July 27--WINAMAC -- After some 35 years, one of Braun Corp.'s iconic vehicles is being retired.
Company representatives and employees at the 40-year-old company's Winamac hub on Wednesday honored the legacy of its Paratransit van, a Ford Econoline-based vehicle the company has modified since the late 1970s to carry passengers who use wheelchairs. Building the final Paratransit van is expected to take place in October.
It's one of the company's longest-running lines, according to company spokesmen. Over the years, Braun's Paratransit division, housed in Plant Six near the heart of the sprawling company headquarters, put out as few as 85 Paratransit vehicles in a year or as many as 1,800, according to Kevin Tredeau, commercial sales manager for North America.
"We were the only consistent paratransit builder all this time," Tredeau told about 150 employees gathered Wednesday. "And that's because of you guys."
One longtime Braun Corp. employee shared a few amusing stories from the vehicle's early days.
Allen White, now in his 40th year at Braun, worked on the earliest Paratransit vehicles for about eight years. He recalled having to fashion a custom roll cage and inside liner for the vehicle's raised roof, a process which involved using a strong roll-on glue.
The glue gave off "unbelievable" fumes, he said. "That evening, you'd have a ferocious headache. Thank God we have ventilation now," he added.
And once when he and a coworker were installing the inside foam liner using that glue, the fumes got a little too much for them. They talked as they worked on cutting and gluing in the foam, at one point discussing plans to take their families to Disney World.
They thought all was well. But when a supervisor checked on them soon after, he found they had cut large circles from the leftover foam scraps and glued them to their hats, a la Mickey Mouse.
"We were higher than kites," White recalled. The supervisor sent the pair out for a long breather, and only then did their heads clear and they realize why.
"Then we look over and see each other wearing these ears. And we go, 'what are you doing wearing that?' " White told the gathering at Plant Six.
Plenty has changed in the world of wheelchair-accessible vehicles since the Paratransit van's early days.
In 1990, just after then-President George H.W. Bush signed the Americans with Disabilities Act, the federal government started phasing in new regulations that required public transit systems to offer alternate forms of public transportation accessible to people using wheelchairs.
Demand grew steadily for accessible transit. A 2012 U.S. Government Accountability Office report found that from 2007 to 2010, the average number of paratransit trips provided annually by U.S. transit authorities increased 7 percent.
And with that demand, the Braun Corp.'s business boomed. The company sold an estimated 25,000 Paratransit vans during the life of the product line, Paratransit division manager Scott Alexander said. Those vehicles went all across the U.S., including to Alaska and Hawaii, and even made their way to Puerto Rico in fulfillment of one contract.
Longtime employee Terry Schultz, who's spent most of his 31 years at Braun in the Paratransit division, sees the vehicle regularly during trips around Indiana and visiting out-of-state relatives.
"Most places I go ... it's not unusual at all to see Paratransit chassis we've worked on," Schultz said.
It's being retired now only because its base vehicle, the Econoline cargo van, has been discontinued by Ford. That van, part of Ford's E series of vehicles, is being replaced by Ford's Transit van family that's more popular globally.
Since the Transit van also comes in models with raised roofs built in from the get-go, Braun Corp. made the decision to retire the Paratransit line and roll all that division's employees into other areas of the company.
"I think the cargo van has really served its purpose and is at the end of its lifespan," Alexander said. "The need is still there, but there's going to be different vehicles to fill that need."
Different vehicles like low-floor vans manufactured by Dodge, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda, which Braun already modifies for wheelchair accessibility. Alexander said the company has seen growing demand for that vehicle.
Still, Braun owes much of its current success building accessible vehicles to its long experience with the Paratransit van.
"There's been a lot of learning that's come from that product line that's enabled us to do minivans and other products," Alexander said.
Reach Sarah Einselen at email@example.com or 574-732-5151.
Copyright 2014 - Pharos-Tribune, Logansport, Ind.