Cars banned in NZ, but okay in France

By Monica Holt

Barry Surtees says the modified car was legally certified and he should be able to use it. Photo / Dean Purcell
Barry Surtees says the modified car was legally certified and he should be able to use it. Photo / Dean Purcell

A New Zealand manufacturer who adapts cars for wheelchair users says he has been forced to go overseas after officials here banned his design.

Roger Philips of U Drive Mobility has been embroiled in a dispute with the NZ Transport Agency after it revoked warrants of fitness for the vehicles.

He had sold nine to wheelchair users in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Invercargill, for between $85,000 and $100,000.

His company - based in a workshop in Waiuku - guts the inside of Skoda Yetis and replaces the steel floors with an aluminium honeycomb composite. Wheelchair users can drive straight into the front seat from the boot via a ramp.

But the NZTA recalled the cars after deciding the material did not meet minimum load-bearing and other safety standards.

The cars are now to be made in France. A press release from the local authority in Aquitaine, in the southwest, shows a firm called ACA has been given a 393,000 ($619,000) grant to develop them in the Medoc district.

ACA is the French distributor for Mr Philips' company UDM (EU).

The French Government supports industries creating employment in the "Silver Economy" - opportunities created by an ageing population.

The company wants to go into partnership with European car makers through its "Made in Medoc" project and, starting next year, hopes to transform 20 to 30 vehicles a month, the release says.

"They [the NZTA] have driven us offshore," Mr Philips said.

"We are now in a situation where the French Government is supporting us and the New Zealand Government is shooting us in the foot."

Mr Philips has two staff in his workshop making the aluminium flooring kitsets and sending them to France for installation. He says he had to let three of his five staff go after the cars were recalled.

"Unless we get the New Zealand market returned to us to export to the Australian market there is no point in us functioning here.

"We are on the wrong side of the world for our market."

The Transport Agency says the cars remain unfit to be on the road until further modifications are made.

The cars passed the first stage of the certification process with the Low Volume Vehicle Technical Association (LVVTA) which deals in approvals for the NTZA. But after complaints and a peer review of the certification process, the warrants of fitness were revoked. NZTA operations support manager Mark Kinvig said there were still serious safety concerns with the aluminium composite floor and the design of the independent rear suspension. Until these issues were resolved the cars would remain off the road.

"The removal of the original floor weakens the overall structure of the vehicle ... this significant modification may also affect safety features such as seatbelt anchorages and air bags."

Mr Philips said the material he used was common in Europe.

Safety ruling means tetraplegic can't drive $90,000 vehicle

When Barry Surtees retired two years ago, he found his dream car while searching the internet.

The 64-year-old Aucklander could just afford the $90,000 modified Skoda Yeti, allowing him to get his wheelchair up a ramp and straight to the steering wheel.

"It was excellent," Mr Surtees said.

"As far as vehicles go it was absolutely brilliant."

The tetraplegic has lost strength in his upper body and can no longer lift himself into his wife's vehicle.

So the car, modified by U Drive Mobility, was a perfect mobility option after his early retirement on medical grounds from his information systems job at Datacom.

"I had found a situation where life had been made easy," he said.

"Things were nice and flexible; you could go where you wanted, when you wanted to."

That all came to an abrupt end last December when the NZ Transport Agency revoked the car's warrant of fitness.

"It was like my legs had been chopped off again."

Mr Surtees broke his neck in a construction site fall in Western Australia in 1969 when he was 18.

Now his only means of transport are catching the train from the Papatoetoe railway station or ordering a mobility taxi.

"If I want to go shopping with my wife, I will catch the train and she will drive the car to Manukau. We will meet there, do our shopping, then she will drive home and I have to catch the train."

He is disappointed he can't catch the ferry and visit his brother on Waiheke Island.

"As far as I am concerned the car was legally certified, and I should be able to drive it.

"It has given me a realisation of what the people in Christchurch feel trying to sort out all of their problems. It just goes on and on."

- NZ Herald

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