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Van for disabled transport big project for local firms

By Nor Cal Vans Team | July 14, 2014

Todd LaPant of Transfer Flow Inc. and Ken Karasinski of Nor-Cal Vans show their new design for a handicap accessible van -- Emily Bertolino, Enterprise-Record Photographer

Two unrelated Chico manufacturers are involved in a nationwide project creating a vehicle that could redefine what transportation is for van users. Modified in Chico, the 2015 Transit Connect van manufactured by Ford has promise for many kinds of passengers — from disabled passengers and care home transportation, to hotel use and schools run around.

NorCal Vans on Nord Avenue and Transfer Flow on Fortress Avenue at the Chico Municipal Airport are among five firms nationwide involved in producing the Transit Connect, a van on which the whole back side opens upward to allow an unhindered entrance by wheelchairs. About 50 modified vans will be processed in Chico, with Nor-Cal Vans installing a modified floor assembly made by Transfer Flow.

After half a year of work, including design, engineering, crash tests and regulatory approvals, production of the kits has started, and installation starts soon.

Here's the process: Ford ships a complete van to Nor-Cal Vans. Transfer Flow manufactures a kit for modifying the vehicle and delivers it to Nor-Cal Vans for installation. The kit includes a van floor, exhaust system, brake lines, suspension and ramp parts. Transfer Flow handled the design, development and production of the kits.

After Nor-Cal Vans finishes the installation, the completed vans will be shipped off to customers or to resellers, selling to the public in the $35,000 range.

Nor-Cal and Transfer Flow have worked a number of projects together, according to Todd LaPant, director of engineering at Transfer Flow. But the promise of this vehicle and the different markets it can enter make it significant, says LaPant.

Two of three Transfer Flow robotic welders are working to assemble the floor kits, automatically welding 30 pieces into the one floor unit. With the ability to spin in 180 degrees, the one-arm welder tacks the pieces and then finishes the welding on the outside and inside.

The modified Transit Connect developed after brainstorming between five entities that make up the Mobility Alliance, which includes Nor-Cal Vans and Transfer Flow. The other members are back east.

A new design for a more stylish handicap accessible van-- Emily Bertolino, Enterprise-Record Photographer

NorCal Vans owner Ken Karasinski has been known for years for conversion of Ford vans for disabled drivers and passengers, raising the van roofs and lowering floors to make room for wheelchairs and make vehicles driveable no matter the disability.

Family-owned Transfer Flow is known for its after-market products for the truck industry, like extra gas tanks, fuel systems and bed liners. Bill and Jeannie Gaines started the company, which has been handed down to daughters CEO Lisa Johnson and CFO Laurie LaPant and their spouses. Mobility products represent about 25 percent of the company's production each year, which really focuses on manufacturing and selling about 10,000 fuel systems annually.

The discontinuance of a favored Ford chassis that Nor-Cal Vans once used put Karasinski on a hunt for another vehicle, coming up with the Transit Connect, which Ford put on the market about 2010.

An automatic-lowering bumper and a bi-fold ramp that tucks into the floor make the Chico design unusual.

The vehicle also offers great opportunity in other instances, such as for small-group use at hotels, resorts, travel organizations and elsewhere.

"We pooled our resources — about $200,000 — and are developing the next generation of mobility vehicle," said Karasinski.

From hotel shuttles and resort vehicles to paratransit vehicles, the opportunities for these smaller vehicles is large.

"There is a huge marketplace for this kind of transportation in California," said Karasinski.

LaPant views the economic impact of this project as a boon for the local economy, as well as the two companies.

Karasinski's 14 and a portion of Transfer Flow's 80 employees have been heavily involved in the project.

"This is a cross between a mini-van and a full-size Ford E-van, which is ending production. The significance is that it's an American company competing with all the foreign companies for vehicles in the handicapped industry," said LaPant.

"It's a well rounded vehicle for the general consumer, as well as commercial and taxi applications," LaPant said.

Read the full article on the Chico Enterprise Record website.

Posted in Ford Transit Connect