Modified Minivan Manufacturing: Vantage Mobility International (VMI) Factory Tour

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Do you have a friend or family member who uses a wheelchair?  Having been a part of the broader automotive community for over 20 years and in the Phoenix region specifically for over 10, I was surprised to learn recently that one local Arizona company is an industry leader in mobility for folks with disabilities.  It’s a place called Vantage Mobility International (VMI).

Ever since the original Chrysler minivan debuted in 1987 – and even a bit prior – the founders of VMI have tasked themselves with customizing vehicles to make them wheelchair friendly.  The WAV, or Wheelchair Accessible Vehicle, industry has since become a large and important part of the automotive world that I hadn’t ever really thought about until I visiting VMI.  It’s estimated that there are around 30,000 new WAVs sold across the nation each year, from a variety of manufacturers.

Organization leaders and public relations representatives from VMI took me and a handful of other members of the Phoenix Automotive Press Association (PAPA) on a guided tour of the facility in Phoenix.  Our guide through the manufacturing & assembly line areas was named Brian, and he introduced us to the step-by-step process by which a new minivan – straight from Toyota, Chrysler, or Honda, usually – goes through a complete transformation.

Safety first!  Fluorescent vests & goggles – check.

What starts as a cookie-cutter family hauler gets stripped down to basically just a shell.  The floor is lowered 10″ or more via installation of a new frame.  Precision welds are made where the doors are extended, the ramp is installed, and the engine is dropped so that the vehicle’s center of gravity and sense of balance still remains largely the same.  It takes about 2.5 days from start to finish for the conversion to take place and there are about 200 colleagues making it all happen.

Because of the vast number of unique needs that WAV customers have, the vehicles themselves are also heavily customizable.  Some vans even have the ability to “kneel,” like city buses, to lower the angle of the ramp and make for easier ride-up.  There are features available like an integrated remote for quick stow / deploy conversion functionality, power sliding doors, flexible seating configurations, and rust-mitigation coatings on all steel components.  A van that’s intended to be driven by a caregiver, for example, will need to be set up differently than one that will be operated by someone who is in a wheelchair.

One of the great things about VMI’s customization work is that any factory warranties on the vehicles from the manufacturer still apply.  VMI has such a great relationship with the automakers, in fact, that its engineers are invited to take part in the design discussions when new models are undergoing development.  VMI’s Phoenix facility distributes its vans to dealerships only, but its Atlanta operation sells converted vans directly to end users.

The leadership & executive teams at VMI are all mostly new to the organization – within about the last 3 years – and they are all passionate about what they do.  There is a huge opportunity and a need to enable the great numbers of people around the country who have mobility challenges.  The more the VMI team can do to make readily-available solutions for those needs, the happier they’ll be.  I greatly appreciated the chance to have a look around the facility!

13 Responses to “Modified Minivan Manufacturing: Vantage Mobility International (VMI) Factory Tour”

  1. There’s a big Braun distributor here. Interesting to see that end of it!

    • Get over there and scope it out! Kind of cool to get a behind-the-scenes look at a factory operation. Everything in there is timed out to the minute. When the clock struck 11:30, the workers scattered immediately for lunch break! My day is not nearly that rigid.

  2. I really enjoyed this write-up, Tyson! It was cool to see the behind-the-scenes of these conversions. With that much welding and changes to the metal, it was interesting that the company proactively does rust mitigation (a major concern in this part of the country). Did they say anything about if they have to do any work to maintain crash-worthiness in the event of an accident?

    Great post!!

    • Yes safety is a big focus – that’s one of the reasons I guess why they have to lower the engine just slightly so that the impact characteristics that the vehicle was designed with can still operate as designed. I am not sure what all goes into the certification process, but VMI did tell us that they are an “authorized / official” Toyota partner – as in, fully backed by the manufacturer for all the work that they do. I am not sure about the other automakers.

  3. Chris Miller Says:

    Toyota should send them the shell with seats and carpets already detached. Would save them a few hours labor in tear down.

    • I was actually thinking the same thing. Why don’t the automakers make more effort to make this easier for VMI? And I guess the reality is that 30,000 units across the WAV industry per year doesn’t justify making any changes to the production line / process for any minivan. Toyota sold 6,172 Siennas in Aug 2019.

  4. A really interesting post Tyson. I have to say I hadn’t appreciated the amount of work that goes into these conversions.
    I find it fascinating that they are partners with the manufacturers and are even invited into the design discussions for new vehicles – cool stuff.

    • Agreed, it was a night insightful look at the effort that goes into these conversions. The only aspect of the tour that I didn’t have time for (and maybe I’ll go back for) is a test-drive! I would like to see how one of the modified vans handles compared to an original one. Have a good rest of your week!

  5. Nice read! This was a fun tour to walk-thru. I would like to see some day what its like to drive with hand controls.

    • Totally, same here. If my hand-eye coordination is as bad as I think it is (speaking from video-game experience here), I better start by practicing in a very large and empty parking lot.

  6. I thought you were standing there with Eric the Car Guy at first. 😀

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