Hot Wheels

Speed, power, beauty and the lure of the open road–it’s all part of the American fascination with cars, no less for those of us with disabilities than for others. And in today’s car culture, a vehicle can be “hot” in terms of high-gloss paint, chrome and “original” condition as well as speed and power. Add in hand controls, a lift–if necessary–and an abiding passion for a cool ride, and you create a gratifying form of recreation as well as, in some cases, a way to create income. For others, restoring cars is mostly an expensive avocation. Whatever the bottom line, the real satisfaction comes from doing a job well and making a personal statement with a finished product. This is the world of Hot Wheels.

Scott Garland, Monrovia, Calif.
1930 Model A Roadster, 1981 Jeep CJ7
Not every best-of-show winner costs a fortune. When Scott Garland’s ’30 Model A Roadster joined the family, his father paid only $64 for the vehicle. Of course that was in 1947.

Photo by Christopher Voelker

“My folks drove it as a second car after the war,” says Garland, “and my mom drove it when she was pregnant with my sister.”

Garland, a C6 quad from Monrovia, Calif., did much of the restoration prior to his spinal cord injury. His dad had “saved” the old coupe for just such a possibility, so Garland spent nights and weekends between ages 15 and 20 immersed in nuts-and-bolts details. After graduating from college, he noticed the coupe was spending too much time in his mom’s garage “unrestoring” itself. Before he got a chance to do anything about it, he was injured falling from an extension ladder while working on a Christmas play at church.

That was 1984. Ten years passed before Garland, now married, was ready to reclaim the Model A. One day, talking with a brother-in-law interested in restoring a ’32 coupe, the forgotten joy of working on the roadster returned. “It just popped into my head: Why not?” But his motivation was not that simple. He also had to learn to accept help and overcome lingering fanaticism about keeping the antique car “stock.”

On Garland’s 40th birthday, his wife surprised him with a “huge party built around the roadster.” She had found Model A Club members interested in helping convert the old coupe to an automatic transmission, and his dad “officially” sold him the car for $40 on that same day. Garland then used his background as a designer to craft a hoist that could swing him into the driver’s seat. “It works like a cherry picker,” he says, “with me sitting in a sling.” The lift disassembles with pins and stows in the rumble seat of the roadster along with his chair. “It’s really a showstopper at the car shows.”

The family’s Model A looks better than ever today, thanks in large part to the efforts of Wayne Moreira, a close friend who completed the restoration to mint condition. The roadster garnered the “People’s Choice Award” in its very first car show. Garland estimates the cost of restoration, had he paid out of pocket rather than benefited from friends helping, at more than $10,000. But there is an additional cost: “As much as I love driving the roadster,” says Garland, “I found that I worried about it too much to just drive it everywhere.” So in 1999 Garland found another vehicle for weekend fun and off-road adventure–a Jeep CJ7.

To get himself on board the jeep, Garland used a modified form of the roadster lift. “We built an ‘industrial strength’ version that we welded to the rear corner of the jeep,” he says. That opened the door to exploring jeep trails on the eastern slope of Mt. Whitney, not far from Lone Pine, where he and his wife recently purchased property. On one occasion with his next-door neighbor, while plowing through a meadow he had always wanted to explore, Garland’s foot flopped on the gas pedal unnoticed. When he took his hand off the throttle, the Jeep kept going full speed ahead. He discovered the problem just in time to lift his leg from the pedal and come to a stop 20 feet from a pine tree.

Garland’s quest to drive the Model A, and now the Jeep, has been a continuing adventure for four years. And even though he is careful where he drives the roadster, it still provides a link to the past as well as a father-son bond in the present. “It’s one of my dad’s and my favorite things to do together,” he says. There’s nothing like taking an afternoon drive together through the tree-lined streets of Pasadena with the top down. Restoring the roadster has been good for Dad, too.”

What advice does he have for others who seek to drive “unusual” vehicles? “Ask a lot of questions, have patience, but go for it!” And, oh yes, one more tip: “All you quad Jeepers out there, tie your feet down.”

Michael Trujillo,
Huntington Beach, Calif. 1937
Ford Coupe, Harley Tricycle, Porsche 911

Michael Trujillo, a “steel detailer” who has been a para for 33 years, loves to buy and build fast, exotic vehicles. His first project was rebuilding a Harley “shovelhead trike” in 1978. Since then he has owned several fast cars including a Porsche 911 and his favorite, a Chevy SS 454 pickup. But none of them compare with his red ’37 Ford coupe, whose show presence, chromed 425-horsepower engine and high-performance rear end bring respect on the street.

Years to rebuild: six. Cost of rebuilding: Trujillo quit counting at $35,000, but estimates its value at $65,000. Credited: fellow street-rodders and good friends who contributed time and help. Quote: “A big part of the satisfaction of rebuilding this car was building and strengthening friendships in the process.”

Kelly Buckland,
Boise, Idaho, 1971 Olds 442
When Kelly Buckland decides to flex some muscle, he slides out of his power wheelchair and behind the wheel of his ’71 Olds 442. Buckland, a C5 quad from Boise and executive director of Idaho’s Statewide Independent Living Council, recommends buying a vehicle in good mechanical condition to minimize the expense and frustration of dealing with paid mechanics.

The Olds 442 is one of the fastest “muscle cars” ever made. Although it’s race-ready with a 455-cubic inch engine and 355 horsepower, Buckland only cruises on the street for now. He’ll start entering car shows next summer.

Years to rebuild: two. Cost: $10,000.  Quote: “The sense of loss after my diving accident 30 years ago was not over my legs. I was far more concerned that I would never be able to drive again.”

Larry Nitz, Havre, Mont.,
1954 Ford pickup
Residents of this northern Montana community are used to seeing pickups, but when Larry Nitz takes his for a drive, people stare. His ’54 Ford has won awards at custom car shows ever since he finished restoring it in 1997. Under the hood: a chromed 390-cubic inch Ford Thunderbird engine and transmission. Nitz has been paraplegic since he was knocked off a utility pole while working as a lineman in 1983.

Years to rebuild: six. Cost: $30,000 (“and worth every penny now”). Credited: his wife, who worked on the restoration beside him. Quote: “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Be meticulous.”

Patrick Cottini, Quincy, Calif.,
1956 Chevrolet, 210 Del Ray coupe
Patrick Cottini spent the summer of his 15th birthday recuperating from a C7 spinal cord injury at Craig Hospital. When he got home, one of the first things he wanted to do was learn to drive. His need for a vehicle with larger doors led to an old barn where he found a dust-covered ’56 Chevy 210 Del Ray coupe with two bullet holes in the rear window. The restoration was a family affair. Patrick was away at college when the Del Ray finally emerged from the paint shop. Now that 16th coat of paint wins trophies at parades and car shows.

Years to rebuild: three. Cost: $9,000. Credited: his father.  Quote: “My dad took one of those creepers that roll underneath the car, laid an egg crate pad across it, transferred me down, bungee-corded my legs together, and away I went.” Tip for quads: “Wrap pipe insulation around wrench handles to tighten your grip.”

Pattie McKinney,
Bent Mountain, Va.,
1948 Chevrolet panel truck
When Chevy engineers designed their 1948 panel truck, could they have imagined the radical version Pattie McKinney drives today? McKinney, who uses a wheelchair due to a 1951 bout with polio, owns a supercharged version she affectionately calls the “Pattie Wagon.” Using a Super Arm lift that she and her husband also sell, McKinney guides her wheelchair through the rear door, then transfers into a six-way power seat that swivels under the steering wheel. The “Pattie Wagon” can be seen cruising through the nearby Blue Ridge Mountains and is a frequent competitor in custom car shows throughout the region.

Cost: $25,000. Power: a 1988 Corvette engine, transmission and rear end. Accessories: a chopped top, power windows and steering, tilt wheel, electric doors, Frenched Lucas motorcycle headlights, Frenched taillights, a pickup dash, air conditioning and Mustang yellow paint with purple scallops. Quote: “We plan to show it to as many people as possible so that they, too, can enjoy this awesome little ride.”

Mike Conroy, Pacific Beach, Calif.,
1979 Checker
Some say cars are reflections of their owners. It’s safe to say that both the size and personality of Mike Conroy, a 6-foot-8-inch para since 1977, are reflected in his ’79 Checker. The car’s distinctive profile and sheer size often cause strangers on the street to wave and yell “Taxi!” They also leave notes under the wipers and stop to chat. Conroy connects a Zen-like sense of comfort with driving his roomy vehicle.

Cost: $7,000 for Checker; $2,000 bodywork. History: Checkers, which lasted several hundred thousand miles, were the backbone of many taxi fleets until the Kalamazoo, Mich., company stopped making them in 1985. Quote: “This might be part of the explanation for the appeal of the open road, the great wide open spaces and the renewed popularity of great big vehicles.”

Scott Hancock, Hope, Idaho,
1982 Honda Goldwing Motorcycle with Tomco sidecar
Scott Hancock, a construction contractor, has been driving his motorcycle daily for almost 20 years, but people still ogle when he cruises down the highways of northern Idaho. Why? It looks like no one is operating the vehicle! A wheelchair user since childhood polio, Hancock drives from his wheelchair while seated in the sidecar. Handlebars and all controls are repositioned within reach in the sidecar, which he rolls into using a fold-down ramp. He says road trips are a family affair, with his wife seated on the motorcycle and his dog at his feet in the sidecar.

Cost of rebuilding: $10,000. Quote: “If you think you can do it, don’t listen to any discouraging comments.”

Deb Stineback, Vancouver, Wash.,
1988 VW Golf 16-valve GTI, 1966 Sunbeam Tiger
Deb Stineback, a programmer analyst for the City of Portland (Oregon) Water Bureau, concluded that the only way to combat her boyfriend’s driving at high speeds was to become a skilled driver herself. “I finally decided to either get over my fear of speed or get a new boyfriend,” says Stineback, a para since a 1976 auto crash. “So I signed up for a driving school at Portland International Raceway. Little did I know it was a racedriving school …”

Stineback discovered competitive driving and eventually installed hand controls in a fast German sports car–a Volkswagen Golf with a manual transmission. After learning to operate the clutch while shifting–Look, Ma, no hands!–Stineback headed home to practice. A year later she was ready for competition.

Stineback’s latest challenge is a 1966 Sunbeam Tiger. With a 289 V8 engine, this little convertible is aptly named. Stineback will use it to compete in sports car autocross–against her boyfriend. Cost: $17,000. Quote: “Racing is expensive, with recurring costs for gas, tires, and entry fees, not to mention occasional repairs caused by ‘unavoidable racing contact.’”

Don Brandon, Fairbanks, Alaska,
1970 Cadillac Coupe deVille
Restoring a Cadillac Coupe deVille usually requires searching out original parts, which can be expensive. Brandon, ADA Coordinator for the State of Alaska, opted to buy extra vehicles instead. Now there are three Caddy junkers in his backyard, and one that’s shaping up nicely. Brandon became paraplegic 29 years ago while drag racing a 1965 high-performance Dodge Dart.

Time to rebuild: Only 100 hours, thanks to the junkers. Cost of rebuilding: $4,000. Quote: “Restoring a car is a lot like recovering from a disability, allowing yourself to heal as you rebuild and refurbish a classic, meeting new friends with similar interests, and learning that everything needs attention–these are the important things about restoring a car that are also applicable to our lives.” Tip: “Everything has value, no matter how beat-up and abandoned it may appear at the time.”

Michael Collins lives in Sacramento, Calif., drives a boring converted Ford van, and is currently shopping for a (cheap) classic convertible for weekend drives.

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