Pickups and SUVs for Wheelers

Judy Hale Everett was willing to wait two years for a Suburban she could drive from her chair.

Judy Hale Everett was willing to wait two years for a Suburban she could drive from her chair.

On May 18, 2010, Airman First Class Chris Pinto’s main concern was passing his road test so he could ride his Honda CBR 1000 motorcycle on Italian roads. Stationed at Aviano Air Base near Venice, he’d had his motorcycle shipped over, and the day looked fine for riding. But the mountain road portion of the test course proved anything but friendly. “I’m really not sure what happened,” Pinot says. He crashed and sustained a T4 spinal cord injury.

An operation in Italy and rehab in the Tampa, Fla., VA hospital followed. Toward the end of his stay in Tampa, he practiced driving an adapted minivan. It was good enough to learn on, but he couldn’t picture himself owning one. Cars were out, too. His leg spasms made transfers too difficult.

“And then Nicole Marr from Ryno Mobility brought a demo model of their adapted Chevy Silverado pickup in to show everyone,” he says. He could drive it from his chair, get in and out fast and easy with the new RSL100 interior swing lift, have room for his girlfriend and two other passengers, toss his handcycle and other gear in the truck bed and drive a vehicle that showed no outward sign of being adapted for a wheelchair.

Pinto bought it a few weeks later. “The first time I drove it was in February 2011, when I rode back home to Boca Raton,” he says. How’d it go? Well, he has put on 10,000 miles since. He’s 24 now, settling into life back in Boca and looking, maybe, toward heading on to college. Wherever he decides to go, he’s sure he’s found the right ride to take him there.

Chris Pinto’s preference for pickups doesn’t surprise Ed Pic, Ryno Mobility’s owner. He had worked in the industry for 16 years before founding Ryno in 2003, and he’d seen the desire out there for adapted pickup trucks and SUVs — especially among younger drivers. After all, he says, “You can’t really say to a kid — a returning injured vet — thanks for your service, here’s a minivan.”

And it’s not just kids who like pickups. For years the Ford F series, Chevy Silverado and Dodge Ram trucks have all made the top 10 on America’s most purchased cars and trucks lists. Pic’s first conversion was a Silverado extended-cab pickup he adapted for Jim Ryback, a quad associate of his.

It had a 6-inch lowered floor, power “suicide doors,” push button remote control, an under-the-vehicle platform lift for access, and could be adapted for either a wheelchair driver or passenger. Pricing came out to be fairly competitive with adapted minivans, depending on customizations. Ryno’s adaptation proved so popular that they now offer conversions of all three of the major brands’ extended-cab pickups, sold and serviced through their national network of dealers.

“I get total enjoyment from what I do,” Pic says. A former technician and a self-taught inventor, he emphasizes how Ryno keeps things simple — including installing manual backups for all systems. He’s equally proud of their computerized designs. “We do a lot of custom work, and we save each customer’s design in the system just in case they need a part replaced later.”

All work is done in-house, including the recent development of Ryno’s  RSL100 interior swingout lift, a revolutionary design which mounts inside the cab, swings out to carry wheelchair users up and down and is so well-accepted that it’s now standard on all of Ryno’s Silverados, Sierras and Ford F150s. Because of the lift’s success, planning is already underway to adapt the RSL100 for use on the Suburban SUV and the Dodge Megacab, the largest pickup Ryno offers.

And then what? Pic is not saying exactly, but he does let on that he has two or three more vehicles in mind — and maybe more after that.

Mesmerized by the Megacab
The Dodge Megacab’s size is what caught Eric Trinidad’s eyes in 2008. A Navy veteran, injured at T12 in Desert Storm, the Orlando resident had been driving a minivan. But with a close-knit family and two boys very active in sports, “I needed something larger, like an SUV or truck to haul my wife and kids and all their stuff.”

Besides, his shoulders had grown too sore to cope with minivan ramps and chair transfers, and the minivan was just too low for driving across the grass to the playing fields. “I was missing most of the sports,” he says.

The Megacab had the clearance he needed. “And it had the most space, and all of its seating,” Trinidad says. He could drive out by the playing fields and transfer over to a rear seat and, “It was like watching from a balcony.”

And then there’s the cool factor of driving a pickup. “Most people don’t know it’s adapted until I get out of it. It’s been a life-changing experience. I’ve even had it out on the beach — even though it’s only two-wheel drive. Going to Ryno was a win, win. These guys really know what they’re doing.”

Off-Road Fever
In 2009, while hunting in the woods near Punta Gorda on Florida’s west coast, a fall from a swamp buggy left University of Florida student Chris Hickox a C7 quad. An avid outdoorsman, he had driven an Explorer before the accident. But after finishing rehab at Jackson in Miami and outpatient therapy at Health South in Sunrise — to strengthen his recovering arms and hands — he found there was no way he could transfer up into his SUV.

At first he settled for a VW Rabbit, returning to school to finish earning a degree in animal science. But, he says, “The car never felt very safe to me. And I got tired of my chair getting dinged up from being tossed in the back.” He began to look for something that would suit him better.

Minivans weren’t even in consideration. “I’m young. I’m an active guy,” says Hickox. “I wanted something to take off-road. Something that could tow things — like my flatboat and trailers and airboats.”

When he found out that Ryno could adapt a four-wheel drive GMC Sierra, he made the arrangements, picking up his truck in early February. He has racked up 17,000 miles since, ranging as far away as New Orleans. And he’s had the Sierra off-road too, hunting and fishing in the Everglades and churning up the ground at Mudfest, a celebration of off-roading held annually on soggy fields near Lake Okeechobee.

Now home in Pompano Beach and a graduate of University of Florida, Hickox is currently working as a veterinary technician. He spends his free time playing with the South Florida Rattlers quad rugby team and hunting and fishing and camping whenever it’s possible. His plan is to start applying to veterinary schools soon. Hopefully, he’ll be accepted by one not too far from some major off-roading.

5 + 7 = GoShichi
Former football player and advertising executive Steve Kitchin never thought of himself as a minivan kind of guy. Yet in 1999, after a friend invited him for a ride in his new Caddy and crashed it, he became a C6-7 quad. He rehabbed at Parkview Health in Fort Wayne and, when it came time to drive again, he found there were few options to drive independently for a 6-foot-2-inch quad like him, using a heavy power chair like his. So he reluctantly bought a minivan.

He had driven a Chevy Tahoe 4×4 before the accident. “I didn’t want to be a soccer mom type,” he says. “It was kind of emasculating, just a little bit, going from a truck to a van.” Still, he kept that minivan for nine years, nursing it along as it aged only because, “I just could not bring myself to buy another one.”

He complained about it to a friend, Craig Schlosser, a mechanical engineer. Schlosser asked a few questions, and what had originally started as a bitchfest turned into a collaboration. That collaboration turned into a project in a barn, where they, some welders and a “really good mechanic” applied their ideas to a used, bright red, 2006 extended cab Sierra.

What resulted was a whole new take on adapted vehicles. Rather than mess with opening doors, they cut the entire side of the cab away. They attached that side to a powered, horizontal steel boom that could extend three feet to the truck’s side and slide the whole assembly in and out like a drawer. A smaller, vertical beam attached to the first beam would raise or lower a wheelchair lift — all of it controlled by a remote control, of course.

A wheelchair user could press a button to start the motor, another to slide the side out, and another to lower the lift. After backing onto the lift, he could do the entire operation in reverse, ending up locked in place — either behind the driver’s wheel or on the passenger’s side, depending on the modification. And the whole process, either up or down, took 30 seconds.

They named it the GoShichi, which is Japanese for 57, a pairing of the numbers 5 and 7 — Schlosser’s and Kitchin’s softball numbers, respectively. But why Japanese? “We used to take martial arts together, too,” Kitchin says.

Because the GoShichi only needed three-foot clearance on its side, it could fit in any standard parking spot. Their lift could handle 750 pounds and could accommodate most people and most chairs. And because the mechanism took up no seating or storage space, the pickup could seat five people and handle the same loads as an non-adapted pickup.

Kitchin and Schlosser had started their part-time project with the hope that it could become a business. They became sure it could once Kitchin got into the Sierra and tried it out. They put up a website and promoted it on some disability chat rooms, and the inquiries started rolling in. A patent was applied for, an empty Saturn dealership turned out to be available, and they moved in and geared up.

They started producing their conversions in March of 2010. Since then they’ve sold almost 200 pickup trucks — 70 percent of them 4x4s. Recently they’ve begun converting Chevy Suburban SUV’s, and they already have plans for the future. “We’re starting to offer a monster truck option, with a 14-inch lift and 37-inch wheels,” he says. “Maybe next year a small SUV.”

Word is they’re also looking into offering conversions of certified pre-owned trucks, so customers who want to save money can buy used and still get all the benefits extended by the manufacturer, including a 12-month, 12,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a five-year 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.

The powertrain warranty has the standard limitations, of course. But it looks like GoShichi’s future certainly doesn’t.

Waiting for the Right Suburban
You can hear the smile in Judy Hale Everett’s voice when she talks about her new, silver GoShichi Suburban. “I haven’t had so much fun in years,” says Everett, a T5 para injured in 1976.

She had always driven cars. That is, until a little more than two years ago, when she tore her rotator cuff transferring out of her Volvo XC70 crossover. Facing either an operation or six months at home letting her shoulder rest and heal naturally, Everett opted to let it heal. But staying home proved more difficult than she imagined. “For the first time, I felt truly handicapped,” she says.

A self-described tomboy and sports lover, she’d always been active. She had been 15, heading to play basketball, when her Honda 360 motorcycle skidded out on a slick left by a coal truck spill on a mountain road near her home in Burning Springs, Ky. She ended up paralyzed. But it didn’t slow her down for long.

After rehab at Cardinal Hill Hospital in Lexington, she returned to high school, went on to the University of Kentucky, taking up wheelchair basketball, wheelchair racing and later, wheelchair tennis. After graduation from UK in 1982, she moved to Dallas to become a technical writer and then a consultant. Along the way, she won the 1980 Bluegrass 10K,  placed third in the 1987 U.S. Open and won the 1988 Australian Open.

Work took her to California, where in 1991 she met Mike Everett, a former marine who’d recently returned from Desert Storm. By then she was ready to move home. He agreed to come back home with her and they were married.

Everett wasn’t sure what she’d be able to drive once her shoulder was healed. She didn’t want to risk her shoulders with any more car transfers. But, she says, “I’ve always resisted minivans. They’re just not me. I can’t see spending so much money for something I hate. I’m more of a pickup sort of girl.”

She says she was in so much of a funk that “my husband didn’t know what to do.” Fortunately, one of the things he did do was search on the Internet. There he found one of Steve Kitchin’s early videos of his accessible, Silverado pickup on YouTube.

It was just what Everett wanted. She could get in and out without endangering her shoulders, and it had the four-wheel drive she wanted for the steep roads and rough terrain around her house. She called Kitchin to see when a SUV would be available. He warned her it would be a while. He hadn’t started production yet, and he already had a stack of pickup orders. “I told him I’d wait,” Everett says. “And then I called him every month. After a while I was surprised that he still took my calls.”

It took two years for her Suburban to be ready. This June, Everett and her husband drove up to Fort Wayne to pick it up. “They couldn’t have been nicer,” she says. “It was like being queen for a day.”

How does she like it? “I’m pleased with every part of this vehicle. I can take seven passengers and have space for storage in back.” Which means she now has room to carry all the decorative stamping supplies she needs to build her new business as a Muse consultant.

Everett’s so proud of her new SUV that this August she drove over to Jessamine County to show it off at an Overcoming Physical Barriers workshop — where she was invited to shoot trap for the first time. She nailed eight out of 12 and accepted an offer to join the Bluegrass Sportsman’s League’s trap shooting team as their first chair shooter. “I love my Suburban,” she says. “It’s opened up a whole new world for me.”

Alan Troop is a frequent contributor to New Mobility, the author of the Dragon DelaSangre books, a C6 quad and the happy driver of an adapted Toyota minivan.

RESOURCES
• Ryno Mobility: 800/799-4806; www.rynomobility.com.
• GoShichi LLC: 260/434-4777; www.goshichi.com.

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