by Karl Beck
Gene Rugh is frustrated by the lack of cars with two doors and enough room to pull a wheelchair in behind the front seat. “You used to be able to go to any car dealer and buy a two door coupe. Now you have to spend thousands to modify a vehicle.”
Rugh, a T4-5 para, has driven everything from Fords and Chevys to Cadillacs over the last 45 years since his spinal cord injury. However, in the last 10 years, between his disability and his 6-foot-6-inch tall frame, he has run up against tough sledding finding a car. These days he drives a Honda Element SUV with a lowered suspension and hand controls. He loves the little SUV, hates the ride of the modified suspension, and still misses having a car.
Many paras are in Rugh’s position. Since the early 1990s, auto makers have been steadily reducing the size of their cars. The big two-door cars that had so much room for a wheelchair in the back seat are now down-sized sport coupes. The front bench seat has been replaced by bucket seats and a center console.
Some paras have switched to minivans, SUVs like the Element, and pick-up trucks. These vehicles sit higher off the ground — sometimes making for difficult transfers — but have more room inside for both the passenger and the wheelchair. The Chevrolet Colorado extended cab pick-up truck and the Ford Ranger Supercab pick-up truck both have back-hinged rear doors that allow extra room for loading a wheelchair from the driver’s seat. Since 2001 most minivans have a driver’s side sliding door, which gives the driver room to load a wheelchair into the van.
Cars are still an option for many paras. Good gas mileage, reasonable purchase prices (especially when compared to full-size, adapted vans), and styling attract the driver with a disability, just like every other consumer. But no single car is considered the answer to mobility for every paraplegic.
Representatives from Ford’s Mobility Motoring Program and General Motor’s Mobility Program both acknowledge that no one car in their product line stands out as the most popular modified automobile. Hand control manufacturers tell us that while vans, minivans, pick-up trucks and SUVs are the hot sellers, the cars that are modified tend to follow national sales trends. For example, Toyota Camry, one of the best-selling cars in the U.S., is also equipped with hand controls more than any other car, according to manufacturer Mobility Products and Design.
“We try to fit everything,” says Mike McGowen of MPS hand controls, “but there are not a lot of two-door cars any more.” Some popular two-door cars include the Honda Accord, Ford Mustang, and Chevrolet Monte Carlo. Other cars that have received hand controls include the four-door Buick Lucerne and Chevrolet Impala.
Unfortunately for Rugh, most new cars do not have the room for a tall guy like him. Not everyone fits in these vehicles, so finding a car becomes an exercise in fitting the car to the person, the wheelchair, and finding the needed patience.
Just ask Louisiana Tech driver rehabilitation specialist and nationally-known instructor Michael Shipp. He has fitted paras into cars, including Camry, Monte Carlo, and Malibu. “The best way is to have them find some models they like, then go to the car lot and see what works.”
“Fitting the wheelchair is as important, or more important, than fitting the person,” adds Shipp. “Most of our clients are taking apart the chair.”
Taking apart the wheelchair is a relatively new technique. Older generations of wheelchair users were taught to use a folding wheelchair and load it behind the driver’s seat. An alternate technique was to transfer into the car on the passenger’s side, fold the wheelchair and pull it in either behind the passenger’s seat or in the front seat area. In an urban environment, this technique has the advantage of loading curb-side when parallel parking, but requires a two-door car with a front bench seat, which is nearly impossible to find anymore.
Back then wheelchairs weighed over 50 pounds and couldn’t be taken apart easily. Now lightweight wheelchairs are less than 30 pounds and come equipped with quick-disconnect rear wheels that can be stowed in the back seat, while the frame can be put either in the back seat or on the front passenger seat. The only drawback is water and snow from a wet, cold wheelchair falling on seats and clothing.
For many paras a car is worth the extra work demanded by transfers and chair loading, and they enjoy having a vehicle with a minimum of adaptive equipment. Cars are versatile, and besides being purchased for a reasonable price, can be traded easily. And then there’s the sleek styling of a car. In many ways the automobile still remains the American dream.
Have you ever dreamed of driving a hot sports car?
If you use hand controls, you may have thought it was just a dream, because many of the world’s greatest sports cars only come with a manual transmission. But recently RediAuto Sport of Camarillo, Calif., has begun marketing a conversion to turn that manual transmission into an automatic ride.
RediAuto is reintroducing to the U.S. market the Italian-made Guido Simplex hand driving system. It consists of a clutch lever and hold button on the stick shift, and a hand brake with a ratcheting hold. Also, an accelerator ring mounted just under the steering wheel allows the user to control the gas while maintaining a good grip on the steering wheel. Safety features include a deceleration sensor that shuts down the gas and a hill-holding feature.
The Mazda MX-5, formerly the Miata, has been modified by RediAuto Sport as a show vehicle. While it is a small car, it could be someone’s bigger dream.
Contact RediAuto Sport at www.rediautosport.com or 310/289-0492.
What Do You Drive?
We asked a number of paras across the country what they drive and how they feel about their ride. We received some interesting answers.
Marty Ball, vice president of sales for wheelchair manufacturer TiLite uses a 2001 Chrysler Town and Country in New York and a 2005 Chevrolet Monte Carlo in Florida. “The T&C is a great minivan, and having all the bells and whistles at your fingertips is a dream. It is hard to compare the cars, but I have to say that the Monte Carlo is fun to drive and feels like I have a better road ‘feel.'”
Ball uses permanently-installed hand controls in the minivan and portable controls in the Monte Carlo. “Since I have used the portables for many years while traveling, it is very natural for me to drive that way. I use a rigid frame chair usually because it has become easier to travel with. I still transfer alright. I have a system that has worked for many years, so even though transfers are harder as I get older, at this point it still works.”
Tim Gilmer, editor of New Mobility, found Chevrolets to his liking (1965 Impala, 1969 Malibu) until he discovered his first minivan in 1984, the first year they were manufactured. Now he drives a ’92 Dodge Grand Caravan. “What I like best is the versatility and room, and the fact that it is in good shape for an older model. It is a comfy rig, easy to get in and out of. For paras who don’t need a ramp or a lift, I can still recommend a minivan.”
Gilmer’s only adaptation to his current vehicles is hand controls. “I also own an old ’76 Ford F250 Supercab, my third. I hardly ever drive the truck now, as it is too damn hard getting into it. But it’s there if I need it.”
James Parsons, assistant human resources director for Hilton in Portland, Ore., drives a silver 2002 Honda Accord Ex with custom wheels. He uses hand controls and pops his disassembled ultralight wheelchair onto the back seat.
The Accord is his first car since his injury, and having a good-looking contemporary car, rather than a minivan, was important to him. “In the car I look like I used to, and I just enjoy driving around.”
Josh Renner is a graphic designer in St. Petersburg, Fla. He drives a 1990 Volvo 240 DL with hand controls and 140,000 miles on the odometer. The Volvo is a four-door, but he takes the wheels off his chair to load it.
“It is not an ideal set-up. The way the Volvo is made, there’s no path to the pedals.” As the result, hand controls were hard to install, but the car has been reliable transportation.
Bob Vogel, writer and adventurer, owns a 1995 Ford Escort Wagon and a 1988 Jeep Cherokee with 195,000 miles on it. He uses hand controls and takes apart his rigid frame wheelchair to load it.
“I like the Ford Escort because it gets great gas mileage — close to 30 MPG. It seems almost invisible to the highway patrol. I can also park it anywhere and I don’t worry about locking it. The Jeep is a great work vehicle for loading mono-ski stuff, handcycles and other toys.”
Did he say, “work vehicle”?
Even though the older models with plenty of room are being phased out, it’s still possible to own the ride that works best for your needs with a little ingenuity and a lot of persistence. As always, adaptation is the name of the game.