Thinking you'd be unable to drive a classic or sports car with a disability is a common misconception. By their very nature, classic and sports cars are usually more challenging to drive than a stereotypical modern car. For example, manual gear changes on older vehicles usually need a bit more welly, there's often reduced visibility from wing-mounted mirrors, a lack of modern electronic driving aids and characteristically low seating makes getting in and out incredibly testing, even for the able-bodied. In this article, Gillian Carmoodie discovers that having a disability or mobility issue isn't always a barrier to enjoying a classic or sports car.
Impressively, despite classic and sports cars being considered a niche segment in the automotive market, UK motorists currently own an impressive 500,000 classic cars, and over 36,000 sports cars between them. That’s a notable proportion of our driveways and garages housing either an older or performance-based vehicle!
Clearly, among the modern-day options of built-in smartphone connectivity and eye-popping LED details, there remains a persistent driver demographic who possess an unyielding desire for ‘something different’ from their vehicle and not what’s brand-new and somewhat sensible at the car dealership.
You might be or know a driver like this – they’re the driver who enjoys how a retro saloon reminds them of the full-on, box-scattering car chases in The Sweeney while also being able to appreciate how a pre-war vehicle neatly showcases the origins of motoring overall. This unusual species of driver is usually found by the motoring section of a supermarket’s magazine aisle or looking at the next corner ahead with laser-focus as their engine note rings out enthusiastically as they pass by.
Given how many classic and sports vehicles are enjoyed in the UK, wouldn’t it be downright alarming if simply having a disability proved to be a barrier to owning or driving such a car?
"Nothing more up to date than an Alfa Romeo 156 Twin Spark from 2000 has ever graced my garage".
Worryingly, many people with a disability or mobility issues, including those who qualify for the Motability Scheme, naively assume that owning and driving a classic or sports car isn’t a viable option. Concerns about day-to-day practicality or not looking at anything other than the latest models available through the Motability Scheme can quickly dissipate any hope of driving something more in-line with personal taste.
However, that needn’t be the case, because disability is not always an unmovable barrier to enjoying a classic or sports car. If you’re drawn to the homely glow of a Lucas headlamp or if the thought of having emails pester you as you take on a twisting road horrifies you, read on.
I have a disability and I’ve always driven a classic. I gained my driving license thirteen years ago, starting out on the road with a humble 1957 saloon. I had chrome bumpers and no electronic driving aids. I had a pull-out choke and no crumple zones. I had a radio with glass tubes that needed to warm up before any sound was heard. I found my way around with a trusty map rather than Sat Nav. If you were getting my ‘Out of Office’ to your email, chances are I was in a layby somewhere cleaning the carburettor jets out, again. Sound familiar?
Much as I keenly admire the formation, objectives and offerings of the Motability Scheme (I love browsing arty brochures for new cars just as much as classic car features) nothing more up to date than an Alfa Romeo 156 Twin Spark from 2000 has ever graced my garage.
I tend to think a car is modern if I don’t need to remember to put the choke back in once underway or if I can play a CD on the stereo. Were you to hand me an electric car, I wouldn’t know how to plug it in. I’m not fully sure where to find a charging station. Do I want project briefs interrupting an enjoyable drive as the sun goes down? No. Do I have a TikTok account or online streaming service that I want to connect to via Bluetooth? No. Do I long for the day when the car will drive itself? I’m sure that’s missing the whole point. Take me to a car dealership and the question ‘Theoretically, what time will it do on a lap of the Nürburgring?’ would probably go down like a lead balloon.
There are many impressive vehicles that you can drive through the Motability Scheme. I often admire many of them. But what do you do when there’s a mismatch between what’s on offer and your personal preference in cars?
If you’re a driver with a disability and you want to drive a classic or sports car, with determination and a willingness to investigate what’s possible, you can likely drive whichever car you wish.
Just ask Nathalie McGloin - tetraplegic racing driver and founder of Spinal Track, a charity that provides rally and circuit experiences to those requiring adaptations to drive.
In 1999, at the age of sixteen, Nathalie incurred a C6/7 complete spinal injury in a road traffic accident, paralysing her from the chest down. Despite this horrendous outcome and lengthy rehabilitation, in 2015 Nathalie became the first woman with a spinal cord injury to be granted a racing driver’s license in the UK.
Not long after, Nathalie was racing a modified, hand-controlled Porsche against able-bodied competitors. In doing so, Nathalie had turned the tables on her disability as well as how it had happened. As Nathalie explains, "The car signifies quite a big success story for me because a car was how I was injured and a car is also how I’ve recovered.”
"Behind the wheel of a racing car I just feel freedom. My wheelchair is in the pits, my disability is irrelevant, and I’m racing against non-disabled people on the race track."
The following year, after successfully completing her first motorsport season, Nathalie founded the Spinal Track charity along with championship winning rally driver and husband, Andrew Bayliss. Offering both track days and rally experiences in adapted cars, Nathalie wanted to offer exciting and supported motoring opportunities to disabled drivers. Nathalie says she wanted "to give people the sense of empowerment that I get from racing.”
In less than a decade, Spinal Track’s adapted fleet has grown to include a Toyota GT8 and three Golf GTIs track cars, as well as two Toyota GT8s and a BMW E46 that are all rally-prepared. As the fleet expanded, so too did Nathalie’s ambitions. In 2018, Nathalie became the Disability and Accessibility Commission President with the FIA, allowing her to contribute to motorsport rules and regulations. A major achievement for Nathalie has been the development of the Certificate of Adaptations, which allows disabled drivers to compete on the same terms as able-bodied drivers.
Spinal Track now sees around 100 disabled drivers through their track days and rally experiences every year, delivering what Nathalie herself feels when she’s driving. She adds: “When I’m in my car, I’m me without my injury.”
All modern cars now utilise the smartest designs and the latest technology to give all drivers, including those with mobility issues, more control of their vehicle. By fitting mobility adaptations, many of the same benefits can be applied to much older vehicles that lies beyond the cars available via the Motability Scheme. Specialist Mobility Adaptation firms offer a wide array of fitted driving aids that can transform a classic or sports car into a usable daily motor for drivers with impaired mobility or reduced manual dexterity.
Many ingenious adaptations can be fitted into a classic or sports car by a mobility conversion specialist. These can include hand controls, left foot accelerator pedals, steering balls, T-shaped handles, push and pull levers and quick release brake pedals. Most often, several driving aids are fitted into a single car, working in tandem to offer the driver an alternative and improved means of vehicular control.
Further options include transfer systems that can assist a driver in and out of a car while, where space allows, a hoist can be fitted to lift a wheelchair or scooter inside.
Derbyshire-based Autochair have assisted drivers with mobility conversions since the early 1980s. Founded by mechanical engineer David Walker OBE, who was paralysed in 1975, Autochair has worked tirelessly to ensure disabled motorists gain enhanced mobility and independence from their vehicles. In 2012, Autochair won the Motability Supplier of the Year Award, swiftly followed by David’s OBE in 2014 from the Queen in recognition of his services to people with disabilities.
Autochair have fitted specialist disability adaptations to many classic and sports cars over the past four decades. In one example, Autochair adapted a sporty Porsche Boxster Spyder on behalf of John and Paula Boggiano. Paula is confined to a wheelchair and struggles to get in and out of cars generally. During the conversion of the Porsche, Autochair fitted their Smart Transfer system into the passenger footwell, enabling Paula to access the low-slung two-seater. The couple say that, thanks to Autochair’s successful mobility conversion, they’ve been able to enjoy their love of performance cars for far longer than they could ever have originally anticipated.
John & Paula In Their Autochair Adapted Porsche Boxster Spyder. Autochair products are distributed by Mobility in Motion.
Jeff Gosling Hand Controls are another firm who specialise in the manufacture and installation of specialist products for drivers and passengers with a disability, and are market leaders in hand controls, steering aids and left foot accelerators. Based in Stockport but with a network of local installers all around the UK, they've been adapting vehicles for well over 30 years.
One of the many classic vehicles they've been able to adapt for a disabled driver is the Y-Type YA, a four-door saloon produced by British car manufacturer MG between 1947 and 1953. Jeff Golsling Hand Controls were able to design and install a set of push/pull brake/accelerator hand controls for this classic, of which only 6,131 were ever produced.
Jeff Gosling Designed Push/Pull Brake/Accelerator Hand Controls In A Classic MG
It's hard to call Adrian "disabled" after seeing what he can do on the track. Check out what he can do in his adapted V10 BMW E61 M5.
So, if you are a driver with a disability who hankers after the ‘something different’ from your vehicle, an adapted vehicle could provide the perfect solution.
All you need to do is choose your car, your adaptations and work out where your next driving adventure awaits!