JACKI LYDEN, host:
In an economically hard-pressed area of northeast Indiana, a double twist of fate has turned tragedy into success, and an empty Saturn dealership is now a niche car company for disabled drivers.
Erika Celeste has this report from Fort Wayne, Indiana.
ERIKA CELESTE: Every year in the U.S., there are 10,000 new spinal cord injuries. Steve Kitchin never expected to be one of those statistics. But a decade ago, a friend offered him a ride in his new Cadillac.
Mr. STEVE KITCHIN: 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.
CELESTE: 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, he wanted to drive again. He got a minivan with hand controls for the gas and brake. The only problem was, he's a guy who closely links his identity to his vehicle.
Mr. KITCHIN: A minivan is kind of the family truckster type of thing, and I didn't want to be the soccer-mom type. I never really considered myself that.
CELESTE: So he looked around for options. Honda is working on an Element for people with disabilities, and there's a company in Florida that converts basic pickups. But Kitchin really wanted a four-wheel drive. So the former ad exec designed his dream truck in the back of a barn. With the help of a few friends, Steve Kitchin modified a bright-red GMC Sierra. First, they tore out the floor and reinforced it with steel.
(Soundbite of machinery)
CELESTE: Then they designed a lift that works like an elevator. It extends, so Kitchin can back his electric wheelchair in, then it raises up and slides into the cab. Finally, they adapted the steering wheel with extra hand controls.
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 most of the project out of his own pocket, and he was just about out of money.
That's when Tom Kelley stepped in. Kelley owns six dealerships around the area. He recently lost his Saturn dealership, and the building was sitting empty. So he offered it for free.
Mr. TOM KELLEY (Auto Dealer): My dad's favorite line was, he never did anything on his own, that everything that ever happened to him that was significant was because someone else had lent him a helping hand. So I just sort of thought - I said, you know, my dad would be all over this. And I said, Steve, go start using the building; we'll figure it out.
Mr. KELLEY: You got earplugs on? Thank you.
CELESTE: 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.
Kitchin expects 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.
Mr. KIRK MCKENZIE: It makes you feel good at the end of the day. I've been in Chicago in Cracker Barrel parking lots, laying under trucks - you know, that people are bringing, wanting us to do this.
CELESTE: Kitchin uses GMC and Chevy trucks that are built at a nearby plant. It costs about $25,000 to modify each one - about the same price as modifying a minivan.
Dave Whiston, with Morningstar Research, is a fan of niche automotive markets. But he cautions that start-ups like this sometimes struggle to keep a strong customer base.
Mr. DAVE WHISTON (Morningstar Research): The trick is, you've got to be able to keep your competitors at bay. And in manufacturing, that's generally very hard to do because almost anyone can get a loan or raise funds somehow, and open up a factory and buy some machinery and hire some workers.
CELESTE: But Steve 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 - semi tractor-trailers.
For NPR News, I'm Erika Celeste in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
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