As Dearborn Truck Plant launch manager for more than a decade, Don Pijor’s personal identity has become intertwined with the Ford F-150. So when mobility challenges forced him to stop driving more than two years ago, he began searching for a company that could upfit the iconic Ford pickup. The problem was, the only company offering wheelchair conversions for pickups did not yet offer modified F-150s.
“I’m Mr. F-150,” said Pijor. “I’ve been launch manager on F-150 for 15 years.”
Pijor was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that interferes with transmission signals between the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the body, in 1997. He initially had some ability to walk, which allowed him to still drive a car, but has used a wheelchair now for the past nine years. He relies on family and co-workers for transportation.
Now, a solution is near, and it will not only benefit Pijor, but many others with mobility challenges. For the past several months, Pijor and his new models and engineering team have been collaborating with AT Specialty Conversions, located in Roanoke, Indiana, near Fort Wayne; to upfit the new Ford F-150.
“This will allow me freedom,” he said. “It means a whole lot to me to not have to be dependent to get around. My wife, my children, my co-workers – I always have to ask.”
Pijor made contact with AT Specialty Conversions, which is believed to be the only upfitter that modifies pickup trucks, two years ago. But with the previous-generation F-150 poised for an overhaul and then the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the collaboration did not start right away. Recently, two members of Pijor’s team visited AT Specialty Conversions to help the company navigate the all-new truck’s electrical architecture.
AT Specialty Conversions has tripled the size of its facility to accommodate the production of approximately 500 converted F-150s each year. Pijor is hoping the trucks will be available at Ford dealerships, rather than exclusively at independent retailers. It would allow Ford to compete like a challenger, he said, and create a new customer base for the company.
“I think of people who are in the same situation as me – this is a way to have goodwill and provide a better product to a new customer,” he said. “Also, it feels really good to give back so other people can get their freedom back. I know what it’s like personally. To give that freedom back to others feels really good.”
Pijor is hopeful the collaboration with AT Specialty Conversions could expand to include modifications of additional Ford trucks. The company was founded by Steve Kitchen, who is quadriplegic, in 2012. It had previously converted an F-150 Raptor for a customer, a project which provided experience in working with the truck’s unique aluminum body. Ford’s continued support is uncommon for an OEM, Kitchens said.
“Ford has really been a big help,” said Kitchen, President, AT Specialty Conversions. “We pretty much do the GM trucks by ourselves. …We’ve done conversions on Dodges and Toyotas and even Nissans, but Ford is the first manufacturer to see it and want to do it and actually support us along the way.”
Driver-assist features put F-150 ahead of the pack
Ford Transit is a common base for Ford-approved upfitters, some of which sell modified vehicles to organizations that work with veterans and others with disabilities, such as Wounded Warriors. Pijor said F-150’s driver-assist features make the truck ideal for adapting to meet the needs of those with mobility challenges. Adaptive Cruise Control with Stop-and-Go, for example, makes a vehicle easier to control at a stop and reduces dependence on hand controls for those who need them.
“It’s a life-saver and it’s going to make a huge difference for that customer,” said Pijor, who noted that Ford’s new BlueCruise hands-free highway driving system will be another important feature when it launches on F-150 later this year.
Conversion includes removing the driver’s seat – though it can be reinstalled so another driver can operate the vehicle – to accommodate a wheelchair, and adding about six inches of additional headroom by lifting the truck body and cutting the floor. The B-pillar is removed to create additional space, while the front and rear crew cab-style doors are welded together to form gullwing doors. A hydraulic lift places the driver inside the cab or the passenger side of the truck. The process takes about three weeks.
“It’s pretty cool when the doors open like a Lamborghini,” said Pijor. “It’s really, really neat.”
Pijor recently tested a prototype of the truck at the plant, offering feedback to AT Specialty Conversions. His testing helped verify interface compatibility between Ford and AT Specialty Conversions, as well as logistical challenges that might arise, such as obstruction from automated running boards that deploy upon entering, or being able to reach the seat belt seated in a wheelchair.
Commitment to Ford returned
After college, Pijor joined Ford in his native Lorain, Ohio, as a first-line supervisor at the company’s assembly plant there, beginning a three-decade climb up the ranks. He moved to Dearborn Truck Plant in 2005 after working as the final assembly manager and in other roles at Kentucky Truck Plant, where he was based when he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
In the years since, Pijor has done extensive volunteering with the MS Society, which says nearly 1 million Americans live with the disease. He also leads a team of Ford employees, suppliers and their families, which has raised more than $150,000 in five years through the Muckfest run. The Ford team was the highest fundraising team in the country.
“For a person like me who is struggling with a disease, Ford has been the most wonderful company to work for,” said Pijor. “The support I’ve received since my diagnosis in 1997 has been second to none.” That support has been as simple as providing automatic door openers at the factory, but also allowing him to pursue a conversion specialist to upfit F-150.
“That’s pretty amazing they would let me take a prototype truck and try to do this,” said Pijor.