Last spring, Steve Kitchin had had enough. For 10 years — since an auto accident left him a quadriplegic — he'd been driving a minivan, modified with hand controls for the gas and brake. At the time, that was the only type of vehicle available for disabled drivers.
But Kitchin wanted a four-wheel drive pickup truck. "A minivan is kind of the family truckster type of thing, and I didn't want to be the soccer mom type," he says. "[It was] kind of emasculating, just a little bit, going from a truck to a van."
A design to his specifications
No one was making what he wanted, so Kitchin — a former advertising executive — decided to do it himself.
With the help of a few friends, Kitchin designed a lift that could handle his 680-kilo wheelchair and fit completely inside his new, red GMC Sierra.
He starts the vehicle remotely. Then, with the push of a button, the elevator-like lift slides out and lowers to the ground so he can back his wheelchair onto it. Another button raises the lift, returning it to its position in front of the steering wheel.
The driver's side door is welded to the lift, so the entire mechanism slides open like a drawer, then lowers to the ground. That design feature means Kitchin's truck doesn't need any more room to park than a regular vehicle so he doesn't have to park in an extra-wide disabled space.
Kitchin thought he had something other drivers like him would want, so he decided to start a company. He called it GoShichi, which is Japanese for five and seven, nostalgic numbers from his days as an athlete.
Word of the new modification spread quickly, and orders began pouring in, even before he had a factory to produce them. Little did Kitchin know, the downturn in the economy was about to boost GoShichi to the next level.
Closed dealership becomes working factory
Enter Tom Kelley, president of Kelley Automotive Group, which owns several car dealerships in Fort Wayne.
His Saturn dealership closed when GM stopped manufacturing the line to save itself from bankruptcy. He says the news "was like a dagger to my heart." But when he heard about Steve Kitchin's ambitious new company, he offered his empty Saturn building for its factory.
"My dad's favorite line was he never did anything on his own. That everything that ever happened to him that was significant happened because people lent him a helping hand. So I just sort of thought, you know, my dad would be all over this and I said Steve, 'Go, start using the building. We'll figure it out.'"
GoShichi began production in January. It's not only filling a void for disabled drivers, it's creating new jobs. Kitchin says he currently employs 17 workers, but eventually plans to hire as many as 200.
Rather than having an assembly line where the trucks are constantly moving, GoShichi rotates its workers. This eliminates the need for expensive assembly line equipment, which keeps the cost of Kitchin's conversions similar to that of a modified minivan.
Kirk McKenzie, who was laid off from a forklift factory, says his new job with GoShichi is a better fit. "It makes you feel good at the end of the day."
A growing need
There are 10,000 new spinal cord injuries each year in the United States. Most are young men under the age of 26. Although thousands of minivans are converted for use by disabled drivers each year, most young men —disabled or not —would rather be driving anything but a minivan.
GoShichi is converting 30 trucks a month, and Kitchin hopes to double that number by the end of the year. The company is already creating a ripple effect in the local economy. Its suppliers say their businesses are starting to pick up. Kelly's truck dealership is selling more vehicles to GoShichi to be converted, and an RV manufacturer down the road is asking for help building modified campers.
Kitchin is already focusing on the future. "We're really looking forward to where all this can take us."
He has plenty of other ideas for disabled drivers. After his success with pickup trucks, he hopes to move on to the big rigs, modifying tractor-trailers to give disabled truckers a chance to go back to work.