From marine styling to 4WDing, this wheelchair accessible RFW can do it all!
Expedition vehicles and five-star comforts are no longer mutually exclusive. Find out how one man conquered the off-road accessibility conundrum to pursue a passion for the outdoors from a wheelchair. Refusing to let his disability get in the way, Bill’s sheer determination and attention to detail has created the epitome of expedition vehicles.
THE OWNER: I don’t know about you, but I wake up every morning with a desire to hop in the 4WD, hook up a camper and discover somewhere new. But what if it was no longer that simple? That scenario became a reality for Bill Georgas nearly 30 years ago. Mobility is something so many of us take for granted, and often it is not until we lose it we truly begin to appreciate the locations we can so freely access. So when an aggressive spinal tumor left Bill with no option other than a wheelchair, his way of life was upended.
Determined to keep exploring and continue in the vehicle restoration and modification scene, PME Auto Conversions was born to cater to the population with physical challenges and disabilities. From a simple steering aid to a four-way joystick that allows a quadriplegic to drive from their chair, Bill can help just about anyone regain their independence through complex modifications and vehicle engineering. Based out of Hornsby, the team of 10 highly qualified staff assists people with small stature, stroke victims and various amputees as well as catering to those with bionic limbs.
In fact, they were instrumental in helping injured footballer Alex McKinnon get back behind the wheel. Spending some time with Bill, it is clear that he takes a great sense of pride in helping others regain a sense of normality. He explained, “I can relate to some of my customers on a personal level, so being able to help them achieve their goals is extremely rewarding.”
THE PLANS: As a qualified engineer and the owner of a world-class facility, you would expect Bill to have a truly one-of-a-kind vehicle. True to form, his “yacht of the land” is the last remaining RFW (Robert Frederick Whitehead) bus from the Australian Adventurer series. This expedition vehicle was not cobbled together over a few months. Revolving around practicality, accessibility and functionality, a staggering six years have disappeared into the design, rebuild and fit-out.
Once it was clear a complete restoration was in order, CAD renders and fly-through tours were completed by the in-house designer in order to properly visualise the end goal. Building upon the mental seeds planted by local Toyota Coasters, Bill often wound up daydreaming about the million dollar expedition vehicles that dominate the market in Europe and Eurasia. He notes the unique styling and tank-like appearance of the overseas examples, as well as their ability to make use of every square inch of space. “We knew we wanted to make it look tough, without going overboard … or running us a million bucks”.
With a build style nailed down, and plans on the table, a common question he received was, “why choose something that needed so much work?” Other vehicles of interest such as a Unimog, M.A.N or Isuzu didn’t have a level floor plan and weren’t very wheelchair accessible. The RFW earned another checkmark as it came with a factory automatic, a necessity for Bill. With twin lockers, airbag suspension, high ground clearance and 45-inch tyres, it can tackle a variety of terrain (it loves Stockton Beach) and an impressively low centre of gravity makes getting to those secluded campsites a breeze.
To find out more about the rust repairs, off-road capabilities and the gorgeous exterior, check out Issue #058 of Unsealed 4×4 here.
THE FIT-OUT: As the side door opens you are met with the most important modification. The wheelchair hoist took over 200 hours to manufacture in-house, and easily lifts Bill into the bus. Stepping inside, the first thing I noticed was the generous headroom and spacious dinette area. The layout has successfully separated functional day areas at the front and the living/sleeping quarters at the back, without appearing closed off. Scratch-resistant timber vinyl flooring continues throughout the vehicle, accented tastefully with stainless steel edges and handles.
The amount of storage space is incredible. Overhead compartments on both sides and several large drawers below the teak benchtop provide ample room for kitchen gadgets and utensils, as well as the TV. An oven, stovetop and griller plumb into the gas bottles underneath, with the microwave, toaster and upright Waeco fitting perfectly inside the kitchen cupboard. LED lighting with an inbuilt exhaust fan directly above evacuates any steam to prevent mould accumulation.
Behind the passenger seat, the compact washing machine handles all the laundry duties at maximum efficiency, not that you have to worry thanks to the 400 litres plus of water onboard (split between 160 litres for drinking and 280 litres for other applications). Speaking of water, the window seals are yet to let any water or dust in, an impressive feat since all the windows at this end of the bus are custom-built.
Even though the air con and vent system is top notch, clever window positioning works just as well. The central seating area and one-off, wheelchair friendly swing-out table are positioned below the two windows, taking full advantage of the cross breeze. If it gets chilly, the diesel heater and onboard hot water system can quickly warm things up. You can forget about the heat escaping through the roof and walls thanks to a generous layer of Dynamat.
There is ample light in the sleeping quarters thanks to the skylight, which doubles as roof access for any additional guests that draw the ‘short straw’ and end up in the Mongolia rooftop camper. The custom-made queen size inner-spring mattress is at a good height and within three steps of the generous bathroom. A vacuum-operated ceramic toilet fits alongside the basin and adjustable showerhead. Inside the cupboard adjacent to the bed is the house-sized electrical system.
The 500Ah system is fed by a twin alternator set-up, solar input from the roof and the option to both charge and run from a 240V source when available. If necessary, the 3000W Enerdrive inverter charger can also be powered via the 3kVa generator onboard. Satellite WiFi and Foxtel means connection is never an issue and the TVs are connected to multiple speakers throughout the bus, creating a surround-sound cinematic experience.
Once you reach your destination and need some fresh air, the passenger side awning extends to cover the various slide-out drawers that hold the fridge, barbecue and generator, creating a handy outdoor area. If all that wasn’t enough, the modified quad and carrier on the rear can unload in a matter of minutes.
VERDICT: The further you look into this build, the more pops out. There truly is not a single wasted space, which in itself is a reflection of the thorough planning and a testament to the quality of work completed by Bill and his team. While Bill would not build another one (as there isn’t another RFW like this around), he is happy to help anyone with a disability or physical challenge modify their vehicle, caravan, or motorhome so they can continue to pursue their lifestyle. We tip our hat to you Bill. You are a true gentleman and an inspiration for everyone to continue chasing their dreams.