2015 Ford Transit Connect: Disabled Triathletes Put This Accessible Van to the Test

2015 Ford Transit Connect
Whole Foods is a destination for athletes in Detroit

Paratriathletes don’t travel light and they need a van that works as hard as they do.

Henry Ford had a dream that his invention would change the history of civilization by allowing the middle class to afford cars and become fully mobile. Henry would have loved seeing us in Detroit this summer: A blind paratriathlete, a wheel chair triathlete and a sighted college professor, packing three wheelchairs, a tandem bike and luggage for three into a Ford Transit Connect van for a week of competing on Detroit’s Belle Isle.

Accessible Van

Pierre’s chair and hand cycle have to fit into the back of the van to get to the race on Detroit’s Belle Isle

Traveling as a paratriathlete can be a challenge; I carry more than 170 pounds of equipment, including a tandem bike inside a 4-foot long hard case, a spare wheel, racing wheels for the bike and luggage. My boyfriend Pierre is a wheelchair athlete who travels with his racing wheelchair, two extra sets of wheels, a hand-cycle (a bicycle designed for manual operation by wheelchair athletes), his everyday wheelchair and luggage. Lindsay, my pilot, travels much lighter; she just has luggage.

Perfect for most athletes, but would it do for us?

Accessible Van

The high roof allowed for plenty of cargo space with the seats folded down

When I found out we’d be test-driving the Transit Connect, the manager and mechanic at my local bike shop told me, “it’s the COOLEST van you will ever drive. It has everything and is MADE for athletes!” It’s also a great van for people who need accessible, flexible space. The online reviews were stellar, so I was excited to spend 5 days with the Transit Connect.

Then, I saw the van. I thought, Oh dear, that thing’s tiny! There’s NO WAY our stuff is going to fit. We’re going to need to make two trips back and forth from the hotel to the race venue on Belle Isle. But Pierre’s incredible Tetris skills, the easy wide-open configuration of the Transit Connect and the fold-flat rear seats allowed EVERYTHING to fit, and even left room for all three of us and some groceries from Whole Foods. It seemed miraculous when walking the circumference of the vehicle, but it managed to pack a lot of equipment, and Lindsey still had great visibility due to the low-level windows on all sides, sizable mirrors and the backup camera.

A look behind the Ford curtain: Touring the Rouge River Factory

Accessible Van

Lindesy and I at Ford’s Rouge River plant where the F 150 truck is built

Our first stop in Detroit was actually Dearborn, for a tour of Ford’s Rouge River Plant with veteran employee Cynthia. Pierre formerly raced motocross, Lindsey races bikes and all three of us are quite car crazy. So being at the plant was like being behind the scenes at Disney World. We began our tour in the main gallery, where vintage Fords stood brilliantly illuminated in a gorgeous showroom. The Model A, the first Thunderbird, The Mustang and parts of the Model T were all made here over the past 100 years in the Rouge River Factory, the most state-of-the-art auto manufacturing facility in the United States. From here we then watched two short films. The first was about the history of Henry Ford and his passion for the automobile and making manufacturing mechanized and automatic. The second was an explosive movie –almost literally, a 3D movie in a circular room that was bright, loud and dizzying – about the Ford F-150 pickups, the #1 selling vehicle in America for the past 32 years (incredible, right?!) and how it is assembled in the plant.

Putting the ‘Green’ in green technology by recycling waste water and a green rooftop

Accessible Van

The green roof at the Rouge River plant is literally green; the lawn helps to cool and heat the building, and it recycles rain water

Our next stop was a vantage point overlooking the largest ‘green’ roof in the country– 10.4 acres, nearly a half million square feet. The factory sprawled out before us all the way to the distant line of trees, as far as my limited eyesight could view. Cynthia showed us the very cool ‘hydroponic’ substrate, a mesh made of recycled plastic that they use on the roof instead of soil to keep the weight down, yet allow grass and plants to grow and gather rainwater, which is then drained from the roof and returned to the surrounding wetlands. Millions of gallons of water are saved each year this way, and it keeps the factory ten degrees cooler in the summer and 10 degrees warmer in the winter. In a true Amy and Lindsey #blondesonbikes blonde moment, we simultaneously wondered aloud how the frogs got onto the roof. It was going to be a long day of embarrassing questions like this one, but with really cool answers once we hit the actual assembly line.

The assembly line at the Rouge River Plant is over five miles long, with more than 500 workstations along the route. Each job takes a team of one to three workers precisely 41 seconds to complete, otherwise the whole line shuts down. A special tool at each station measures and places each and every bolt, screw, part or wire and keeps valuable data that stays with that truck as it makes its way through the plant. Ford can track a flaw in a vehicle down to the exact date, time and worker and address the problem before the truck has even reached the end of its 5-mile journey. Ford makes more than 700,000 F-150 pickups out of this facility alone, which equates to one per minute during operating hours.

An assembly line of …Custom built trucks?

While we expected to see 20 black trucks roll off the line, then a bunch of red or green, this was not at all the case. Each truck was completely different from one another and was totally custom to an existing customer order. Trucks were already ordered and paid for before the first screw is driven in by one of the hundreds of robots on the line. Watching the robots operate was like a ballet; they bobbed and weaved, dancing around the trucks, placing, inspecting, measuring. Watching the windshields being lifted by a giant mechanical arm, a bead of glue drawn around the perimeter, and the shield gently placed was magnificent .

Sustainability matters: A goal of zero-waste and happy, healthy team members

Accessible Van

Talk about zero waste: We were able to fit everything into the van and not have to make a second trip to Belle Isle; here Lindsey fits in the last few pieces

Ford is moving closer and closer to their goal of having a zero-waste factory, and all of these exciting efforts show their commitment to the environment: Hundreds of plastic parts bins, each arriving in a constant flow, hold exactly 6 hours worth of parts and are available at all times, eliminating 99% of cardboard waste. Much of the steel and aluminum is made and sourced right in the plant, cutting out the need for shipping or outsourcing from providers outside of Ford. The fumes in the giant smokestacks of the paint building never actually leave the building; they are recycled and the gas is burned for fuel for the plant.

Not only does Ford care about the environment, but they care for the people that make up Ford Motor Company, who are critical to the success of the Ford F-150 and its popularity with consumers. Each workstation is a team of 3 people and their total team is 10. They get regular breaks and a floater from their team who is an expert in all the tasks that part of the assembly line performs, steps in for 15 minutes to keep the flow going. To reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries to various joints and their backs, Ford designed the truck and the line to raise and lower at EACH AND EVERY station to the exact height of the worker at that particular workstation. So, if Bob at station 417 is 6’ 3”, the truck lifts up so he can put in the driver’s-side seat belt, and then it lowers and twists at station 418 for Sally, who is 5 foot 2 and needs to put in the cup-holders. No bending or reaching necessary. Pretty smart, huh?

Testing out Ford’s engineering for ourselves: fun technology, easy to drive and easy to see out the windows

Accessible Van

We loved all the windows; even with the Transit Connect fully loaded, we had visibility

After seeing how Ford has engineered the assembly process, we were excited to get back into our Transit Connect, where we put the stats, facts and history on hold to tune into our favorite XM station, the 90s on 9 as we returned to the hotel to unload our gear. Even the valet was impressed when we unloaded all our bags, bikes, wheels and wheelchairs in front of the hotel. With each bag that came out, his face sank a little further: he was going to have to figure out how to get it all to our rooms.

Accessible Van

All our gear fit and we still had breathing and sitting room

We had the chance to really test out the handling of the van the next day as we drove around Belle Isle to preview the racecourse and see what the race would look like. With the exception of two hard 90 degree left turns, it was a sweeping 3+ mile loop that would be flat and fast. Lindsey unfortunately had to test out the acceleration of the van at 6AM when I forgot our spare wheels back in the hotel lobby. Despite our best-laid plans, this can happen; fortunately the van handled more like a car and Lindsey was quickly out and back with the wheels.

After a fast, hot race in the 90 degree heat and humidity, the Transit Connect’s gigantic lift-gate provided much-needed shade and a convenient drying rack for our wetsuits and sweaty triathlon gear. The following day, Lindsey departed and Pierre had the chance to operate the van using his adaptive controls. He was pleasantly surprised at the power of the van, even though it was the smallest of the three Transit Connect models, and the handling and visibility of such a vehicle, a final stamp of para-athlete approval.

Accessible Van

Whole Foods is a destination for athletes in Detroit

What We Loved:

  • Low to the ground for ease of loading and unloading
  • Great visibility and high enough off the road without feeling top-heavy
  • Ford’s Sync system allows you to play your music through the radio very easily and is self-explanatory for those new to it
  • Has a minivan-style configuration in the rear with fold-flat seats and sliding doors, allowing for a ton of cargo
  • Price starts at $22,300, with installed seating options for up to 7 passengers


What you need to know:

Accessible Van

Lindsey puts Pierre’s chair in the back

  • There are three versions of the Transit van- we had the short wheel base Connect, which is the smaller version, more than enough for a family or small business owner and starts at an accessible $22,000; the longer wheel base adds about 16 inches to the length of the Connect van. The Transit is a largest van, with a starting price of about $30,000
  • This mid-size van offers flexibility for cargo without the bulk of a huge van
  • The van’s base price is a starting point; they are designed by be customized, either by Ford or by a third party vendor
  • The Transit Connect has a slightly utilitarian feel to it, and the overhead rear compartments steal some valuable headroom or cargo space
  • Gets 21 MPG city/ 29 MPG highway
  • Uses regular fuel
  • 3 Year/36,000 mile warranty; 5 year/60,000 mile power train warranty
  • 5 year/60,000 mile roadside assistance–a must have for owners with a disability

Disclosure: Ford loaned us the Transit Connect Van for our test drive and we attended the Rouge River Factory tour as a guest of Ford. Opinions expressed here are all my own.



Amy Dixon is an elite paratriathlete from Greenwich, Connecticut, in training to make the final team for the Rio... More about Amy Dixon