Back in Issue 20 of The Mini Experience (October 2009) we ran a letter from Sunassist in Mildura, wondering what became of their special wheelchair accessible Mini Van.
Since then a number of similar vehicles have turned up, but not the one they were seeking. While most were Australian-made, one that turned up, and that we showed as part of Doug Martin’s Mini collection in Issue 5 of BMCE, was English-made.
The similarities between the two got me wondering about the history of these vehicles, where and how they were made and just how many of them still exist.
After four years’ research, I have to admit I still don’t have the full story, so here is as much as I have been able to track down at this point. Of course, now that I have gone to print with this story, someone will turn up who does know the whole story, of the Australian ones at least. If you do, dear reader, then I would appreciate the information to fill in the gaps.
Filling a Need
Accessibility to cars has been and issue for wheelchair-bound people for as long as there have been cars.
In the 1920s motorized personal invalid carriages appeared, but, although being petrol driven, these were the equivalent of today’s mobility scooters and not suited to long distance travel.
In 1946, British motorcycle enthusiast Bert Greeves modified a motorcycle, with help from Derry Preston-Cobb, for use by his paralysed cousin. Orders for similar vehicles followed and Invacar was born.
Over the next 20 years the Invacar developed into a small one-person fibreglass fully enclosed three-wheeler, driven by a person confined to a wheelchair. However, the Invacar was not suitable for people with severe disabilities who could not control the vehicle themselves, and was not very social because it could only accommodate one person.
The first wheelchair accessible bus was devised by Walter Harris Callow, in Canada, in 1947. After being badly injured in a flying accident during World War 1, by 1931 Callow was a quadriplegic and by 1939 he was blind and permanently confined to Camp Hill Military Hospital.
Despite his disabilities, during World War 2, assisted by volunteers and hospital staff, he ran the Callow cigarette fund, sending millions of cigarettes to soldiers fighting overseas.
At the end of the War he used the fund to assist disabled returned servicemen in other ways.
He soon hit on the idea of a bus to take disabled soldiers on picnics and day trips. He established the Callow Veterans’ and Invalids’ Welfare League and by 1947 the first Callow Wheelchair Coach was on the road.
Ironically, the only time he ever rode in one of his own buses was after his death, on the way to the cemetery.
The personal mobility of a wheelchair accessible car was still some way off and it is likely that Gowrings Ford in Reading, England was the first company to produce one.
Remarkably, the car they chose was the Austin Mini Van, with the converted vehicle marketed as the Chairman.
You may think a Mini would not be the most suitable to convert into a WAV (Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle). But the nature of the car, with its compact front-wheel-drive package, lack of a chassis and uninhibited floorpan, proved ideal at the time. Of course, through the 1960s and 1970s Ford was still only doing rear-wheel drive cars, and none was deemed suitable for the conversion.
The first conversion was done in 1963 by the dealership’s special body department Gowrings Engineering – Modern Vehicle Constructors Ltd. Over the years, GE-MVC also built outside broadcast vans, refrigerated vans and other specialist vehicles.
The wife of one of the company’s directors at the time was a wheelchair user, and it was for her that the first WAV Mini was built.
In order to provide optimum sitting height and visibility for the passenger the Mini Chairman had a lowered floor and a raised roof, with additional windows.
This necessitated cutting out the rear section of the subframe and building in a new lower box section of floor. This meant moving the under-floor fuel tank to inside the passenger compartment and shifting the battery slightly.
The vehicle proved immediately popular with the limited market, and by 1981 there were 150 Mini Chairmans on the road, including some used as patient transport ambulances.
They weren’t all built on Mini Vans, though, with some conversions done to Countryman and Clubman Estate models. These were quite a bit dearer to buy, but, according to the company, provided more of a “car feel” with the better-appointed interior, opening side windows and, on the Clubman version, wind-up door windows. An advantage from the manufacturing point of view was that rear windows were already fitted, whereas these had to be added to all UK Mini Van models.
Each conversion was unique and done in consultation with the owner to ensure the best facility for the disabled user.
In 1981 the price of the Mini Clubman Estate version of the Chairman was around £5,500, while the Mini Van version was about £4,500. At the time the on-road price for the Clubman Estate was about £3,800.
According to the company, the cars were all mechanically standard. That means the early versions would have retained their 848cc engines. In 1967 the 998cc engine was available as an option on the Mini Van, which would have been a vast improvement with the weight of the Chairman conversion.
As they were all-steel, each conversion was done by one skilled coachbuilder and took three to four weeks to complete.
The Motability Scheme, a UK government scheme to provide funding for WAVs, was established in the UK in 1977, which greatly increased the market for WAVs.
The Mini Metro Van was released alongside the Metro in late 1980 and by 1981 the first Metro Chairman had been built; selling for around £6,000.
According to Gowrings recently, the Mini and Metro continued along side each other, at least until the end of Mini Van/estate production in 1983. The Metro was a simpler conversion, but the base vehicle was dearer. Where the Mini had a raised roof and a lowered floor, all being done in metal, the Metro retained its original flat floor and had a one-piece fibreglass roof extension added.
However, this apparently did not give the best ride for passengers and was therefore the only flat-floor conversion the company did.
The front-wheel-drive version of the Ford Escort was also introduced in 1981, and Gowrings soon had Escort-based Chairman conversions available. A brochure from the early 1980s shows three models available, being the Metro, the Escort and the Vauxhall Astra.
Today, Gowrings Mobility continues to offer a range of WAVs, on Citroen, Renault, Fiat, Vauxhall and Ford models.
An Aussie version
We only know of one English Mini WAV in Australia and most of its history is a mystery. We know from the original owners handbook with the car that it was originally sold by Modern Vehicle Constructors Ltd (Gowrings) on 11 August 1976, with UK registration NDP 376 R - but the buyer’s details are not filled in.
From then until recently is a blank, but the vehicle surfaced a few years ago, owned by Adelaide Mini enthusiast Daniel Parsons. The South Australian registration on the car was SHG 993, which would be mid-1970s, so it is likely the car came here when new or nearly new (see next page).
In the period 1978 to 1979, about a dozen Wheelchair Access Mini Vans were created in Australia, by Richard Kearns in Adelaide. Not a lot is known about these, and Richard passed away a number of years ago. His brother Roger was unable to provide much information but believed Richard, a disabled engineer, made one for himself, then built another ten or twelve to sell.
If you would like to read the rest of this story, grab your copy of the magazine from your local newsagent (in Australia) or subscribe on-line today.
The BMC Experience Issue 8. Jan-Mar 2014 Magazine
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