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Beyond Steel: BraunAbility makes first wheelchair-accessible SUV
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Beyond Steel: BraunAbility makes first wheelchair-accessible SUV

From the Beyond steel series

A Northwest Indiana manufacturer's product occupied some prime real estate at this year's Chicago Auto Show, the largest consumer auto show in the nation.

BraunAbility, headquartered in Winamac in Pulaski County, showcased the new BraunAbility MXV, the first wheelchair-accessible sport-utility vehicle in volume production, at the one-week auto show.

The modified SUV was displayed at the entrance to the South Hall in McCormick Place, where it was likely seen by more than a million people.

The Northwest Indiana-based company, founded by wheelchair-accessible vehicle creator Ralph Braun, adds wheelchair ramps and other accessibility features to Ford Explorers that roll off the Ford assembly line in Hegewisch. 

"Our customers are very excited to have a mobility option that reflects their individuality," BraunAbility President and CEO Nick Gutwein said. "For us, Ford Explorer was the obvious choice. It's an iconic American vehicle that reflects the ultimate in independence and freedom."

"We're thrilled the Explorer name is connected to such a highly respected brand like BraunAbility," Ford Explorer Marketing Manager Omar Odeh said. "Explorer has always been associated with helping people go places they otherwise could not, and BraunAbility MXV furthers that reputation."

BraunAbility operates a 170,000-square-foot plant in Winamac, where it makes the customized SUV with sliding doors, a 28 inch-wide ramp, removable seats and a key fob that operates the door and ramp. The MXV will be sold at 200 authorized mobility dealers around the country.

More than 1,000 people work at the BraunAbility vehicle assembly plant on the west side of the town of just 2,500 people. Braun, who has since died, founded the company in 1972 after inventing the world's first electric scooter and first wheelchair lift and steering controls.

The assembly plant produces several different wheelchair-accessible vans, including the Entervan Wheelchair Minivan, that are sold internationally. Today, the company is owned by a division of Investor AB of Sweden.

Jesse Billauer, a quadriplegic surfer and motivational speaker who founded the Life Rolls On Foundation, said the company's new BraunAbility MXV provides independence and freedom for the disabled.

"You can drive something that's actually cool and not a minivan," he said during the Chicago Auto Show media preview. "I think it's beautiful, you know. The Ford Explorer is obviously a nice car and then this feature of being able to roll in and wheelchair accessibility. For so many people that's something that they just haven't had that option."

Billauer, the first World Champion of Adaptive Surfing, leads a nonprofit that helps those who are paralyzed after spinal cord injuries to remain active. 

"People lose their identity from being injured," he said. "This is going to bring them back, their personality man... I think you're going to see a lot of people with disabilities driving this car."

BraunAbility makes other wheelchair accessible vehicles, but it had been getting a lot of feedback from customers who wanted something other than a minivan, Marketing Director Joe Garnett said.

"Really the only products that were available were largely minivans because they lended themselves to be easily converted to wheelchair access because of their size and unibody construction and front wheel drive and things like that," Garnett said. "An SUV has a more athletic look. It's more stylish, the driving characteristics are different, a little more ground clearance."

The BraunAbility MXV retails for around $60,000 and is available in XLT and Limited models, with an optional tow package.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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