A SMAll adventure: testing the VW Panorama by GM Coachwork, a wheelchair accessible camper van!

This weekend we were given the amazing opportunity by GM Coachwork to borrow and review their VW Panorama; a camper van especially designed and built for wheelchair users. The potential that this camper van has is huge, I was so excited when I first saw it on the GM Coachwork forecourt a few months ago when I visited them for a totally unrelated reason. When they offered to let me trial it for them, my heart leapt at the opportunity and I began thinking of all the new doors that something like this could open for me. Festivals, weekends away, or even another travelling adventure, the list could be endless!

Photo from GM Coachwork

Initially we were planning to take it away for a weekend in Cornwall, giving us the opportunity to test each and every feature and sleep in it too, after finding a PA who wouldn’t mind camping in a small pop up tent just next to the vehicle. However, since the winter has quickly fallen on us and the weather changed turning very cold within a few days, and not many campsites remaining open in mid-October, we decided to just take a long day trip to Cornwall and test what we could.

Photos from GM Coachwork

I’ll give you a brief overview of the van features and then a little more into its details as we go along. The Panorama has a lowered flooring along with a side access lift enabling the van to be wheelchair accessible. There’s potential for the wheelchair user to either be front passenger or the driver and still remain in their wheelchair, with the Unwin lock tracking system meaning the seats are interchangeable. This is a fantastic feature which I also have in my VW Nevada, allowing me to swap between driver and passenger when needed. Don’t quote me on this, but I’d imagine that if you were to buy your own Panorama you could request the Dahl locking system, which I find easier but as this was the demonstrator model it was not in place, and that’s fair enough. There isn’t a tracking line in the middle section of the van, though I expect it could be put in if requested during the purchase. I was thinking over this, and it may be important to know for some of you, that if you were travelling in the back with two people at the front the van may not be suitable. Purely because the centre of the van is the ‘working’ area, where the table folds into and the bed pulls out. I wouldn’t know where you could put a wheelchair when these parts of the van are in use, unless you could erect an awning and keep the wheelchair outside of the van. As a “1 wheelchair, 2 able-bodied” party this is not an issue at all- I was in the front passenger space, David drove and a PA sat in the back, we all had ample space and I was even able to turn my wheelchair around and reverse into the front passenger space in order to use the kitchen and table when we stopped for a coffee. There’s genuinely so much room in this van, is difficult to comprehend on the outside but my wheelchair had absolutely no space limitations within the van.

As mentioned, the Panorama is designed specifically with wheelchair users in mind and due to this has an incredibly slim line kitchen set up – its fantastic to say the least. The twin hob and sink with running water swings away so that effectively it lays flat against the doorway of the vehicle, only protruding about 15cm inwards so it still gives so much turning space! There’s also a built in fridge which is surprisingly spacious, you could definitely fit a few bottles of wine in it and it was colder than our fridge at home! Alongside this there are numerous cupboards and shelves to store the essentials, but then comes the exciting bit…

The bed! The backseat bench folds out in a more than comfortable bed, big enough for two. Even with the bed opened out, there was enough room for my wheelchair to be reversed into the passenger seat and room in front of me to be transferred onto the bed. There’s a sliding grab rail which runs along the roof of the van (I should mention that its also a pop-top so it allows PA’s to be able to stand fully upright when helping to transfer- a real bonus- or enough an extra bed?) which I’d imagine could easily turned into a gantry style hoist for those in need. But I’m very happy to say that there’s enough room for transferring and manoeuvrability in the van whilst the bed is in situ. There are also many plug sockets throughout the van and particularly in the back of the vehicle, so if you use an airflow mattress like I do then it wouldn’t be an issue at all, or a bi-pap machine for that matter, along with a wheelchair charger.

A cleverly designed toilet sits under the back seat and can be accessed with the bed is stowed or open. This is a great feature as we all know how unusable disabled toilets can be for most wheelchair users, so having it all in the van gives a great sense of freedom, even if it is the freedom from not having to trek miles to find an accessible toilet!

I promise that the toilet isn't leaking, my water bottle dribbled a little on the floor and I didn't realise until we had taken the photo that it looked incriminating!

Let me get back to our mini adventure. So we set off to Truro in Cornwall on Saturday morning, and I had arranged to meet old university friends from when I studied Illustration at University College Falmouth. The journey was fine, I can’t comment too much here as I don’t have too much to tell you, other than the fact that everything was secured in the van so there wasn’t any annoying rattling from all the built in features and modifications, and the cupboards stayed closed with the soft push door latches, all very well designed and considered. Because everything stows away so well and there’s lots of cupboard space, the mid section, which is the turning space for a wheelchair, is spacious and was empty after I had been secured into the front passenger space, so we were able to store everything we needed to (like the important picnic hamper!) with much more space. I’d imagine that with some thought we could even take our mobile hoist with us, however this wouldn’t be needed if a gantry hoist was set up in the van.

After seeing some friends, we took a short drive to Perranporth and stopped to have a cup of coffee people meeting more. I was able to turn my chair and reverse into the space giving us much more room in the mid section. David then flipped the ‘kitchenette’ hobs and sink up, added the fold away table which is kept in the boot of the vehicle and we could sit comfortably while we worked out where we were and how we’d get home later on. The kitchenette and sink area are at a perfect height for wheelchair users and because it swings out into the mid section and isn’t in a built in cupboard, I was able to get my knees under the sink myself, a brilliant advantage for wheelchair users.

The next day it turned even more wintery so we were glad that we drove home that night and didn’t sleep in the van! But we fancied another mini adventure and so we took a leisurely Sunday drive to the forest with our dog, and my parents met us there. If I’m honest, I’m a princess, I just hate being cold and suffer with low immune system, so, with our imminent trip to Belgium coming up I’m doing all that I can to stay warm and well. Having the Panorama to jump into after a chilly walk was fantastic! We immediately lit the hob for chocolates all round, and had a little picnic with homemade quiche and sausage rolls which we were able to keep cold in the fridge, amazing!

Yes, my hat is a strawberry.

Personally, I can’t say that I’d swap my VW Nevada for the Panorama but there’s only one reason for this, and that’s that it’s side entry. For a weekend vehicle, for a bit of fun or a holiday, the Panorama is fantastic. But for me living in a small village and having a fairly busy lifestyle, the rear entry ramp on my Nevada is much more practical for me to nip around the place. But that is literally the only downside that I can think as to why I wouldn’t have the Panorama instead. And now that I’ve experienced the Panorama, I’m longing for a kitchenette in my Nevada and am finding out if there’s anything similar that we could use. Knowing that the Panorama could be hired out for disabled travellers and families to use would open up so many possibilities for me. I’ve always fancied going to a music festival and I know that plenty disabled people do, but I’m a not keen on using a mobile hoist in the rough ground as I know people do struggle. But this van would allow all of my transfers and toileting to be done in total comfort and also be dealt with discretely, so I’d definitely be up for hiring the van myself for weekends away if it was possible. And to think of all the specialised features that GM Coachworks could put in if you bought the van, the list would be endless because its so customisable.

If you’d like to know any more information then please do send me a message at the bottom of this page, or over on Facebook. You can also book a viewing of the Panorama by GM Coachwork by emailing Stephen.Murphy@GMCoachwork.co.uk and expressing an interest in the Panorama. Just see it, you won’t believe how easy and accessible it really is!