Builds a Handicap-Accessible Street Rod
By Paula Patch
How many technicians does it take to transform an ordinary Mercedes sport utility vehicle into a a Handicap-Accessible Street Rod? Try five — and in seven days, with a $3,000 budget.
At least, that's the case when the transformation occurs on The Discovery Channel's hit program Monster Garage. Headed by Jesse James, a custom motorcycle builder and designer and owner of West Coast Choppers in Long Beach, Calif., the crew included Warren Chalker, a welder and engineer with Lancaster, Calif.-based standing-device manufacturer Prime Engineering; Scott Deacon, president of La Canada, Calif.-based vehicle-modification company Advanced Mobility; Mike Montenegro, automotive designer and owner of Hesperia, Calif.-based Montenegro Designs; Ray Paprota, a paraplegic NASCAR Craftsmen Truck driver from Birmingham, Ala.; and Ed Sandoz, a quadriplegic mechanical engineer from Upton, Mass. Supporting the five main team members with product and design expertise were Stuart Klein, a technical trainer for Mercedes-Benz USA, and Jeff Wallace, regional business development manager for Elyria, Ohio-based Invacare.
The vehicle, which debuted Sept. 29 on Monster Garage, was completely revamped to make it possible for a person in a wheelchair to roll up a ramp into the vehicle and position his or her chair right in the driver's area. The chair was then latched in place.
“Jesse insisted on entering [the vehicle] from the rear and driving while seated in [a] wheelchair: two nontraditional approaches to converting a vehicle for the disabled,” said Ray Paprota in an interview with show producers. “This required dropping the floor below the level of the rear differential and lowering the driver's side frame rail to gain clearance.”
Chalker was the team's welder/fabricator. “I was the only person whose job allowed him to get really, really dirty,” he said. “That was pretty cool.
“The best part of the whole thing was that I was able to tear and cut apart a $50,000 Mercedes SUV that I could never afford. And, winning $3,400 worth of MAC tools,” he continued.
That's right. Because the team stayed within its seven-day, $3,000 limit, each team member went home with a tool chest full of MAC tools.
Invacare heard that Monster Garage was interested in doing this project and was looking for people who had knowledge in that area. The company considered the program's topic a good fit with the company's mission.
“We decided that it would be a worthwhile project and that we'd like to be involved,” said Jeff Wallace. Because Wallace lives in California, where Monster Garage was being filmed, it made sense for him to represent the HME manufacturer on the project. Wallace was on the set for a few afternoons to ascertain the show's needs and to deliver equipment. “I had all of production, engineering, customer service and [research and development] available to back me up,” Wallace said. “I got carte blanche as far as resources to make sure that anything that Monster Garage required to make this project successful happened — that's how important this project was to Invacare.”
Although the producers initially considered using a power wheelchair on the project, they eventually decided to use a manual chair. “It was a matter of convenience to use a manual wheelchair, because Ray [Paprota] was in a manual chair and able to push [it into the vehicle], which made more sense than transferring back and forth,” Wallace said. While the show had first requested only one chair, they asked Invacare for, and received, four more to be used on different shoots.
Wallace and Chalker both said the experience was rewarding — and fun.
The experience “simply reinforced what I've learned over the 14 years I've been working with the disabled community, that disability is no barrier to any achievement,” Wallace said.
As for specifics of the SUV adaptation, the design required lowering the floor of the car by about four inches to make clearance for a wheelchair, and removing all of the seats except for the passenger seat. The vehicle's back door had to be cut to make room for a ramp, and the team also installed a custom exhaust and nitrous oxide system for added power.
“We had to adapt the vehicle to meet a specific need, just as we do at Prime Engineering. The only major difference is that at Prime Engineering, we don't put nitrous oxide systems on our equipment. But it would be cool to try it!” Chalker said.
Next, Tom Prewitt, custom painter with Damon's Motorcycle Creations in Brea, Calif., repainted the white Mercedes metallic blue with bright orange flames. Very cool.
Finally, James and the crew, after asking a local car buff who had been paralyzed in an automobile accident to take the new vehicle for a spin, handed over the keys to the young man. Very, very cool. -- Paula Patch
This time, Jesse wanted to make the ultimate handicap-accessible vehicle. And what Jesse wants, Jesse gets. See the pictures at: Episode 28: Mercedes/Handicap Car
To order a video of the episode, titled “Episode 28: Mercedes/Handicap Car,” or for more information about Monster Garage, visit the show's Web site at www.dsc.discovery.com/fansites/monstergarage/monstergarage.html.