These do tend to blend into the background. They are around in reasonably decent numbers, but only the observant and eagle-eyed people will spot them. While they do tend to be used occasionally as taxi cab’s, they generally appear like any other ordinary minivan, except with a slightly jacked up suspension.
But they aren’t ordinary; this blue Chevrolet minivan you see before you is highly modified and enhanced from the way it left the factory. It was all done so that people confined to wheelchairs can maintain the same degree of mobility as anyone else.
Purpose built vehicles are something I have always found quite fascinating. Having lived next door to the owners of this minivan for over five years, and having driven this rig on numerous occasions, I never really gave this Chevrolet the once over until I was about to leave town for the last time.
This van is owned by Dewayne and Sharon – some of the best neighbors a person could ever wish to have. Dewayne, the former owner of a body-shop who had earned a widespread reputation for his talent in painting show cars, was injured in an incident at his shop that left him paralyzed from the waist down. While his reputation grew even wider for his ability to still paint cars with the same quality (doing so from his chair), he now required a vehicle that could accommodate him and his chair; his Cadillac DeVille was now out of the question.
His first van was a Ford E-250. Despite his customizing it with pinstripes and various other visual effects to spice up its vast expanse of fleet white, it didn’t last long as, he said, “Sharon kept looking for things to back into with that dumb thing – and it was awful in wind.” Sharon has said, “that thing was too big and Dewayne needs to quit being so critical about everything”. Shortly after the Ford was traded for the Chevrolet, Dewayne sold his shop (he was pushing 70 by this time) and the Shafer clan moved in next door.
This particular van was built by The Braun Corporation; seeing anything labeled as “Braunability” is also reflective of their products. Braun, located in Indiana (a true magnet for van conversions and RV manufacturing), is only one of several manufacturers of these specialized rigs.
Looking at this van is a lot like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. You can see one element, that immediately ties into the next, and so on.
As one approaches this blue minivan, it is obvious it sits higher than its plebeian Chevrolet Venture siblings. This higher stance is two-fold;
first, it helps make room for the ramp. On this particular model, the ramp slides from beneath the floor. It seems this method is falling out of favor to fold-up ramps on the newer versions Dewayne and Sharon have viewed. Sharon does not like the fold-up ramps as she said the ramps have rattled on every one she has test driven.
Second, the floor was been substantially lowered in this minivan to aid with ingress / egress plus providing sufficient headroom for those in the chair. Jacking up the suspension is the best way to maintain ground clearance.
Here’s a taste of what the lowered floor looks like from underneath. This doesn’t tell it all, but hopefully you get an idea.
Let’s look at another shot.
The lowered floor is only part of the methodology for ingress / egress. These vans also have what is called a “kneeling system”; the chain seen above is what appears to be the kneeling system. When the ramp is extended, the chain compresses the suspension on the right side of the vehicle, lowering it further to flatten the ramp.
This requires two pictures to better explain it.
Overall the ramp system is pretty slick, however, the ramp can still pose a challenge to the user. Dewayne’s chair is motorized and is quite similar to many other motorized chairs. Due to simple space constraints, the ramp isn’t much wider than his chair. For one of our jaunts, he wasn’t quite square to the ramp on his approach; the chair was soon dangling over the lip of the ramp halfway up. Dewayne is a very large framed man in a heavy chair. Wrestling the loaded chair back onto the ramp to prevent his falling was grueling but successful.
The inside still looks very Chevrolet Venture. There is no passenger seat in place, as Dewayne is able to lock his chair into the slot. The van is configured such that he could drive it, but Dewayne has told me the constant installation and removal of the hand controls was more hassle that it was worth. This van is Dewayne and Sharon’s only vehicle, although she has thought of getting herself another car for running errands around town.
Being inside the van is almost limousine like given the gap between the seats for Dewayne’s chair to maneuver. One day Sharon had a follow-up visit to the doctor after her hip replacement surgery. I drove her there and she had to sit way in the back. We had to talk louder than normal to cover the distance between us!
The Braun conversion process (seen in a four part series; here is Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4) is quite intriguing and I’m sure it is similar to the process used by other ramp van manufacturers. Starting off with a Dodge Caravan, Chrysler Town & Country, Toyota Sienna, or Honda Odyssey, the van is taken into the factory where it is stripped of all removable items behind the firewall plus the wheels and rear axle. The floor is then cut out of it with a new, lowered floor replacing it. The rest of the process is fitment of the new features and replacing all removed items.
From looking at Braun’s website, it is possible to have the ramp enter the vehicle from the rear instead of the side. I have seen a number of such vans, primarily last generation Dodge Caravans, with some being used as taxi-cabs around where I live.
Other than being quite expensive, I never knew what these cost until researching for this article. Dewayne told me their Chevrolet cost about as much as the last Cadillac they had purchased new. Looking around at various ramp van dealers, I found a new Dodge Caravan for $43,000 with progression up to $70,000 depending upon brand and level of factory and upmarket equipment. As a comparison, several new Ford E-250 vans were in the upper end of this price range, also.
One item I have not been able to truly verify is the curb weights of these vans post up-fitting. Dewayne and Sharon’s van is no rocket sled, but it doesn’t feel overwhelmed, either; it feels like it’s simply loaded down. Online resources for curb weights of ramp vans is a sketchy proposition, although I did find a converted current generation Dodge Caravan reported as weighing 4,580 pounds; Dodge is saying an untouched Caravan SXT is 4,510 pounds. It would seem the added gear would be more than 70 pounds. However, given this finding and my observation that a new Honda Odyssey weighs as much as a ’76 Mercury Grand Marquis, these minivans are far from being lightweights regardless of what has been done to them.
I am finding people who own these ramp vans generally keep them a very long time. Used ones continue to bring a premium due to their being such a specialty item. While so many regular minivans seem to get used up and thrown away, it is quite likely these ramp vans will be giving their owners service for a very long time.