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Car modifications for disabled drivers through the ages

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December 17, 2020
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The 18th November to 18th December is Disability History Month, so we thought it would be a good time to reflect on the history of vehicles and vehicle modifications for disabled drivers. Whilst current car modifications available for disabled drivers are by no means perfectly inclusive, the offerings have definitely improved over the last century – we’re sure by the end of the article, you will agree!

1655: the first manumotive carriage

The first invention to help improve the mobility for those with disabilities surprisingly began four centuries ago in 1655. Stephan Farffler, who was believed to either be a paraplegic or amputee, created the first self-propelled wheelchair. With three wheels and more sitting space than most modern wheelchairs, it definitely looked quite different from the wheelchairs we’re used to today.

1700s: the bath chair

Bath chair for disabled people

Image source: Wikipedia

Despite its name, this vehicle was more like a carriage for one person. These were three-or-four-wheeled vehicles that had to either be drawn from the front by a horse, donkey or pony, or pushed from the back.

1920s: rotary tricycles and self-propelled carriages

In the early 1920s, a range of hand-propelled tricycles were created by a company called R A Harding. These were ideal for amputees.

In 1947, petrol-powered disability motor trikes gained a fair amount of coverage as a man called OA Denley – who was paralysed from the waist down – was able to cross the Swiss Alps in one. This involved scaling three mountains!

Stanley Engineering Co Ltd began producing self-propelled invalid carriages in the 1920s using the brand name Argson. These were either battery or petrol-powered.

1930s-1940s: adapted hand controls

Early hand controls were created at this time as an alternative to the acceleration, clutch and brake pedals. Sadly, they weren’t all that safe as they were being used with manual vehicles. This meant you had to steer with one hand, all while changing gears, accelerating or braking with the other.

1948-1977: the Invacar

Invacar from 1973

Image source: Wikipedia

As a result of the Second World War, a number of former servicemen were disabled, which led Bert Greeves and Derry Preston-Cobb to realise that there was a gap in the market for a vehicle that allowed disabled people to move around freely. The two men had previously built a vehicle with manual control for Derry, who was paralysed.

When they realised there was a gap in the market for this, they approached the UK government for support and together started manufacturing the Invacar, which was given to disabled drivers for free between 1948 and 1977.

The Invacar was a three-wheeled vehicle that was based on the motorcycle and could be driven completely by hand using a chain, making it more accessible to some disabled drivers. There was even room for a folded wheelchair in the vehicle itself.

Although these tiny vehicles could reach up to 82mph, there were little to no safety measures in place and the vehicles were so lightweight that many drivers actually stored heavy items in the back to weigh the vehicle down. As a result, they stopped being produced after 1977 and were later recalled in 2003.

1950s: push-pull hand controls were invented

Having suffered from adult polio and become disabled as a result, Alan Ruprecht found that the hand controls available for his automobile were poorly constructed and expensive. This led to him designing push-pull controls, which allowed him to accelerate and brake by hand. These are still available to this day; you can adapt most Motability vehicles so they include these controls.

1988: the Elaine Anne Lift

When his daughter became paralysed, Cliff Wolfe created a lift with a platform that attached to the vehicle and could be used to raise the individual so they were level with the car seat and could more easily slide into the seat. In the 90s, this was often used by those who owned bigger vehicles such as 4x4s, which are generally higher from the ground.


With the creation of Motability in 1977, the variety of modified vehicles and standard car adaptations on the market increased massively, and this has really snowballed in the last decade or two. The scheme offers disabled drivers the ability to adapt the vehicle to the disabled person’s needs in a number of different ways. This includes:

Hand controls

Car modified with hand controls

Image source: Adobe Stock

If braking or accelerating using typical foot controls is difficult, a hand control such as a push/pull device can help. This allows users to accelerate easily by pulling the device towards the wheel of the car or decelerate by pushing the hand control away from the wheel. Other modifications that work in the same way include the trigger accelerator, the over or under ring accelerator, and the ghost ring accelerator.

Wheelchair stowage

There are a number of adaptations that can be used to help you stow your wheelchair in your vehicle without you having to lift it into the vehicle yourself, including the car boot hoist and rooftop stowage unit.

Accessing your vehicle

Whilst Wheelchair Accessible Vehicles are available, there are a number of adaptations that can be made to a standard car to improve accessibility. This includes the use of transfer plates, electric person hoists and swivel seats to make vehicles more accessible.


The motor industry is changing fast, with new technology such as self-driving vehicles becoming more common. Whilst vehicles have been modified in ways that have really improved freedom and accessibility, new changes in tech could mean that car brands are able to take accessibility to the next level.

Even with excellent modifications on vehicles available, many disabled people must still rely on other people to drive them around, which can limit their freedom. However, self-driving vehicles could be the technology that changes this, allowing disabled people the same freedoms and opportunities already available to able-bodied people.

There have also been numerous recent concept cars focusing on improving mobility for disabled individuals, including the EQUAL compact electric car. This essentially opens at the rear so the disabled person can ride in with their wheelchair and drive the car in that way, which would significantly improve the ease with which a vehicle could be accessed and driven.

Whatever the future, we’re sure that accessibility will only get better from here. We’re looking forward to the decades to come!

Disabled driver insurance from Adrian Flux

If you’re looking for disabled driver insurance that puts you front and centre, look no further than Adrian Flux. From insurance for disabled drivers of modified vehicles to disabled kit car owners, you name it, we’ve covered it. We’ve been making the needs of disabled motorists a priority for over 50 years.

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