Every detail was personalized and agonized over.

The deep, green paint on the truck was mixed at least twice to get the right color. Part of the engine is painted red; so are the rims.

Two doors in the back slowly swing open and the bumper folds down, operated by a key fob. A lift comes out, allowing the owner, who uses a wheelchair, to get in and drive his antique truck.

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Neat block lettering bearing the words “Air Express Division and Railway Express Agency” were hand-painted. Stencils or pre-made lettering wouldn’t do for Dan Distler’s truck that is the epitome of his hobby.

For four years, Distler, 57, of Greenwood, and friend Ken Tomey worked on restoring an antique 1960 Ford F-100 panel truck. Much of the work done was making the truck accessible for Distler, who is unable to walk.

Showing antique cars has been a part of most of Distler’s life. The added portions that make it possible for Distler to get in and drive the truck have been new in the past 10 years, since he started using a wheelchair.

In 2005 he broke his leg. Other broken bones followed, the result of a disease he didn’t know he had, he said.

For three and a half years, Distler struggled with falls, broken bones and misdiagnoses on the cause.

He was finally diagnosed with chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy, a nerve disease that is similar to multiple sclerosis, he said.

The disease robbed him of use of his legs. The disease could have robbed him of his hobby.

He and his father, Allen, and his brothers have spent decades in their garages, restoring old cars and driving them across the state to car shows.

“Dad and I and my brothers have always been into the old classics,” he said.

Antique car show hobbyists must be able to get into and drive their cars onto the show ground, he said.

Older cars that could be revitalized and shown at an antique car show didn’t have room for a wheelchair ramp or even space to store a wheelchair.

“I hated that I couldn’t be in a car club and show my own vehicle,” he said. “There was nothing I could do, I was stuck.”

Instead of taking up another hobby, he decided to find and restore a vehicle he could show.

“The only thing I could do was adapt,” he said.

He found the 1960 Ford F-100 panel truck online from California. He traded a car he had restored that he could no longer drive.

It was the kind of truck he was looking for: big, sturdy enough to handle his wheelchair, and the size would allow him to install a wheelchair lift.

The vehicle was also rare, with only about 7,000 made.

He decided to make it into a working replica of a Railway Express Agency-Air Express Division truck as a nod to his father, Allen, and grandpa, Francis, who worked as an agent of the company, he said.

Allen helped Dan think of the details that would make the truck authentic.

The truck needed other work, too: about $40,000 to restore it to show quality and make it accessible for Distler.

He searched online and found a wheelchair lift that could be cut down to fit in the truck in Detroit. He enlisted his friend, Tomey, to do the actual work.

“I knew it would be one of a kind, and I knew that it would help someone out,” Tomey said.

Hand controls were added so Distler could drive. He put an automatic transmission in, since Distler’s legs got tired trying to drive a manual.

And he installed seats that operated on rails.

The driver seat is automated and comes back to meet Distler after he loads his wheelchair onto the truck. Distler then can move the seat down so he can slide into it from his wheelchair.

He is a former electrical engineer and programmed the computer code that would allow for the electrical parts to work on a key fob, including making the bumper fold down.

There was no book Tomey and Distler could use to work through the what the truck would need to keep it eligible for antique shows and make it accessible for Distler.

“On all of this, I was shooting from my hip,” Tomey said.

Author photo
Magen Kritsch is an editorial assistant at the Daily Journal. She can be reached at mkritsch@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2770.