A Wing & a Prius

Reprinted from PN/Paraplegia News March 2014

Hybrid vehicles can be driven by all! With just a few adjustments to the doors, a Toyota Prius becomes wheelchair accessible.

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I wrote Where Have All the Two-Doors Gone?  in the April 2004 issue of PN. It was my lament over the lack of big two-door cars. My solution at the time was to modify a Honda Element by putting in air suspension.

More than 120,000 miles and almost 10 years later, I decided it was time for a new challenge — go green. I wanted to make a hybrid vehicle that would be reasonable for everyday wheelchair accessibility.

The reason I chose the Element for my first project was for the door configuration — it had suicide doors.  The problem was the car was the wrong height.

For this car, I looked for one that had a good transfer height and the possibility of reconfiguring the doors.

John Chiesa's personally modified Toyota Prius gets great gas mileage and includes a rear gull-wing door that makes it easier for him to store his wheelchair.

Back to the Future!

What about a gull-wing door?

I figured if they were good enough for the DeLorean, they were good enough for me. A gull-wing rear door would allow me to throw my wheelchair in the back with minimal effort.

What I needed was an accomplice. Rick Davies of Dynamic Autobody was my partner on the Element conversion, so I convinced him to take this project on as well.

There were four things required in a vehicle: easy transfer, room for my wheelchair in the back seat, room for it in the trunk and better than 40 mpg.

Three cars made my shortlist: the Ford Fusion Hybrid, Nissan Altima Hybrid and Toyota Prius.

The Fusion and Altima were the largest in the group. Both were excellent standard vehicles adapted to be hybrids. Ironically, this meant they weren’t designed to be hybrids and didn’t optimize their space.

This created a problem because the battery pack was located behind the rear seat, which limited trunk space and wouldn’t allow room for a wheelchair to fit.

The Prius was a hybrid from the ground up, with a trunk large enough for my chair. Also, the 2010 model was the third generation of the Prius and by this time all of the bugs were out.

In the end, the Prius was the obvious choice and it was time to start the conversion process.

Not Just for Show

There are gull-wing door kits available, but those are best for show cars that mostly get used one Sunday a month.

My design would be based on six transfers per day. Every day for five years would mean 10,000 operations. I figured 20,000 just to be safe. We used the beefy hinges that Ford used on its vans for the last 30-plus years.

For the door to be structural enough for top-mounted hinges, it would need to be reinforced throughout. Rich created hinge pockets in the roofline and we used steel tubing inside of the entire structure of the door. This provided a path to run the wiring and a solid weld point for the hinges and spring.

Finally, the latch mechanism had to be relocated to the bottom of the door — opposite the hinges. It was tricky, but Rick came up with a reliable linkage. 

Rick is a master craftsman. He “shaved” the door area, which means he welded and ground sheet metal into the areas that used to house the hinges, lock, latch, bolt holes, etc.  When finished, you would swear they were never there. The bodywork and paint were absolutely perfect.

As a style point, we split the rear seat and made the driver’s side easily removable with a simple clevis pin.  This allowed me to throw my wheelchair in the back at a lower surface height.

The very lightweight section of the seat stores easily in the trunk for quick replacement if I need to carry more than two passengers.

The result of our hard work is a very functional and downright cool, accessible car.

Lots of Stares

My modified Prius is an incredibly reliable, easy transfer, fully wheelchair-accessible vehicle that routinely gets 48–50 mpg. It also gets a lot of looks in parking lots when that door swings up!

The gas spring opens the door fully when unlatched, which makes transferring into the front seat easy. A bonus is the partial protection the door gives me from the rain when I’m getting ready to transfer. 

With my legs still outside of the car, folding the wheelchair and handing it from my right hand to my left, I can easily roll it behind the driver’s seat. Reaching with my right hand, I can easily close the rear door. I then pull my legs in, close the front door and it’s time for a drive.

It’s now been four years and I’ve had an absolutely trouble-free experience with this car. So much so that now that my wife’s car is due for replacement, we picked up another Prius. It’s currently in Rick’s shop.


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A Wing & a Prius


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