The wheelchair accessible vehicle (WAV) industry began in the UK in the 1960s and has developed over half a century to become one of the most customer-driven and sophisticated in Europe.
These days there is a huge choice of possible wheelchair accessible vehicle conversions in the marketplace from single wheelchair accessible vans up to larger vehicles with the ability to carry 16 passengers. As well as many makes and models from the big vehicle manufacturers, others involved in the sector include niche makers of seats, materials, wheelchair lifts, securing equipment, passenger restraint systems, reversing cameras and sensors, lighting, luggage racks, sign writing and climate control systems.
Gowrings Mobility, based in Thatcham, Berkshire, has produced and supplied WAVs for more than 50 years and was the first vehicle supplier to the Motability scheme in the 1970s. The company was a founding member of the Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle Converters Association (WAVCA), the body responsible for setting industry safety standards, and converts many vehicle types including Fiat, Ford, Peugeot, Renault and Vauxhall vans.
Another big player in the market is Brotherwood, based in Sherborne, Dorset, founded in 1985 by Rod Brotherwood, and which began with the conversion of a Nissan Prairie for wheelchair user, friend and neighbour, John Lambert, who had become dependent on his wheelchair as a result of a motorcycle accident. Currently the firm is marketing a compact Ford Tourneo Connect, known as the Brotherwood “C’Artete 2” conversion.
Wheelchair access is via a short, shallow angle rear access ramp – and can be made easier with Brotherwood’s patented power assisted wheelchair restraint system (PAWRS) combined winch and restraint system. By attaching the front restraints to the wheelchair before loading, the PAWRS device can be used to pull the wheelchair into the vehicle by using the remote control with no pushing required.
Once inside the vehicle, the PAWRS is locked to become a front restraint system – ideal for heavy wheelchairs – with no need to attach fiddly front restraints inside the vehicle. Brotherwood also has an annual safety assurance programme which means a qualified service engineer will visit at a time and place that suits the customer and perform a full 15-point conversion safety inspection, including restraints, ramp and safety belts.
MAN TGE CONVERSIONS
This year Essex-based Stanford Coachworks delivered its first two fully wheelchair accessible 5-tonne MAN TGEs to customers. One of the TGEs has been specially designed to a specification for a local authority which mainly runs Ford Transit conversions but wanted to try something new on its service transporting clients to and from local day centres and schools.
All vehicle conversions by the company, located in Stanford-Le-Hope, are supplied with either an IVA or type approval certificate. Paul Dedman, corporate sales manager at Stanford Coachworks said the firm has also been involved with development and build projects on the new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter and VW Crafter models recently which have been “very positive” for the firm.
He added: “We have built all variants now and we were the first to release these new generation products into the marketplace. “We have had a very busy start to 2019 and it is set to continue.”
TBC Conversions, which has a purpose-built factory in Dungannon, Northern Ireland, and another site in Birkenhead, modifies vehicles for wheelchair drivers and passengers and works with all major vehicle manufacturers. Following a competitive tender process, it recently won a contract from Leeds City Council to supply and convert 60 of the new model Volkswagen Crafter vehicles to be used by the council to transport local residents with limited mobility.
Thanks to the contract the company has been able to recruit six new technicians, taking its total number of employees to 61. Another long-established firm is Euromotive, a Hythe, Kent-based converter, founded in 1994 and which has grown steadily to have 45 employees, producing between 350 and 400 conversions per year.
The firm works for local authorities, community transport organisations, charitable organisations and private bodies. Recently the company unveiled its first electric conversion based on an LDV EV80 high roof panel van with higher energy efficiency, stronger power and zero emissions.
Cartwright launched its range of mobility vehicles into the retail market in 2017 and is an approved provider of WAVs and vehicle adaptations to the government-backed Motability Scheme. The converter is to expand into new purpose-built premises in Belton, North East Lincolnshire, with planning permission already granted for the redevelopment and extension of the 28 acre site.
It is expected that the number of jobs will increase from 72 to 250 over the coming months. The converter has been part of Ford’s Qualified Vehicle Modifier (QVM) program since 2017 and earlier this year, Cartwright Conversions achieved official Ford converter status for two of its mid-sized WAVs including rear passenger wheelchair accessible vehicles built on the high-roof Transit Custom and the lowered floor Tourneo Custom.
Another key player is GM Coachwork, formed in 1988 by engineer David Vooght, who had served a mechanical engineering apprenticeship with Westland Helicopters. One of its latest offerings is a specially adapted Peugeot Traveller Turin that features a full-length levelled floor, lightweight bi-fold ramp and ample headroom.
GM Coachwork has also been selling high quality used WAVs for more than 20 years.
According to Brotherwood, the WAV Industry faces many of the same issues as the standard car market at present – for example the introduction of the worldwide harmonised light vehicle test procedure (WLTP) and Real Driving Emissions test (RDE) regulations. MD John Daniel MD said: “At present the impact of these regulations on WAV converters is not entirely clear, as questions remain over possible exemptions for roadside surveillance.
“The changes in regulation are also forcing vehicle manufacturers to adjust their products, and this leads to extra development work for us as converters. We have to consider extra complications such as the inclusion of Adblue tank and pre-treatments. WLTP has also affected the availability and supply of base vehicles from all manufacturers, this can in turn affect our lead times from initial order to delivery to client.”
According to Daniel, Brexit is still an issue that continues to create uncertainty in the market. Type Approval and correct vehicle registration are also common issues for Brotherwood as a second-stage manufacturer along with understanding varying interpretations of European Type Approval requirements.
“Despite the challenges the outlook for the WAV sector is positive – quality product is always in demand and based on a client’s ’needs’ rather than ‘wants’”, he added. ”With an ageing population and an increasing demand for products for people with mobility issues the WAV market is continuing to grow.”
Daniel said client demands for alternative fuels will also be an interesting challenge for a market that is predominantly diesel based, although the company is now offering a choice of petrol and electric options to meet the varying needs of its private and commercial clients and local authorities. This year Brotherwood will launch two new WAV conversions: the first a luxurious adaptation of the Brotherwood ‘Klastar’ Mercedes-Benz V-Class, developed in partnership with Mercedes-approved bespoke coach-builder Senzati.
Daniel said: “The level of quality and refinement that this vehicle will offer is beyond anything ever offered in this sector, and provides a truly comfortable, car-like passenger experience rather than the commercial-vehicle based conversions that are prevalent in the market.”
The second vehicle for 2019 is an all-new concept vehicle that should answer the requests of many clients who want a vehicle which delivers optimal comfort, space and visibility for the wheelchair user. The full unveiling will take place at the company’s annual event – the Brotherwood WAV Weekend – at Haynes International Motor Museum this June.
Daniel added: “Our research and development team have a full schedule ahead of them in continuing to explore the possibilities of new vehicle conversions as we aim to release multiple new products every year. We constantly monitor the new-vehicle market for new products that could provide refinements with social inclusion for the wheelchair passenger. We also have a full schedule of exhibitions and events planned for 2019.”