Understanding Ford Wheelchair Vans Mini & Full Size

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Ford is one of the most well-known and venerable auto manufacturers. From Henry Ford’s once ubiquitous Model T to the new Fusion Hybrid, Ford has been at the forefront of automotive innovation for a century.

The Detroit automaker has created and sold almost every kind of vehicle over the years. Ford has created heavy construction machinery, military vehicles, muscle cars, sports cars, trucks of all sorts and hundreds of passenger sedans. It has also created vehicles that have become popular targets for conversion as wheelchair vehicles.

Ford’s minivan, the Windstar, was a popular wheelchair van option for years until Ford discontinued the line a few years after renaming it the Freestar. Full-sized Ford E-Series vans, whose lineage traces back to the first Econoline vans of the 1960s are another popular wheelchair van option.

The Windstar and Freestar

ford windstar 2003In 1986, Ford introduced its first minivan, the Aerostar. Minivans were a new class of vehicle, introduced by Dodge only a few years before. The Aerostar was a rear-wheel drive minivan that received a mixed reception from critics and consumers. The new class was remarkably popular and the Ford name was sufficiently respected. Those two factors combined to encourage enough sales to justify continuation of the line through 1997.

For a few years, after it discontinued the rear-wheel drive Aerostar, Ford offered two minivans. That happened after the introduction of the Windstar in 1995. The new and improved front-wheel drive minivan shared lot space with the recognized Aerostar until 1997, when Ford opted to discontinue its dated front-wheel drive vehicle.

The Windstar offered a nice range of safety features and a powerful V6 engine, among other features. It sold well, despite some engine and transaxle reliability issues. Ford continued to update and improve the vehicle with each passing year.

In 2004, Ford stopped making the Windstar. More accurately, they stopped selling a minivan called the Windstar. The company’s marketing division decided to begin renaming various vehicles to start with the letter F and the Windstar become the Freestar. Ford continued to offer the Freestar through the 2007 model year. At that point, Ford decided to abandon the minivan class, promoting its Flex crossover as an alternative.

Ford Windstars and Freestars were a relatively popular wheelchair van conversion option and many of them remain on the road today. Their numbers are in decline, however. Improvements in the class and the fact that the average wheelchair van has a lifespan of ten years are making these vehicles less common than they once were.

Rear Entry Options

ford freestar 2005 rear entryFord minivans were converted for use as either a rear-entry or a side-entry wheelchair van. Rear-entry models were less common than side-entry variations. These Windstars and Freestars use either an external lift or a foldout ramp to provide access to the vehicle through back, under the liftgate.

Some rear-entry options provide wheelchair users with unfettered access to the whole of the vehicle, allowing the wheelchair user to drive the minivan. Others were designed to serve exclusively as a means of transporting the wheelchair user. Some designs were termed wheelchair vans even though they actually offered little more than specialized rear storage for mobility aids.

Side Entry Access

ford freestar 2004 wheelchair vanSide-entry Windstars and Freestars were much more popular than rear-entry options. These vehicles use a ramp to provide access to the minivan. The Ford minivans were too small to support a side lift configuration, as are virtually all other minivans. The amount of space required for these units is better suited for full-sized vans.

The side-entry conversion process usually involved dropping the floor of the vehicle to increase interior clearance and to make access easier. Many Ford minivans were also equipped with auto kneel systems. This allowed the minivans to drop lower to the ground while at a stop, making it easier (and safer) for the van user to exit and enter the minivan.

Ford Wheelchair Ramp Options

ford windstar 2002 side rampA variety of wheelchair and scooter ramps were used. Manual options, spring-assisted ramps and fully automatic foldout ramps all found their way into Fords. The automatic ramps are the most popular option, as they require nothing more than the push of a button to initiate deployment or retraction. The installation of automatic sliding doors rounds out the list of key conversions for the Ford minivans. This made it possible for a wheelchair user to open and close the sliding side doors with the push of a single button.

Other modifications to the minivans ranged from the installation of hand controls to the use of tie downs to secure wheelchairs once they found their way into the vehicle. The Ford Windstar and Freestar demonstrated themselves to be quite amenable to almost every significant adaptation. That’s one reason why one can still spot them in current use, years after the cessation in production.

The E-Series

In 1961, Ford introduced its first Econoline van, which was built on a Ford Falcon chassis. The Econoline series (late shortened to E-Series) has been a mainstay of the automaker ever since.

ford e250 2005 full size wheelchair vanMost E-Series vans are sold for commercial applications or as fleet vehicles. Ford tried to revive interest in full-sized passenger vans in with the Traveler badged E-150, but quickly abandoned the experiment, realizing that minivans and SUVs were going to continue their domination in that niche. Today over 95% of E-Series vans are sold for commercial or fleet purposes. Only 5% are sold to people who plan to use them as passenger vehicles. That may seem like a small number until one realizes how many E-150s and E-350s Ford sells. They dominate the US full-sized van market.

Many of the E-Series vans that are purchased as passenger vehicles are converted for use as wheelchair vans. The eight-passenger E-150 is the most popular conversion, followed by the twelve- and fifteen-passenger E-350 variations. At one point, Ford also offered an E-250 variation, but that is no longer part of the company’s current vehicle roster.

Those who do use E-Series vans as wheelchair vehicles are able to create a sturdy, spacious and comfortable finished product. Conversion manufacturers install popular wheelchair lifts like Braun’s Vangator and fully automatic Ricon lifts and can even arrange them on dual entry lift platforms. Power side door operation with remote entry is a popular conversion, as is a full-cut lowered floor and quick release driver and passenger seats.

Minivans may dominate the wheelchair van market right now, but the Ford E-Series vehicles provide a credible alternative for those who need more space and features in a wheelchair van.

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