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Volunteers are being sought to help with a unique research project, funded through money raised by National Lottery players, which will explore the hidden and neglected heritage of British invalid carriages.

Issued after World War One by the Government, these vehicles were primitive in their nature, three-wheeled and powered by hand. By the 1970s they were a distinctive bright blue and provided by the NHS for solitary travel only.

Simon McKeown, a Reader in Teesside University’s School of Computing, Media & the Arts, has a passion for the iconic cars and has a personal collection which he is using to ignite a discussion around the social history of disability.

He has received a grant of over £50,000 from National Lottery funding through the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) to stage a new exhibition at the prestigious DNEX disability exhibition in Newcastle next year. DNEX is the biggest independent living exhibition in the North East.

Simon has been collecting Invalid Carriages, or Invacars as some designs were known, for a number of years and has over 20 in his collection, dating from the 1930s through to the 1970s. His collection is one of the largest in the UK.

Invacars used to be given out by the NHS to help disabled people become independent. They were owned by the government and leased to disabled drivers as part of their disability benefit.

Simon, who is himself disabled and has exhibited his varied work all over the world, remembers his granddad having an Invacar and the vehicles represent fond childhood memories.

He recalls how the cars were extremely primitive by today’s standards, wobbly with three wheels and only suitable for one person. You were not allowed to carry passengers, meaning the cars would often break down and it was a common sight to find people stranded on their own.

Invacars were discontinued in 2003 and the Government ordered tens of thousands to be crushed – though a small number were hidden away or forgotten about and they are now popular collectors’ items. It is believed there are just over 300 to400 left in the world today.

Through National Lottery funding, Simon will showcase over 100 years of British Invalid Carriage heritage, from the graceful bath chair of 1875 to the infamous killer vehicle, the AC MK70 of 1970’s, capturing the unique social, cultural and manufacturing heritage.

He is working with Disability North, a student researcher and a team of graduates in Teesside University School of Computing, Media & the Arts’ Digital Studio. They will help to support the exhibition, producing 3D animations, website and other digital assets.

But Simon is also keen to recruit additional volunteers for the project to learn about and help support the cultural heritage of Invacars and carriages.

“Thanks to National Lottery funding, this fantastic project will tell the story, not only of these amazing and sometimes lethal vehicles, but of disability and automotive engineering history,” explained Simon.

“There is a great beauty in these cars and we want to recognise their historical importance and present them in a way that will engage a whole new audience.”

If you would like to volunteer to support Simon and his DNEX disability exhibition, in researching the history of the vehicles, please email kevinwright@disabilitynorth.org.uk.

Disability North is a free Independent Living Service which provides life-changing support and help to over 8,500 disabled people, older adults and their families in the North East of England and Cumbria each year promoting inclusion, independence and choice.

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