BRUCE CHARGO conceded that he sometimes drove his 1958 Dodge Power Wagon aggressively.
"Oh yeah," he said, in a telephone interview. "That's the whole idea of putting a 375-horse Hemi in there."
Like many of us, Mr. Chargo, 53, of Clio, Mich., enjoys the feel of a high-performance machine and takes pride in his ability to maneuver it.
Unlike most of us, he doesn't drive with his hands and feet. Mr. Chargo was paralyzed from the chest down in a childhood swimming accident and consequently needs special controls to drive by using only his arms. His hands, wrists and legs are immobile.
Technology has given severely impaired people like Mr. Chargo the ability to drive, but it doesn't come easily. Vehicles outfitted for those with limited muscle control are expensive, and learning to operate one requires determination. It took Mr. Chargo months of practicing in his driveway and on the road to learn. Then, years later, he acted on a long-suppressed love of performance vehicles, bought a collectible truck and turned it into a hot rod.
I met Mr. Chargo at the Mopar Nationals here, an event for fans of Chrysler-built collectibles and high-performance machinery. Amid the winged Dodge Charger Daytonas and the purple 'Cudas, Mr. Chargo's orange Power Wagon, a 4-wheel-drive utility vehicle that has a cult following, stood out. When Mr. Chargo drove it, he stopped the show.
Asked to move his truck to another location for a photo session, Mr. Chargo drove his wheelchair to the rear doors of the Power Wagon and lowered its lift. He motored onto the platform, which raised him into the truck. He propelled himself to the driver's area and locked his wheelchair into place.
To start the truck, he moved his right arm to toggle switches on the console. His left arm nestled between the four pins of a controller that operates throttle and brake. Flicking a toggle with his right arm turned on the ignition, a second toggle engaged the starter and a third put the automatic transmission into drive. He then moved his right arm into another four-pin controller that steers the vehicle.
And off he went, with all the confidence of a man who has driven half a million miles using controls that require no hand or leg movements.
While the control system may be its most interesting feature, the Power Wagon itself stands out. He started looking for a performance vehicle in 2000, but was limited to vans because of his wheelchair. He found the Power Wagon, which was wide enough, for sale on the Web and bought it from a California man. Mr. Chargo spent 11 years having the van built to his specifications.
From the factory, the Power Wagon had an optional 315-cubic-inch V-8, but Mr. Chargo installed a 1958 Chrysler 392 Hemi, modified to generate 375 horsepower. It's backed by Chrysler's 727 automatic transmission, a favorite of drag racers, and power is delivered to stout Dana front and rear axles, like those in 1980s-vintage Dodge trucks. The project cost about $115,000, he said.
In 1977, the year of his accident, Mr. Chargo had been driving a 1971 Plymouth Duster. He was in high school and lived with his parents on a Michigan farm. Like many teenagers, he had an avid interest in sports and fast cars.
He was injured on a July afternoon after he and his friends decided to go swimming.
"It was one of those dumb things kids do," Mr. Chargo said. "My buddies and I had added sand to the farm pond's beach. It was a hot day, and we had a trampoline, so we put it in the water. Instead of jumping off feet first, I dove."
His head hit the sandy bottom of the pond, and he felt something like a severe electric shock as his spinal cord was damaged. Unable to move, he was pulled from the pond by his father and a friend. After five months in traction, he was moved to a rehabilitation facility in Colorado.
"At first, being a 17-year-old, it kind of kicks you in the stuff to not be independent," he said. When he started rehabilitation, the doctors told him his injury was so high up his spinal cord that he had very little strength in his arms and no function in his hands or wrists.
"They wanted to put me in a sip-and-puff wheelchair, a chair controlled by mouth, but I insisted on one I could drive moving a toggle with my arm," he said. "My arm was so weak I could only go backward at first, but it eventually got strong enough to operate the chair."
Mr. Chargo came home on New Year's Day, 1978. His father bought a van and installed a lift for his son's wheelchair. Mr. Chargo graduated from high school with his class and earned a degree at Western Michigan University.
Today, he's a financial planner managing accounts worth over $10 million, owns a home in Clio and is married to Tammy Dalrymple-Chargo, who was with him at the Mopar Nationals.
"I do want to emphasize how important my wife is in my life," Mr. Chargo wrote in an e-mail. "Not only is she my best friend and a wonderful wife, she is my primary caregiver. Because of my disability, I require a lot of care."
The Power Wagon is the fourth vehicle Mr. Chargo has equipped with special controls. Because the custom truck is more than mere transportation, it has taken him to a new place. One might say that, as a driver who once relished performance cars, he's come all the way back. People do come back from horrible accidents -- witness the return of the IndyCar champion Alex Zanardi to motor sports after losing his legs in a racing crash.
Mr. Chargo's return to the driver's seat in 1984 was prompted by a chance encounter with a quadriplegic man who had regained his ability to drive by using a control system similar to the one Mr. Chargo now uses. The man, whose name Mr. Chargo cannot remember, let him try the van in a parking lot, but Mr. Chargo's arms weren't strong enough to operate the controls.
Still, a seed was planted. He had a doctor analyze his physical skills to determine if he was capable of driving, and the doctor recommended a system that could be operated with limited arm movement and minimal effort. The family's van was outfitted, and a driver rehabilitation specialist taught him how to use the equipment.
"It was really hard to learn to drive," Mr. Chargo said. "I wasn't strong enough. I was going to college full time, so I would go to school during the week and come home on the weekends, get in the van and steer it back and forth in the driveway for hours. I was determined to drive."
While learning to operate his family's van, Mr. Chargo, whose back muscles cannot support him, fell over in his chair when turning into his driveway and crashed into his grandfather's new car. That led him and his father to devise a box-shaped head support that allows his neck muscles to provide stability. Switches that can be activated with a head tilt were later added to control the turn signals, headlight dimming, horn and windshield wipers.
"My neck and shoulder muscles are strong," Mr. Chargo said. "My friends joke that I look like a middle linebacker from the chest up."
Mr. Chargo passed his driving test on the first try. He says that he has never caused an accident.
"For the first 10,000 miles I was nervous, and everyone who rode with me was nervous," he said. "But when I started my financial business, I had to drive a lot. I put 250,000 miles on my Econoline before I sold it and have over 200,000 on my '93 minivan. Driving is second nature."
Mr. Chargo's control systems mostly use 1980s technology, although he has upgraded them. Today, there are many options for drivers with limited mobility. Input devices, including joysticks, levers and four-pin controllers like Mr. Chargo's, can be combined with the drive-by-wire systems in modern vehicles. He said drivers should investigate the options and match the system to their capabilities.
"Then work at increasing your strength," he said. "I still have to work out three times a week to maintain enough strength in my arms to operate a vehicle. It can be done."autonews
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.