Sunday night, another episode of Top Gear aired, as the British Series is in the midst of its 18th Series (as the Brits call it). I wouldn’t normally make a deal of this on the blog, as my love for the show is well-known (see Arthur’s ring tone for me). Tonight was something unique, though, that had Shannon and I rolling with laughter on the couch. A Top Gear challenge to make a cheap powered off-road wheelchair. Perfect! I know what I want for my birthday!

Wait, you don’t know what Top Gear is? You’ve never caught an episode on BBC Canada? No, not the crappy Top Gear shown on Discovery with the copycat and rather boring American hosts. I’m talking about the original Top Gear with the three Brit Blokes that we all keep wondering “how the hell do they get away with doing all this malarkey?” Well that and just what country can they offend this week…from Mexicans, to Germans, to their disastrous and somewhat embarrassing Indian trade mission. It’s a completely politically incorrect and most often hilarious show that seems to ostensibly be about cars…but not really. It’s really a show about three middle age blokes who happen to love cars of all types and their insane bits of “cocking about”.

Stop it! Cocking about is a legit term for the Brits and it’s not what you think! Clean thoughts here!

So what made this episode so special? Well as the headline says…off-road wheelchairs!

You see quite a common theme on the show is the Top Gear Challenge, where the producers challenge the hosts to do something incredibly silly that invariably leads one to say, “How hard could it be?” That can be anything from find the best driving road in Europe to building amphibious vehicles (a fave of Shannon’s) to building their own version of an electric car. Almost always these end in utter disaster and ruin (well,  not the finding the best road in Europe, that was a fantastic episode in really expensive super cars but…that’s a rare success). This week’s challenge had to do with wheelchairs. It started with Jeremy Clarkson, the overly bombastic right-wing speaking before he thinks host, going on about the insane cost of over the counter scooters and such that are currently available. He has a special interest in Britain’s injured war vets, so he wasn’t just thinking about little old ladies tooling about in a coffee shop.

I won’t bore with the details of the whole thing, you really have to see it when it comes out on BBC Canada in a few weeks. It did bring up some great things though that had Shannon and I both laughing and considering. You see, in Britain, the average off-road powered wheelchair or scooter runs about 7,000 British pounds (no not weight!). So think of that in Canadian terms and you get an idea of the cost. Such things would generally not be covered by any government plan, as they are generally speaking not needed for everyday life.

But I want one! However, in looking at the stuff most places sell? I don’t want those. There are some VERY cool ideas for off road chair out there, mostly powered…let’s be honest trying to mountain ride with your arms only would be damn tough, though possible. There are manual chairs for off-roading out there, but powered is needed for the serious off-roading. This is something that has been on our minds for a while and came up recently when Shan went to a spa with some girlfriends up north. It was gorgeous from what I hear and once would have made it instantly into a list for us to go hiking (Shan never really liked biking much…not after the infamous Kelso ride her brother and I inflicted on she and our eventual sister in law….oy!). Unfortunately, hiking isn’t really in the cards right now, and with just having got the final wheelchair for every day use, getting something custom and powered to let us do that is a long ways off. Now this isn’t some cry me a river post (those may come later mind you), it’s more just some thoughts that came from that Top Gear episode. I never thought I’d hear the trio actually give some real consumer advice, but what they had to say made a lot of sense.

Right now wheelchairs are made and designed by smaller companies in general. This gives certain advantages in the specialization of them, and I’m talking both powered and manual. The companies that make these tools for those of us who are disabled (and no I refuse to call it something more PC, it is what it is and there is nothing wrong with that) are able to concentrate on the specific needs that their products server, but there is a downside to it. Cost and flexibility. While we were looking at chairs, I was lucky that Shoppers let me try out four different styles of chairs, wheels, cushions and backrests, all from different makers and sources, but there wasn’t anything to really let me get some kind of clearinghouse style why of seeing what the differences really were. What the advantages were and what they were designed for. The flexibility that let’s them make a chair for your specific size, doesn’t allow them to really tell you what makes it RIGHT for you.

The other issue is cost….these things are bloody expensive! There are many reasons for that, but a big part of it is the small size of the companies that make them and that they can’t be mass-produced. Well ok, the GOOD stuff can’t be mass-produced. Don’t get me started on the heavy ass folding rental chairs you see all over the place.

Top Gear being a car show made an interesting point, one that I will admit has a lot of problems to it but is interesting none the less. What if the car companies got involved, particularly on the powered side? What if instead of making seat cushions and jackets and watches and perfumes, BMW put its engineering expertise into making a proper mobile device for the disabled? Yes yes I know BMW isn’t exactly the best example if I am looking to reduce cost but…think about the potential. It would take a while for them to get it right and get past their own car-based biases….but give it time and give their ability to manufacture and any of the big companies could take a real stab at it.

I am not maligning companies like Quickie who make my own chair, but they have their limitations (they REALLY need to work on the marketing materials). Given the growing numbers of people who need these devices, be they walkers, wheelchairs, scooters, or something for off-road and recreational use, there needs to be more there that can be cost-effective and bloody useful.

One thing the Top Gear lads proved…you can’t just bodge it together in your back shed.

And yes, when I find more cool devices I’ll be adding them to my “That’s so cool I WANT IT!” wish list. You can bet on that.

Random Rant complete.