Startracks Custom Lifts founder Bob Helvie built his business around the belief that everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the RV lifestyle.
By Pamela Selbert
Since 1988, Bob Helvie, founder and owner of Startracks Custom Lifts in Elkhart, Indiana, has built devices designed to make life easier for the physically challenged. The work, he said, “began humbly, a seat-of-the-pants production, when I designed a travel trailer with a lift.” He had noticed how popular conversion vans had become, but he said there was nothing out there for RVers with disabilities.
In 1995 he decided to introduce his lift device at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in Atlanta, Georgia, an event similar to the Olympics but for disabled veterans. While traveling to Georgia, he stopped at Handicapped Driver Services Inc. in Marietta, Georgia, for maintenance on the lift. There, owner Michael Dresdner, who deals in equipping smaller vehicles with mobility equipment, but not RVs, promptly asked Mr. Helvie to wait, as he knew a couple who would like to speak with him right away.
“It turned out the wife was in a wheelchair and they’d been looking, seemingly in vain, for a trailer with a lift,” Mr. Helvie said. “When they saw what I had built, she started to cry “” and called me an “˜imagineer.'”
Thus began a new career for Bob Helvie, who likes being referred to as imagineer (a designer/engineer with an imagination), although his interest in lifts actually began 30 years ago when he worked as a supplier for American Hoist & Derrick in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He became fascinated with lift mechanisms and realized there was a virtually untapped market for them “” folks who wanted to travel by RV but were prevented from doing so by their physical challenge.
Today Mr. Helvie’s creations include power seat lifts to provide individuals “” not necessarily those in wheelchairs, but anyone unable to climb stairs “” with easy entry into their coaches. The relatively simple lifts are made of steel and installed just inside an RV’s entry door. The lift includes a steel seat fastened to a carrier arm with an articulating hinge.
The lifts are powered by a 12-volt-DC motor attached to a hydraulic cylinder and operated by a wireless remote system, much like the type used to lock and unlock car doors. When being used, the lift slowly carries the individual from comfortable chair level at the ground (usually about 22 inches) to the top step of the coach. Next, the seat is turned (by someone standing outside the coach) and swung inside. The seat then can be detached from the unit and stored inside the coach or in a cargo bay, while the carrier arm is lowered into the stairwell for travel (the closed stair cover completely hides it).
The lift measures 9 inches wide, 4 inches deep, and 72 inches high and requires little space to install. It also takes just a short amount of time to build “” approximately two and a half weeks “” and only two days to install. But the value of the equipment to those who need it can’t be computed, Mr. Helvie said.
Startracks also builds power running boards for vans, pickup trucks, and SUVs that move up and down to make getting in and out of vehicles less of a challenge for physically challenged drivers or passengers. The company also builds an apparatus called a “suitcase lift.” This device is similar to the Hoyer lifts used in hospitals, which include a steel frame and mesh sling.
The three- or four-part suitcase lift requires no tools for installation, is easily assembled and dismantled, and is carried in a large, relatively lightweight suitcase with wheels and a telescoping handle. The apparatus can be used by those who don’t have a specially outfitted vehicle but occasionally need to transport a physically challenged person weighing up to 200 pounds. Mr. Helvie also distributes, though doesn’t make, similar Genesis lifts for moving individuals who weigh up to 400 pounds.
Mr. Helvie’s creativity extends further to assist individuals in wheelchairs once they’re inside the coach. This is accomplished by modifying showers to enable the wheelchair to roll in, which involves lowering the shower floor and relocating the trap under the floor; altering the toilet area to accommodate a shower commode chair; and remodeling kitchen cabinets to make room for the wheelchair.
Mr. Helvie, 68, joked that he “lies awake nights” thinking up new products to assist the physically challenged, or devising ways to improve existing products. He said that the work is rewarding, but the biggest thrills he gets are from the smiles and words of gratitude from customers. He is eager to share several of their heartfelt testimonials.
There was Carmen from Florida, a motorhomer with muscular dystrophy, who called wanting information about the Startracks lifts. Unable to negotiate the stairs, she had been severely limited in her ability to leave her coach for eight weeks. “But once she had a lift installed and was able to get her feet on the ground, she gave me a delighted thumbs-up,” he said. “Her first words were, “˜Now I can go to Walmart!'”
Then there was Harold from Minnesota, a motorhomer with Parkinson’s disease who could barely speak, let alone climb stairs. But his wife had a lift installed and Mr. Helvie showed her how to work it. “Harold had to be helped just to get on the seat,” Mr. Helvie said. “But then, even though he could hardly talk, he smiled and said, “˜Boy, this is slick!'”
Another testimonial came from Kay, a customer from Phoenix, who with her husband had driven their new coach the several thousand miles to Elkhart so she could be measured for a lift. They returned to the West Coast for a cruise to Alaska (while the lift was being built) and then traveled back to Indiana for the installation. Kay could get out of the motorhome with crutches and the assistance of her husband, but the seat lift made it much easier for her to enter and exit the coach. She was so grateful for the lift that she “insisted on giving me a hug,” Mr. Helvie said, smiling.
On my recent visit to Startracks, Mr. Helvie had a slightly different project in the works. Generally, he said, lifts are installed at the front of the coach at the entry door. But for this particular job, the company was installing a wheelchair lift that would be located behind the passenger seat.
A 46-inch opening was cut in the side of the coach (cabinets inside had been removed, but would be replaced after the lift’s installation) and a 44¾-inch-wide gull-wing door topped with a piano hinge was used. The door frame was fabricated with 1/8-inch-thick aluminum tubing, and a new jamb was added.
In this case, pushing a button on a handheld remote raised the door, while another button brought the lift platform down to the ground. Mr. Helvie explained that the woman could then roll her scooter onto the platform and be lifted to the floor of her coach.
Mr. Helvie noted that a front-door lift (including the 1/4-inch-by-9-inch steel plate used to fasten the device to the wall) adds only about 200 pounds to the coach, whereas a side-access lift will increase the coach weight by 500 or 600 pounds. When a lift is installed on a motorhome that is being custom-built by a manufacturer, the weight of the lift is reported to the coach builder and can be included in the vehicle specifications. On older motorhomes that are being retrofitted with a lift, the owner needs to consider the additional weight when loading the motorhome.
Customers may choose from a variety of treatments to camouflage their lift. According to Mr. Helvie, most folks select powder-coat paint, though cabinets, which may be “paper wrapped,” “dipped,” or made of real wood “” cherry or maple “” are also available.
A basic lift costs $10,000 and with upgrades can run to $12,000. There’s also a $1,000 to $1,500 charge for side-entry installation, and a $1,500 to $2,000 charge for a front-entry installation, which Mr. Helvie said involves more work. Buyers who choose a wood cabinet can expect to pay approximately $2,000 more, depending on the price of the wood. (Startracks does not make the wood cabinets, but has the work done by a local firm.)
The power running boards “” which at 10 inches wide are 3½ inches wider than a standard running board “” cost approximately $7,000, although Mr. Helvie said General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler offer a $1,000 rebate. Suitcase lifts cost approximately $3,500.
As with the seated and wheelchair lifts, the running board and suitcase lifts are fabricated by a half-dozen employees at Startracks’ shop. When I visited, fabricator/installer Juan Baez and his son, steel cutter/welder Oscar Baez, electrician Seth Esselstrom, and machinist Delbert Surfus were on hand, sparks flying as they worked. Mr. Helvie noted that for the past six years Steffan Kaemper of Sweden, while not a Startracks employee, has been the “outside” engineer for the firm.
When asked how many lifts the company has built, Mr. Helvie laughed and said “lots.” He guesses that there is always going to be the need for lifts, and added that he is always trying to make them better and easier to use. “I learn by doing,” he said.
“Our job is to make a product that looks good and works good,” he said. “Our heart is in this.”
Startracks Custom Lifts, 4315 Wyland Drive, Elkhart, IN 46516-9501; (574) 596-5331; www.startrackslifts.com.