Chapter 6: Adventures in Machine Making

Rise Above Chapter 6

There are no constraints on the human mind, no walls around the human spirit, no barriers to our progress except those we erect for ourselves. - Ronald Reagan

To say my first motorized wheelchair was a “scooter” is like calling Frankenstein a munchkin.

Created in my parents’ garage out of a mishmash of nuts, bolts, wires, tires, and other unrelated machine parts, the vehicle was a four-wheeled monster. It was big and loud and dirty and smelly, and it tore up everything in its path, including my mother’s kitchen, where I first drove it to show her my creation.

To build this beast, I started with a Crosley CC, which was a small four-cylinder car made in the ’40s and ’50s. I cut its front end down to 24 inches wide, added a lawn mower differential, four big wheelbarrow tires, two six-volt automotive batteries, makeshift wiring and switches I got from the hardware store, a kitchen chair, and a motor from a 1957 Pontiac kid’s car that I rescued from a mortician’s trash bin. Then, like a mad scientist, I welded, screwed, bolted, and hammered it all together.

When you consider that the machine had two six-volt batteries and did not have variable speeds, which meant it went either 7.5 miles per hour or 15 miles per hour, could not go in reverse, and also had no brakes, it was like a hopped-up Frankenstein on steroids. If you were at full throttle and going down a hill or a ramp or you were in a tight area, like my mother’s kitchen, it was bad news for whatever was in your way. Many times, while trying to maneuver, I burned rubber on my mother’s floor, rammed into her refrigerator, cabinets, and sink, and busted through the door.

It was a crude device, but creating it gave me hope that I could build something out of nothing and make it work. Despite the wreckage I caused to her kitchen, my mother was also happy, as was my father. They saw I was making progress and it was only a matter of time before I’d get what I wanted.

Starting with the body of a Crosley was fitting. For one thing, I was a big race fan, and before the Chevrolet Corvette started competing in 1956, the Crosley Hotshot had been America’s only sports car. It was very competitive in its class, winning the Sebring, the Grand de la Suisse, and the Sports Car Club of America’s 12-hour Vero Beach race in 1951. In the same year, the Hotshot also finished second in the Tokyo Grand Prix and was headed to victory at Le Mans when its voltage regulator caught fire near the end of the race.

What’s more, the Crosley was manufactured locally, in Marion, Indiana, by automotive pioneer Powell Crosley Jr. A visionary, Crosley made the first mass-market single overhead camshaft engine, the first American car with four-wheel disc brakes, the first slab-sided post-War car, and the first all-steel-bodied wagon. Though Crosley was out of business by 1952, luminaries such as Humphrey Bogart, Gloria Swanson, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller all drove the cars.

As for racing, my love of the sport remained strong throughout my life. Like chips off the old engine block, my sons, Todd, Brent, and Drew, also loved it, too, racing go-karts and midgets when they were little boys. Since 2002, Todd has owned Braun Racing, a very competitive team in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Based in Mooresville, North Carolina, Braun Racing is in the very heart of NASCAR country.1

Back when I was creating my first motorized wheelchair in the summer of 1963, my interest in racing and the Crosley’s pedigree were the furthest things from my mind. I was a young man on a mission, and to me, the Crosley’s long-abandoned body was just another metallic piece of the puzzle I would need on my way to making a more refined “scooter.”

As soon as Frankenstein was finished, I started working on the Bride of Frankenstein, the second version of my motorized wheelchair. After wrecking my mother’s kitchen with the first version, I decided I needed to make the second version much smaller and more manageable. This meant using three wheels instead of four, finding a way to make variable speeds, and adding brakes, better steering, and a host of other improvements. It also meant I needed to go beyond the local parts I’d been using and start traveling to places, such as Chicago and White Pigeon, that had more appropriate materials for what I was trying to accomplish.

The question was, What should I look for? I couldn’t use the Internet to do research, so I bought surplus catalogs for a dollar and a half and studied them, as well as whatever books and magazines I could get my hands on. Those publications became my library, and I spent hour after hour with them. I read, I contemplated, I schemed. I would think of a challenge I’d faced while building and testing Frankenstein, and then I’d try to figure out what parts I could procure that might address that challenge. While sitting quietly alone, either in the garage or in the house, I’d painstakingly put those pieces together in my head and try every kind of configuration possible. More times than not, these configurations led me down dark alleys and dead ends, and I'd have to start again. All the stops and starts were frustrating, but they were also necessary because they were part of the process of discovery.

I remember reading once that Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed; I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I also recall Albert Einstein saying he owed much of his success to his ability to sit quietly for hours on end, thinking. I will never claim to be Edison or Einstein, but experience has taught me that a lot can be said for quiet contemplation. For one thing, by the time you actually start trying to execute your vision and build something, the move from theoretical to practical brings a whole new set of challenges, and it’s far better to have already thought it through before you get there.

One of my biggest challenges was figuring out how to give my machine the ability to travel at variable speeds. Like many discoveries, I found that solution almost by accident. While building Frankenstein, I had seen an advertisement for a one-person golfcart that was built and sold in California. Of course, it was far too expensive for me to purchase.

All was not lost, however. In the process of investigating the golf carts, I discovered the carts’ motor manufacturer, Gillette Manufacturing, was in White Pigeon, Michigan. I found the company’s number, called and spoke with the owner, Paul Gillette, and arranged to go to Michigan to get one of his motors.

As soon as I arrived, I was struck by his generosity. When I told him I needed to learn how to make a motor with variable speeds, he taught me. He could have just sold me the motor and told me to get lost, but he didn’t. Instead, he told me how he'd taken an old Ford generator, rewound its fields, and put more connections on it to make it reversible. Then he demonstrated how to wind varying lengths of wire into a coil, put the wire across some solenoids, and run current through it to make variable speeds. This was a huge discovery for me. I went back to Winamac with a motor and a very valuable piece of knowledge.

Another challenge I faced was the size of my tires. I wanted to drive my vehicle everywhere—the street, the sidewalk, inside buildings, you name it—so I needed to use something considerably smaller than wheelbarrow tires.

In those days, go-karts were all the rage, especially in race crazy Indiana, where little boys dreamed of being the next A.J. Foyt, a four-time winner of the Indianapolis 500. Invented in 1956 by Art Ingels, a race car designer and engineer at Kurtis Craft, a firm that produced five Indy 500 winners, go-karts were essentially race cars for kids. For a young inventor like me, I saw promise in the go-karts’ small, semi-pneumatic tires, so I started looking for some.

One day, while reading a go-kart magazine, I saw an advertisement for the Maple Grove Distributing Company, which sold minibikes and go-karts in Galveston, Indiana, just south of Logansport. I decided I’d go see what they had in the way of go-kart tires.

That’s when I encountered Ralph Rocky, a tall drink of water with a severe facial tic, which may very well have been Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder. We bonded instantly, seeming to communicate telepathically, each knowing what the other was going to say before it was even said. In the same way that Paul Gillette would become a mentor to me, so would Ralph Rocky.

On that first day I met Ralph, I told him what I was trying to build and the tires I thought I needed, and I asked whether he had any other parts I might be able to use. He had a retail store in the front of the building and a mail-order business in the back. With just a vague hint from me, Ralph went into his back room and returned with a collection of things that he spread out on the counter. I was like a kid on Christmas morning who was seeing his presents for the first time. Besides the go-kart tires, he brought some smaller differentials he purchased off a lawn mower shop that had closed. He had about 100 of them, and though they were already better than the differential I’d used on Frankenstein, the lengths of the axles were still not right. I bought one anyway, thinking I could make it smaller once I got it home. I also bought some tubing and motorcycle pegs to rest my feet on. Then I took it all back to the garage and started welding it together.

Frankenstein’s Bride was finished at summer’s end in 1963. She wasn’t pretty, but she had three wheels and was a lot better looking than Frankenstein. More important, she had a lot better temper.

The week after I finished my new three-wheeled scooter, my mother got an important phone call from our neighbor. The Controls Company of America plant in Winamac was going to have a job opening for a quality control inspector, and if I wanted to apply for it, I’d better get over there. How did our neighbor know? It was her son’s job, and he’d just enlisted in the armed services.

Before my mother could hang up the phone, I said I’d get on my new scooter and ride over to the company. Our neighbor then called the manager of the factory and spoke with his secretary, Doris Dilts, to let him know I was on my way. I was indeed on my way, in more ways than one.

When I got there, I faced the usual obstacle of access: steps and no ramp. Luckily, I did find an entranceway to the cafeteria. I went in and asked someone to tell the manager I was there to talk about the job. A couple of minutes later, the plant manager and Ben Severns, the guy who would eventually be my boss, came out to see me. They stood there, looking at me sitting on Frankenstein’s Bride, and they were dumbfounded. Here’s how the conversation went:

“What is this thing?” they asked.

“It’s a motorized wheelchair,” I replied.

“Where did you get it?” they asked.

“I built it,” I said.

“No, really,” they said. “What company sells these?”

“No company,” I said. “I built it myself.”

“What do you mean?” they asked. “Did you have a kit that you sent away for?”

“No, I got a bunch of different parts from up in Michigan and Illinois and down in Galveston and some other local supply stores, and then I put it all together,” I said. “I just finished it last week, as a matter of fact.”

“Last week?” they asked, incredulously. “And you drove it over here?”

“Yes, about six or seven blocks,” I said. “And there was no kit. I figured it all out in my head.”

“In your head?” they asked.

“That’s right,” I said. “This is my second one. The first one was a monster. I’m getting better at it now.”

They looked back and forth at each other and at me. They rubbed their chins while walking around my chair.

“Hell, if you can do that, you can do the job we’ve got open. No sweat.”

We shook hands, and on the first day of October 1963, I was hired on the spot for $1.46 per hour, full time. The company made automotive switches that turned the lights on and off when car doors opened and closed. My job was to inspect all the materials that went into the products and make sure they met the proper specifications. Looking back, having just built a couple of motorized wheelchairs out of nothing, I realize this job was somewhat beneath my abilities. However, in 1963, nobody was hiring disabled people, and to even get someone to think about giving you a job, you had to vastly overachieve, which I had done. I didn’t think about it that way; I was happy to have a job. Once again, all I wanted was to be like everyone else.

So I had a job. To get to and from work, I drove Frankenstein’s Bride on the streets, in all kinds of weather. As the months wore on and the weather got colder, I put on more layers of clothing. I also installed a flashing red light on a pole that rose above my head so people could see me through the dark and rain and snow. I must have made quite a sight as I slipped and slid and shivered on my way to and from work. Because there were no sidewalks I could ride on, at first I was concerned that I would be in people’s way on the streets. I figured they’d be irritated that I was going so slowly, but the opposite happened. Honking, waving, and calling out with appreciation as they drove by, they actually looked out for me.

A few weeks after I got my job, I was faced with another obstacle. I was going to get married in December, and I did not want to have my new wife living with me in my parents’ home. Because I made only $1.46 per hour and had just started my job, I began looking at mobile homes because I thought they would be a lot more affordable.

The first mobile home I looked at was a New Moon, which was very popular in those days. It didn’t work for me because I needed the doorways and hallway to be wider so I could have room for my chair. Because New Moons were built on an assembly line, with no room for deviation, I had to look for an off-make model. I found Venus Coaches, a small manufacturer in Nappanee, Indiana, and convinced them to custom-make a mobile home for me and deliver it to a trailer park in Logansport—by December. In addition to the short turnaround, there were two problems. First, since they were selling it to me directly instead of through a dealer, I'd have to set it up myself, and I had no idea how to do that. Second, it would cost me $3,300, which to me was a king’s ransom.

In the same way that I was overcoming physical obstacles, I was also finding my way around financial roadblocks. I did not have the money to buy my mobile home, and banks were not exactly open to the idea of lending to a guy in a wheelchair, so I got my father to cosign a loan for me. I was buying my first home.

On the day I got married, December 28, 1963, Linda and I went to the trailer for the first time, ready to start our new life together. What did we find? There was no water because the pipes had frozen solid.

For the next few hours, my cousins and friends crawled around under the trailer with heat tapes, insulation wraps, and blowtorches as they tried to thaw the place out. My wife sat inside and forlornly looked out the window. I felt bad while I sat on my motorized wheelchair and “supervised” while my buddies, also in their suits, nearly froze to death.

Two weeks later, the sewage pipe became frozen and fell off, causing raw sewage to run all over the yard. Once again, my friends and cousins came to my rescue, as they swam in filthy sewage and worked to thaw and reconnect my sewage pipes.

It was an inauspicious beginning to my new life. Always the optimist, I figured it had to get better. Didn’t it?

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