms of scratching or ripping as well as being highly resistant to sun fade. It also takes longer to heat up or get cold than the usual materials used in interiors. As an added bonus it’s also extremely grippy - hence its popularity for steering wheel covers and shift knobs, particularly in sports and race cars.
The material was developed in the early 1970s by a Japanese scientist called Miyoshi Okamoto while working for the Japanese chemical company, Toray Industries. Around 1972, Toray Industries went into a joint venture with an Italian chemical company to form Alcantara SpA to manufacture and distribute the material. 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 in a car, then it was most likely Acantara. It’s become so popular and useful that it’s flame retardant version found it’s way into racing seats for Formula 1 cars.
At its 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. I haven’t been able to find a real distinction between the two products though, other than Alcantara having more product lines aimed at automotive use.
Toray Industries keeps the specific formula and production process secret. Alcantara SpA is headquartered in Milan and, to this day, Alcantara is manufactured at the factory in Italy not far from Rome. I still haven't had my steering wheel recovered with it though.