Sports Wheelchairs in the 1980s

The impact of new designs and materials

The 1984 games at Stoke Mandeville was arguably the moment when sports wheelchairs came into their own. For years disabled athletes had struggled with heavy, one-size-fits-all machines for their sports. But by the beginning of the 1980s the combination of new designs, new light-weight materials and new technologies was starting to transform wheelchair sports.

"What have been the biggest changes to the Paralympics? Well, when I started in the 1960s you had a single chair for everything: you used the same one for getting to the games and then for competing in maybe two or three different sports. Now there is a specialised, designed chair for each activity." Terry, athlete

The earliest chairs

Photo:Sports wheelchair, 1923

Sports wheelchair, 1923

photo Royal Star and Garter

The first wheelchair sports event was probably one that took place in 1923 at the Royal Star and Garter Home in Richmond, Surrey where a group of diabled ex-servicemen competed in a 'Zig Zag obstacle race' in their rather primitive wheelchair tricycles as part of the home's annual sports day.

Some of the first patients at Stoke in the late 1940s had to use rather crude self-propelled carts. "We called them ‘Push-Pulls’; they were a low four-wheeled cart that a patient could sit themselves in and they had two levers each side which they would move backwards and forwards to propel themself along.They were just going out of use when I started at Stoke in 1948." Joan, nurse. 

The earliest wheelchairs at Stoke were known as "travaux" chairs. "They were like brown leather armchairs on wheels and apparently very comfortable, even if not very manoueverable." All sports, even netball and basketball, were done in them. Folding chairs from America - like the Dingwall - and the Everest and Jennings chairs were first introduced in the late 1940s.

"The problem with the Everest and Jennings chair was that it was ‘one-size-fits-all’; there was no consideration that people came in different sizes, heights or weights; and they were just so damn heavy to push yourself around in." Diana, patient

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Sports Wheelchairs in the 1980s' page

photo NSIC

A "Travaux" chair used for wheelchair polo at Stoke Mandeville in the late-1940s. "Look at the change in design, they have got the larger wheels at the front; they would have been much harder work and with an awkward weight distribution." Hannah, physio

"I competed at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. The memorable event for me there was the basketball final against Australia. They were a very hard team. Some of the older members were still using old-style ‘travaux’ chairs, the ones with the large wheels at the front and the smaller ones behind. They might have been ancient and heavy, but those Aussies could spin them on a sixpence; they were actually far more manoeuvrable than our Everest and Jennings chairs." Terry, athlete

Sports Wheelchairs

 "In the early 1980s British wheelchair users were lagging behind the rest of Europe. Paralympic athletes like Bo Lindqvist in Sweden and Rainer Kûschall in Switzerland were starting to develop and race in very minimal, light-weight chairs. Meanwhile we were playing catch up. At Bromakin my wife and I worked together with a cycle frame builder to develop bespoke racing chairs. We had just about caught up with the Europeans by 1984. There always was a lot of cycle technology informing our designs. We started off using Reynolds 531 tubing as you would for a racing bike – and we have continued to adapt new cycling materials and innovations into our designs: the use of aluminium and, to a lesser extent, titanium and carbon fibre in frame construction and the use of disc wheels and tubular tyres."    Peter, wheelchair designer 

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Sports Wheelchairs in the 1980s' page

photo Paul Cartwright

"I used to photograph other European athletes' racing wheelchairs at international competitions in ther early 1980s. This one was designed and used by Bo Lindqvist, a Swedish athlete. I then used the photos to help design my own sports chair with Bromakin." Paul, athlete

 "When I started there were still a lot of athletes competing in ordinary wheelchairs – heavy frame, thick tyres, one-size-fits-all - they simply didn’t have the equipment to succeed. My first chair was an Everest and Jennings which wasn’t great, but at least it had 24” wheels compared to most chairs with 22” wheels, so that gave me a bit of an advantage with more top end speed because of that  larger diameter." Paul, athlete

Photo:Paul Cartwright testing his bespoke Bromakin chair in 1984. Its designer, Peter Caruthers, is racing behind him."

Paul Cartwright testing his bespoke Bromakin chair in 1984. Its designer, Peter Caruthers, is racing behind him."

photo Paul Cartwright

"In wheel chair racing every little thing like that counts. Then I got a Hoffmeister German sports wheelchair. It was a bit of a half-way house design. It was a standard frame size but you could sort of adapt it to your own spec. It came with a really long frame, so I had to get a friend of mine to cut it down and re-weld it for me so it fitted. But by the time I got the Hoffmeister it was already old technology. German and US athletes had been using it back in 1980  but  sports wheelchair designs were changing fast. For 1984 I had a Loughborough firm called Bromakin Wheelchairs design me a light-weight sports chair. I am a big, broad guy and I wanted something to try and cut down on my wind resistance, so I asked them to come up with a tapered front end. And mine was the first wheel chair  to have an 11 mm racing tyre. It was the narrowest tyre at the time; it was so thin that they were worried it would cut up the track." Paul, athlete

 

Rainer Küschall: a European Designer

"At that time [in the late 1970s] you couldn’t adjust the setting of  a wheelchair. But I developed this metal block for the rear axle, about 3” x 5”, that was drilled with 9 to 12 holes. It was welded onto the frame edge where the old axle was fixed and then re-chromed.  This allowed you to raise or lower the height of the chair and change the position of the back wheels, forward or back. I called it the ‘Varioblock’ and I was the first person in the world to enable these changes to the axle position."

Photo:The Varioblock allowed the wheelbase and height of a chair to be adjusted; it was the end of the "one-size-fits-all" wheelchair.

The Varioblock allowed the wheelbase and height of a chair to be adjusted; it was the end of the "one-size-fits-all" wheelchair.

photo Rainer Küschall

"I found a garage mechanic who wanted to do some extra work in the evenings and we would work like idiots all night, modifying existing wheel chairs. People were amazed and my disabled friends began asking me to customise their chairs. I started off doing things like cutting down the cross members and adjusting the chair,  chopping bits out from the top crossbars  which then shortened the top cross and produced  a negative wheel camber."

Photo:Rainer Küschall with his first large commercial order for 27 wheelchairs, awaiting delivery to Kuwait from his living room, ca 1980

Rainer Küschall with his first large commercial order for 27 wheelchairs, awaiting delivery to Kuwait from his living room, ca 1980

photo Rainer Küschall

"Once I had made a few chairs for friends then orders started coming in. I began by ordering spare parts from Everest and Jennings in England and adapting those. They understood what I was doing and sent me pre-chromed parts so I didn’t have to waste time by removing the chrome, doing the work and then re-chroming or painting it. But then after a while their rep. came to see me and he said, “We have noticed that we are not selling so many of our chairs in Switzerland since you started buying our spare parts”. I think he had seen one of my chairs using their components. So he said, “We can’t deliver to you anymore because you are now starting to be our competitor." Rainer Küschall

Running Repairs

At the 1984 Stoke Mandeville Games the organisers had to come to terms with this sea-change in the use of sports wheelchairs. Not only were the various national teams coming with much larger numbers of chairs, there were also expectations about being able to get them repaired and serviced. Wheelchair repairs - which had previously been a bit of a local cottage industry - quickly developed into something a lot bigger and more professsional. 

"We had real problems with the sheer number of sports wheelchairs in 1984. We started off with just two Aylesbury firms, Rowse & Sadler and Gerald Symonds, in tents doing on the spot repairs, mending punctures, making adjustments and so on. By the end we had about a dozen manufacturers from all over the world, not just repairing but also displaying and selling their new chairs. It was the perfect market place." Rob, games organiser

Photo:wheelchair repair tents, 1984

wheelchair repair tents, 1984

photo R King

"Back in the 1970s people arrived at the International Games at Stoke Mandeville in the same chair that they would then go on to compete in; there were no ‘sports’ wheel chairs as such.  But by 1984 that had changed. Each competitor was bringing one or more sports chair in addition to the one that they arrived in." Keith, games organiser

"Basketball wheel chairs have changed hugely over the last 40 years, but some of the biggest changes coincided with the 84 games at Stoke Mandeville. Gerald Symonds was one of the Aylesbury-based wheelchair manufacturers. He was married to a Swedish physiotherapist, and that year he was selling these new Swede Elite sports chairs. He introduced them for the 84 games and he had that many orders that he sold out in no time. 1984 was the first big shop-window for chair manufacturers. The Elite was a very unusual chairs then: very light, sturdy and uncomplicated, nice to look at (the sort of chair you wouldn’t feel embarrassed to go disco-dancing in). But most of all they were just so light compared to everything else we had used before. We hadn’t had anything of that quality; we had had to make do with heavy, chrome Ministry of Health chairs." Terry, athlete

Photo:The Küschall Sprint chair, one of the new generation of sports chairs on display and in use at Stoke Mandeville in 1984

The Küschall Sprint chair, one of the new generation of sports chairs on display and in use at Stoke Mandeville in 1984

photo Rainer Küschall

From four wheels to three

The biggest change in sports racing wheelchair design came after the Seoul Paralympics. Prior to 1988 the rules around wheel chair racing were quite restrictive in terms of what sort of machine you could use. Today those chairs with no steering, four wheels and use of castors seem very unsophisticated, . It was Bob Hall, US marathon racer, who designed the first effective and stable three wheeled chair; his design was quickly copied by other athletes.

Photo:A Bromakin chair in 1990. After the 1988 Seoul games the changes to the rules transformed sports chair design.

A Bromakin chair in 1990. After the 1988 Seoul games the changes to the rules transformed sports chair design.

photo Bromakin Ltd.

Wheelchairs today

"Nowadays there is much more of a sense of ergonomics and design in everyday chairs. Lighter weight metals and materials, bespoke sizing or adjustable frames, better quality wheel design with less spokes and better bearings: all these changes have come about out of sports chair design for the Paralympics... Chairs now come in every conceivable colour of the rainbow and people even get personal paint jobs to match their interests or favourite football teams. When I go down to watch Leeds United play there are other lads down there with their chairs in the Leeds' colours." Paul, athlete

"There has been a knock on benefit for ordinary wheel chair users. Much of this has come out of the design for basketball chairs which are not a whole lot different from an everyday chair. Both need to be strong and manoeuvrable; you just adjust the wheel camber and change the footrest. Basketball was the default US sport and it was the American Quadra chair and later the Quickie chair that led the way."  Peter, wheelchair designer

Rainer Küschall and Peter Caruthers

Rainer Küschall came to Stoke Mandeville from Switzerland for treatment in 1964. He went on to found his own company designing and manufacturing wheel chairs. He competed in Olympic games between 1968 and 1992 in table tennis and then racing at all distances up to marathon.

Peter Caruthers was a wheelchair racer who went on to set up Bromakin, a UK company designing and manufacturing sports wheelchairs.

Read the full interviews with Rainer and Peter below. These documents open in a separate window.

Downloads

Rainer1.pdf (226k)

Peter1.pdf (178k)

This page was added on 27/05/2011.

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