Michael Bolger

Michael married high-tech hand controls to a vintage racer ...
And wonders what all the fuss is about. 

He tells Paul Hardiman how he did it.

Hero of last month for us was Michael Bolger, in his first speed event, the VSCC's Colerne Speed Trials.  What makes his achievement remarkable is that he was driving his newly-completed Invicta on hand controls. 

Regular readers may remember Bolger's Aston Martin Vantage Volante which he had fitted with very sensitive hand controls after complications following a road accident left him without the use of his legs.  He vowed then, back in 1996, that the next step was a vintage car.  But fitting such a control system to an older car is more difficult. 

Michael is a determined man, however, and has arrived at a very sophisticated system, which has a manual gearchange with electronically-activated clutch - a first on a vintage car.

But the hardware was only part of the story.  "First I had to get a licence," says Michael, "the first one issued to a paraplegic driver using a pre-war car in licensed competitions events.  The RAC made it clear that racing events would not be possible, but speed trials or hillclimbs might.  My medical consultant, David Grundy, head of the Spinal Injuries Treatment Centre at Salisbury Hospital Trust gave me tremendous help, and Tony Reynolds of the British Motor Sports Association for the Disabled was extremely supportive.  After tests, I got my National B licence in December 1997." 

The VSCC was very encouraging, and gave dispensation to use hand controls for clutch, accelerator and brakes.

Finding the car was the most frustrating part of the project.  "The search lasted from autumn 1996 to spring 1998.  I needed considerable low-end torque and Lagonda and Invicta, which use the robust 4½-litre Meadows engine, and Talbot and Alvis, were the most obvious options.  After travelling 5000 miles and looking at 20 cars I was fortunate to find an Invicta S-type low chassis replica built by the late Chris Browning."  The steering is reasonably light, the brakes are servoed, and, most important, the absence of running boards meant Michael could haul himself in and out.  Given the amount of engineering work that would be needed, a replica was a better starting point to avoid modifying an original car - and was cheaper.  It qualifies for VSCC events by retaining the engine, gearbox, axles, brakes and steering column of the donor Type A high chassis saloon.

Work started in earnest.  Paul Kitcher and Jo Moss did the engineering, including a partial engine rebuild, fitting extra brake servoes, installing a more usable Alvis all-synchro gearbox and generally making the car more comfortable for Michael to sit in and drive. 

Then Owen Briggs of Brig-Ayd was lined up to design and install the hand controls:  "Because he has a proven track record, particularly in the automatic clutch field, he has an intuitive empathy for cars like the Invicta, and was prepared to enter into a long-term partnership to develop the system."

Finally, on April 10, Michael was ready for his first speed event, the VSCC's season-opening 'drag race' at Colerne, Wiltshire.  Did it all work?  Sure it did.  He ran a best time of 40.62 secs on the standing-start kilometre sprint, and can't wait for more speed events.  "It was just fantastic, and we learned a lot".  I was nervous going up to the line, but when you get the green you wonder what all the fuss was about.  I wanted to show people, able-bodies as well as disabled, that it can be done - that it is possible to obtain a licence and drive competitively with hand controls in a pre-war sports car.

The original steering wheel wears a spring-loaded ring which pushes a central plunger to operate the throttle. 

Whatever the position of the wheel, the control remains in the same orientation, and Michael accelerates with the base of his thumbs while keeping his hands on the wheel.  The brake lever sits just behind the wheel on the left, to be brushed with the back of the hand, or pushed harder with the palm when stronger braking is needed.  

The gearchanging and clutch is the really clever bit, designed by Eamon O'Connor of OC Mobility and Owen Briggs.  It has sensors for road and engine speed and throttle position, and an analogue 'brain'.  You select gear, then apply throttle.  Increased pressure engages the clutch progressively via a heavy-duty electric motor operating directly on the clutch pedal via a cable - it could just as easily work the clutch arm as it protrudes from the bellhousing.  By 10mph, the clutch is fully engaged and from then the driver changes gear normally, using the button to operate the clutch.  Below 5mph the clutch is disengaged to prevent stalling, and in reverse the take-up is more gentle for more precise manoeuvring.

A further subtlety of the system is the sport mode which operates the clutch more smartly, for competition.  All of the servo equipment is hidden away in the engine compartment and could be removed from the car with no legacy of damage.  "With the groundwork completed, my hope is that increased sales will reduce the price of this system so that other disabled drivers will be able to share this experience," says Michael.  "It's impossible to describe just how satisfying it is to transfer in and out of this car on my own, and how exhilarating and rewarding it is to be able to drive it so spontaneously in all conditions."

Brig-Ayd Controls
01707 322322
OC Mobility
00353 666 4738
01608 644777