October 18, 2007

Disabled alum creates fully accessible hot rod

by Eric Welch

hotrod front

Caption 1 follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A new breed of hotrod is ready to hit the pavement and classic car shows of the Midwest, and its quadriplegic owner and designer couldn't be more proud of his baby.

Craig Wilderman, a 2004 graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale, recently finished his boyhood dream, a 1955 Chevy Carryall Suburban that he restored and modified to be handicapped accessible.

"When I was a kid, I made drawings of vehicles and wanted to be able to get inside them. It's kind of a dream come true to see the drawings turn out to be real," Wilderman said.

Those drawings have taken the form of a sleek orange and cream finish, complete with a 400 Chevy small block and a few eye-catching alterations.

Wilderman suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a form of muscular dystrophy, which requires him to use a wheelchair and has made it difficult if not impossible to get into most vehicles.

"My dad had a hot rod when I was growing up, and he used to take me out cruising all the time," said Wilderman, a native of New Harmony, Ind. "But when I got bigger, he couldn't fit me in it."

The only vehicle that could accommodate him as he became an adult was a bulky, full-sized van with a wheelchair lift on the side – not much of a match for his father's 1957 Bel Air. So when brainstorming for his own car, accessibility was as high a priority as style, which made for an anomalistic design.

"It sits on a custom frame with an air bag suspension so the rear end can go down lower for the ramp," Wilderman said. "The roof opens up too. We cut it about half way so it can hinge and make more room to get in from the back."

When fully opened, the rear end resembles orange alligator jaws, but it allows Wilderman to enter and exit his creation easily and with style.

"You have to see it," said Rick Fortman, who was Wilderman's personal assistant in college. "It's unique, and he came up with the whole thing on his own."

Fortman, who lived with Wilderman for five years, provided input into the modifications for handicapped accessibility.

"I actually got to look at it and throw a few of my ideas in," he said. "I did a lot of muscle work like lifting off doors, stripping bolts and stripping paint."

Though Wilderman is displaying his creation at car shows, it has been a long road to completion.

Wilderman, who does freelance graphic and Web site design for businesses in the New Harmony area, did the entire layout for the car with the help of his computer. His family and a few friends from college rallied behind his vision and began to look for resources and most importantly, the right car.

In March 2003, the idea became reality when Wilderman won the bidding for a 1955 Chevy Carryall Suburban on ebay.com. He decided that it was the vehicle best suited for a wheelchair occupant with its spacious interior and abundant windows. At that point, however, all he and his friends had was an antiquated, rusty vehicle that didn't run, and not much money to work with.

"Craig went out and got a lot of donations from all sorts of places," Fortman. "He went to Fatman Fabrications, and they custom made and donated the frame. He even got the engine and transmission built for free."

In addition to the satisfaction of completing his hot rod, nicknamed "Long Tall Sally," Wilderman earned a spot on Spike TV's "Powerblock" last weekend. He plans to bring Long Tall Sally back to SIUC at some point.

"I think it'd be nice to have the disabled students and maybe engineering and automotive majors see it," he said.

Rick Fortman couldn't be happier. "This has taken a long time, and I am going to be so proud of Craig," he said as excitement welled up in his voice. "That truck is his vision. All of it came from his mind, and it's his baby."

"It gives me a lot of pride to see what it's become and how it has kind of evolved," Wilderman said.

It should, considering what he has overcome to achieve his dreams. Wilderman can finally be pictured in his boyhood car drawings, cruising in his baby, Long Tall Sally.

hotrod rear

Caption two below

Caption 1: Long Tall Sally – Craig Wilderman’s creation, Long Tall Sally, is a handicapped accessible 1955 Chevy Carryall Suburban that he recently finished restoring. Wilderman, who is a quadriplegic, did all the brainstorming and design work for the hotrod.

Photo provided

Caption 2: Unique Rear End – Unlike most other 1955 Chevy Carryall Suburbans, Craig Wilderman’s car has a long wheelchair ramp in the rear. Its air bag suspension lowers the car while the roof raises to make entering in a wheelchair as easy as possible.

Photo provided