Quadriplegic Builds His Dream Truck, Business

Steve Kitchin demonstrates his prototype invention. i i

Steve Kitchin demonstrates his prototype invention. With the touch of a button, he simply backs his wheelchair in, and the elevator-like lift raises it up and slides him into the cab of the truck. Erika Celeste for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Erika Celeste for NPR
Steve Kitchin demonstrates his prototype invention.

Steve Kitchin demonstrates his prototype invention. With the touch of a button, he simply backs his wheelchair in, and the elevator-like lift raises it up and slides him into the cab of the truck.

Erika Celeste for NPR

In economically hard-pressed northeast Indiana, a small automotive miracle is taking place. A double twist of fate has led to an opportunity to fill a niche market for disabled drivers who'd like to be driving something a little flashier than a modified minivan.

Every year in the United States, there are 10,000 new spinal cord injuries, according to the National Institutes of Health. Steve Kitchin never expected to be one of those statistics. But a decade ago, a friend offered him a ride in his new Cadillac.

"Basically what happened is, he was showing off a little bit on the way home and lost control of the car and we hit a tree, and here I am injured," Kitchin says.

Kitchin, who was in his 30s at the time, became a quadriplegic. His legs were paralyzed, but he still has some use of his arms. More than anything, Kitchin wanted to drive again. He got a minivan with hand controls for the gas and brake. The only problem was, he's the type of guy who closely links his identity to his vehicle.

"A minivan is kind of the family truckster type of thing, and I didn't want to be the soccer-mom type," Kitchin says. "I never really considered myself that."

Designing An Accessible Dream Truck

So he looked around for other options. Honda is working on an Element for people with disabilities, and there is a company in Florida that converts basic pickups. But Kitchin really wanted a four-wheel drive. So, the former advertising executive designed his dream truck in the back of a barn.

With the help of a few friends, he modified a bright red GMC Sierra. First, they tore out the floor and reinforced it with steel.

Then they designed a lift that works like an elevator. It extends so Kitchin can back his electric wheelchair in, then raises up and slides into the cab. Finally, they adapted the steering wheel with extra hand controls.

A Company Born Out Of Urgent Requests

He used the prototype to create a new company. But before he could even secure a factory, he was inundated with vehicle requests. Up until this point, Kitchin had funded much of the project out of his pocket, and he was just about out of money.

A specially designed steering wheel inside Steve Kitchin's truck. i i

The specially adapted steering wheel in Kitchin's truck. Kitchin is a quadriplegic but has some use of his arms. Erika Celeste for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Erika Celeste for NPR
A specially designed steering wheel inside Steve Kitchin's truck.

The specially adapted steering wheel in Kitchin's truck. Kitchin is a quadriplegic but has some use of his arms.

Erika Celeste for NPR

That's when Tom Kelley stepped in. Kelley owns six auto dealerships in the area. He had recently lost his Saturn dealership, and the building was sitting empty. So he offered it for free.

"My dad's favorite line was he never did anything on his own — that everything that ever happened to him that was significant happened because people lent him a helping hand," Kelley says. "So, I just sort of thought, you know my dad would be all over this, and I said, 'Steve, go start using the building. We'll figure it out.' "

The bright, clean space of the factory still resembles a Saturn dealership. But the 17 workers rotate from station to station, cutting, drilling and welding.

Jobs For A Hard-Hit Town

Kitchin expects that his company will eventually employ 200 people. That's good news for the Fort Wayne area, a hard-hit manufacturing community. Kirk McKenzie, who was laid off from a nearby forklift factory, says his new job gives him more than a paycheck.

"It makes you feel good at the end of the day," McKenzie says.

Kitchin uses GMCs and Chevy trucks that are built at a plant nearby. It costs about $25,000 to modify each one — about the same price as modifying a minivan.

David Whiston, an equity analyst for Morningstar, is a fan of niche automotive markets. But he cautions that startups like this sometimes struggle to keep a strong customer base.

"You have to keep your competitors at bay, and that's generally very hard to do," Whiston says. "Almost anyone can get a loan or raise funds somehow and open up a factory and hire some workers."

But Kitchin isn't worried. He has a patent pending on his modification, and he has plenty of other ideas. He says someday he'd like to design a wheelchair lift for the big trucks — tractor-trailers.

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