From the heart: inspired design

By Paul Campbell

The Centaur is a revolutionary electric vehicle. Its designer, Paul Campbell, drew on his father’s experiences in a wheelchair to ensure the Centaur solved the problems created by traditional mobility devices. And restoring users’ dignity and self-esteem was key to its design.

My father was an inspiration to me. Bill Campbell worked as a design engineer at Ford Motor Company, just like his father before him. And so, not unnaturally, I became the third generation of my family to join the design team at the automotive giant.

Even after retirement from Ford, Dad continued to inspire, mentoring the next generation of design engineers at a local college. So when his mobility started to suffer after he damaged his back, I watched his physical decline with sadness and a great deal of frustration.

As designers, we begin our careers with the desire to create positive change, hoping to improve lives and make the world a better place.

So instead of changing the world to fit the disabled, I decided to design something that fits the world — Paul Campbell

But I never imagined for a moment that I would draw on my Dad’s experience with a wheelchair to inspire a product that I believe really will make a difference to hundreds of thousands of people.

I had watched with dismay as he struggled in his favourite restaurant where, despite the staffs’ best intentions, he was always out on a limb, often blocking part of the aisle.

He couldn’t tuck his legs under the table. That often meant the huge embarrassment of food spilt on his lap. Being looked down on when you’re wheelchair bound can impact your self-esteem. This was an added humiliation.

To overcome this at home, I would jack up the dining room table so he could sit under it, closer to the food. But this made it too high for the rest of us. I eventually found a replacement table that was easier to convert.

We put kettles and coffee pots on surfaces which were lower than normal so he didn’t run the risk of scalding himself. But most of the kitchen – including the sink – was still out of reach.

Doorways need to be widened, rooms rebuilt and ramps installed. And getting out of the house and into a world designed for the able-bodied is often an obstacle course too far. While the wheelchair gave Dad some options, it restricted him too. And it looked medical. He hated that.

And then, after my Dad died and I’d left the car industry, the penny dropped. The wheelchair is inwardly focused. It ignores the outside world. So instead of changing the world to fit the disabled, I decided to design something that fits the world.

With former Ford engineer John Reed, we created the Centaur.

Something that’s the right proportions. Something that looks good. And in tune, not struggling with access and tight spaces. Something that spins on a sixpence and, of course, fits into the space of a dining room chair. No more spilt food.

The Centaur’s footplate rests on the floor, provides a stable platform so you can get into it easily (just as you would a normal chair) without falling over.

But if you can’t stand up, what about a lifting column under the chair? Why not reach that high shelf, make a coffee safely, look people in the eye? Buy a drink at the bar? I know Dad would’ve loved that.

With e-scooters, electric cars and bikes, mobility is on the move. And the world has never seen this many ageing people before. Most of them, just like Bill Campbell, with so much to offer, so much to live for. So much to be proud of.

The Centaur runs on just two wheels and uses self-balancing technology. It’s state-of-the-art and built with all the robust engineering principles you would expect from designers and engineers drawn from the automotive world.

Aerodynamics, engineering and endurance are important, but so too are style, eloquence and aesthetics. I want people to live better, more fulfilled lives, to be proud and to be mobile. It’s a lofty ambition, but I want to end the social isolation resulting from reduced mobility. And I believe good design can do that.

Dad worked on many of Ford’s classic cars. He made sure they looked good, that they were stylish and desirable. They were a pleasure to drive, something you were proud to be seen in.

That’s why I know Bill Campbell would’ve loved the Centaur

It’s a lofty ambition, but I want to end the social isolation resulting from reduced mobility. And I believe good design can do that — Paul Campbell.

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