By on January 5, 2022

Historically speaking, the handicap accessible vehicle market in North America was catered to by aftermarket companies, who’d convert standard passenger vehicles (usually larger vans) to be accessible. But in the early 2000s, a couple of entrepreneurs had a new idea: A commercial vehicle designed from the get-go as accessible. Let’s talk about the Vehicle Production Group, it’s a bit of a wild ride.

Vehicle Production Group LLC (or VPG) was founded in 2006 in Miami, Florida by Marc Klein and Patton Corrigan. Both men chipped in their own funds, and also secured money from venture firm Three Seasons Capital. The initial injection of cash meant VPG could hire a team of engineers and managers to advance and finalize the company’s first prototype vehicle. In 2007 VPG claimed their new vehicle would be on the roads in 2008. But by 2008 that date had dropped back to 2010. More on that in a moment.

VPG’s first prototype wore a different name and design than its eventual production car. It was called the Standard Taxi and debuted in September 2006 at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS) in Detroit. Around the same time, The Standard Taxi was submitted as an entrant into an initiative of NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg wanted to replace 90 percent of NYC’s taxis with low-emission vehicles by 2030. The project was spearheaded by the New York Design Trust for the Public Space, which solicited low-emission taxi designs from private firms. VPG mailed them a CD full of information, probably. After the Standard Taxi’s debut at NAIAS, it went on to the more specialized Taxicab, Limousine, and Paratransit Association conference in Las Vegas. The taxi was compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and included an integrated ramp that automatically slid outward for convenient wheelchair and mobility scooter access.

The company’s initial production date came and went as VPG searched for a producer of the Standard Taxi. In mid-2008 they announced a completed production contract with AM General of South Bend, Indiana, the company that built the Humvee and Hummer H2. AM General would build the Standard Taxi in Mishawaka, Indiana, but also served as a development partner for the Standard Taxi.

Technical details released at the time indicated the taxi would use a body-on-frame construction and rear drive. Underneath the Standard Taxi was a GM truck chassis and a 4.3-liter Vortec V6 from the GMT900 pickup. The wheelbase of the prototype was 122 inches, with an overall length of 196.5 inches, a width of 79.4″, and a 75-inch height.

As development continued and production was secured, money poured into the VPG coffers. The firm announced in August 2008 that it secured $160 million in equity financing via Perseus, an equity fund manager. By that time the firm had formed a close relationship with Powertrain Integration LLC, which had access to GM engines and was funded at least in part by The General. The company also received support from Clean Energy Fuels Corporation, founded by one Mister T. Boone Pickens. CEFC was to help with the CNG version of the Standard Taxi, as well as marketing. Both Pickens and General Motors also invested cash in VPG.

Another boon for VPG came in late 2008, as it secured the marketing services of MV Transportation, the largest privately owned transportation contracting company in the US, and the nation’s largest provider of paratransit services. VPG had a plan for Canadian distribution too and contracted with The Motion Group of Companies, which would sell the Standard Taxi to commercial and municipal fleet buyers up north.

All the while, the revised 2010 production date on the Standard Taxi approached. VPG sought consumer and commercial feedback on its vehicle and made many advancements on its original design with an eye to practicality and the essential user-friendliness of such a vehicle. As such, VPG decided its alterations were substantial enough to warrant a name change. Thus, the Standard Taxi became the MV-1, or Mobility Vehicle 1. The MV-1 was impressive but VPG needed more funds and headed to the Department of Energy offices in early 2011. The DOE agreed the MV-1 was worth funding, and granted a loan of $50 million. VPG said thanks and spent the money immediately.

By the time the MV-1 was ready for production, it was October 2011. VPG completed the first purpose-built accessibility vehicle in North America. Specs changed slightly over the Standard Taxi, as the wheelbase shrunk to 118 inches. Length, width, and height remained the same as before. Underneath, the GMT chassis was replaced with a customized chassis developed by Roush, based on the Panther platform. The engine also came from the Panther, in the form of the familiar Ford Modular 4.6. Said engine was converted with assistance from the aforementioned Clean Energy Fuels Corporation to run on compressed natural gas (CNG). Gasoline versions were sold alongside CNG, but would certainly not qualify as low-emissions vehicles. The range on CNG was expected to be 290 miles. The transmission was a four-speed auto from the Crown Vic.

Inside, the MV-1 was capacious given its exterior dimensions. It fit six adults, two of whom would be in full-size wheelchairs. The electric ramp carried up to 1,200 pounds all at once and retracted fully under the MPV’s floor. Said ramp was provided by historical sunroof maker ASC. Rear doors were 36 inches wide and 56″ tall, to allow easy access by wheelchairs. The MV-1’s weight totaled 6,600 pounds. Trims were base SE, midlevel DX, luxury LX (after 2012), and Commercial.

The first example rolled proudly off the line in fall 2011 and was delivered to disabled football player Marc Buoniconti. Buoniconti was a spokesperson for VPG, as an athlete who sustained a spinal injury during a college football game. On October 21st, 2011, the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission announced its approval of the MV-1 as a yellow cab. It was a momentous moment, as the MV-1 was the first purpose-built taxi allowed to enter NYC taxi service since the Checker Marathon. Things were looking up for VPG with their new MV-1 finally in production and New York City as their customer base, but the good news didn’t last long.

The company temporarily paused assembly in the summer of 2012 after about seven months of production, in order to modify tooling for the more upscale LX trim of the MV-1. Intended more for livery and private usage, the LX added remote control access of the MV-1’s side ramp, and a nicer interior that included wood trim. Unfortunately, said pause in production was a bit difficult to un-pause.

In February 2013, VPG defaulted on the aforementioned DOE loan, after violating the minimum finances clauses in the loan terms. All production halted that very month, and by May VPG laid off all employees and closed up shop. The government was left unpaid for their loan, but AM General had a solution in mind. They approached the DOE in September 2013 to acquire the assets of VPG. AM was willing to purchase the $50 million loan for $3 million, a generous offer. The DOE happily wrote off the rest of the amount and signed over the assets.

As a result of its new purchase, AM General created Mobility Ventures. The wholly-owned subsidiary would manufacture and sell the MV-1 through the AM General dealer network. On March 11, 2014, AM General restarted production in Mishawaka, Indiana on the vehicle they’d helped create.

AM General made no edits to the MV-1 it purchased on clearance, but the march of time forced a couple upon Mobility Ventures. For the 2015 and 2016 models power was updated to the Ford 3.7-liter V6, attached to a much more modern six-speed automatic. Think base model Explorer stuff. AM General managed to shift about 2,000 examples a year, and they were built on the same Indiana assembly line as the Chinese market Mercedes-Benz R-Class (uh, what?).

Speaking of China, apparently overseas investors saw the job the Mishawaka factory was doing on the R-Class. Enter SF Motors. Headquartered in Silicon Valley but owned by Chinese investors, SF Motors made AM General an offer for the Mishawaka plant that AM just couldn’t refuse. It was convenient timing, as the R-Class was nearing its end of production at the time (2017). Once the factory changed hands in 2016, all MV-1 and R-Class production halted. SF Motors announced it planned to retool the factory for a couple of years, and then build EVs there. SF Motors owns the plant today and has a cute website where they’re still promising they’ll create something beyond CGI soon.

There’s an MV-1 for sale right now in Virginia if you want some real-life Abandoned History photos. No leather so it’s not an LX, but it might be the only car ever factory produced with a utilitarian commercial interior and a Lincoln steering wheel.

[Images: AM General]

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27 Comments on “Abandoned History: The Vehicle Production Group and its MV-1, Accessible Mobility MPV...”

  • avatar

    Behold the wonders of the global market: a Mercedes for the Chinese market, made in Indiana by a company that wasn’t Mercedes.

    The mind boggles.

    • 0 avatar

      That’s OK, kind of par for the course. There are lots of factories in China that make name brand stuff to be sold in other countries that aren’t genuine name brand stuff.

  • avatar

    It was a *very* good vehicle for its intended purpose. I still see a handful around town. For the people who need such a vehicle, it’s kind of a shame they went under. It really was a better and cheaper vehicle than a conversion van.

    • 0 avatar

      There was one in my town. The fellow and his wife lived in the same apartment as my ex’s. It was an odd looking vehicle but they found it worked very well.

  • avatar

    “….VPG mailed them a CD full of information, probably”.

    What does that mean?

  • avatar

    Worker at my last job had one of these… the first time I saw the van I was scratching my head trying to figure out what it was.

  • avatar

    I used to see these pretty frequently, but I hadn’t seen one in a few years. Then I saw a black one last week. They really were good vehicles for their intended tasks.

  • avatar

    I still see these on occasion. What is it about taxis and this shape? London cabs, then this, and now the Toyota JPNTaxi all pretty much have this same shape.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s an efficient shape. Lots of bodies of varying shapes sizes and flexibilities can get in and out of them easily and quickly. The nice thing too (in the case of London cabs) is if you have a suitcase or packages, you just drag them in with you. No futzing with a trunk, and the cabbie is going to surcharge you anyway just for hitting the trunk release button despite the fact he’s not leaving his seat. Conventional sedans aren’t great for taxis really.

  • avatar

    These things we’re pretty familiar site’s down in Florida and seem like a good idea, decently executed but poorly marketed and supported. The Panther/Crown Vic underpinnings were very robust and sturdy as well as proven and low maintenance. Seems like the missed opportunity was a tie in with Ford (or earlier, GM) that would have lended credibility to the product and eliminated concerns about service, parts and long-term support. Given the tax incentives the feds have poured into EVs, I’d guess they’d have gotten behind an AFV specifically marketed at the disabled market and incentivized the purchase of these for fleet and handicapped buyers alike. Launching a car company is hard, you gotta have more than a good idea sketched out on a dinner napkin.

  • avatar
    Stanley Steamer

    I see them often in and around Boston.

  • avatar
    MRF 95 T-Bird

    The Bloomberg Taxi for tomorrow Iniatiative was a one-size fits all approach to what a city taxi should be. Even when the Checker Cab was in its heyday there were plenty of midsized cabs like Dodge Coronets and Ford Torinos as well as full sized Chevrolet Impalas in the yellow cab fleets meeting the TLC standard.
    The Nissan NV van became a popular cab as part of the initiative but was never a hybrid/electric since they only came with the 2.0 CVT. A Leaf based one would have worked well.
    The market ended up working well where you have a variety of cabs in use from Toyota Prius and RAV4 to the Tesla Model 3.
    I still see a few of these MV-1 vehicles around being used for Access a ride and senior services.

  • avatar

    Some of the Taxi companies and livery companies here in CT bought a fair amount of these. Enough that they were a fairly common sight for a while. I know a bunch were the CNG version. A house about a block from me has a white one. At first I though he was a taxi driver and was parking it at home overnight, but the livery stickers have disappeared over the past year and he seems to use it like a truck, so I’m guessing it was bought cheap.

  • avatar

    There is or at least was a privately owned one in the neighborhood of one of my rental properties. I saw it on the road a few time, with just a driver and then happened to see it parked in front of a house in the neighborhood a few times.

    I have also seen at least one in METRO livery relatively recently. I’m surprised that they didn’t sell better. At least around here there are quite a few private companies that do wheelchair transportation and this seems so much easier to deal with and it should have had a cheaper all in price and with the Crown Vic and F-150 basis should have been just as durable and more economical to run than raised roof vans.

    • 0 avatar

      Metro’s Access program is run through private contractors. One of them bought a bunch of these in place of the usual upfitted cutaway vans. They worked out very well for a lot of trips, and were super-cheap to buy by the standards of this type of vehicle, but they couldn’t carry as many people. That’s a problem in a tight funding environment where driver labor costs dwarf capital costs and you may have to have shared rides to meet demand.

  • avatar

    Funny, I just saw one the other day. There’s a few floating around Toronto. It’s obvious that it’s an underserved niche. I’m surprised that it had gone under as every one I’ve seen is in really good shape.

  • avatar

    I still see these from time to time here in the Philadelphia suburbs. The assisted living home a few blocks from me owns one, and I recently spotted another (in gray, possibly privately owned, but with PA handicap plate) parked outside a cheesesteak place in Ridley Township, Delaware County.

    I often have reason to run errands with a few of my friends (all in their mid-50’s, but with mobility issues). The MV-1 would be perfect for my needs!

  • avatar

    Well that was a fast turnaround, Corey! Unless this article was in the ready stages, waiting for an opportunity.

    VPG didn’t just mail CD’s. They also had PowerPoint reports for multiple end users. I remember going to one of the Taxi of Tomorrow presentations at the TLC and the sense was that the NV200 with a smaller engine gave Mayor Mike what he was looking for in a cleaner car, but that the MV-1 would be allowed particularly for paratransit usage. But VPG needed a deeper penetration into the market, more like they had in Chicago.

    The original design was supposed to provide ease of operations and repairs; body panels could be cross-swapped too. At production, the Panther platform was still considered as the most robust for heavy-duty service, easily and readily maintained by many medallion fleets. Sadly with ride sharing, seems those fleets being pitched to have become anachronistic.

    But it all came down to money, and a hoped-for infusion from a nameless potentate was blocked by the DoE as a foreign investment wasn’t allowed where DoE loans were involved.

    Not sure if MAFCO was making any profit at 2k per year but the plant sale – after heavy expenditures to heighten the Mishawaka production lines to accommodate the taller-than-an-H2 MV-1 – probably made more sense AND money.

  • avatar

    A guy in my neighbourhood had one of these as part of a business offering transportation services for persons with disabilities. I drove by it on my way to and from work for months trying to figure out what it was. Eventually I made it a point to take the dog for a walk by it and took note of the badges. It wasn’t long after that when the first TTAC story on the vehicle appeared.

    Oddly, I saw it more at a local mom-and-pop garage where it was always in for repairs. I happed to use that same shop and asked about it. No surprise, but it was never the powertrain that caused it to be parked but something else and parts were hard to get.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Well, this turned out to be much more involved than I was expecting. I figured these were some half-step-above-a-kit-car that a handful of folks built on an F150 chassis in a big garage, in double-digit production totals.

  • avatar

    Questions for you Corey.

    What is the relationship between Electric Last Mile Solutions and SERES? ELMS is actually assembling EV at the Misawaka assembly.

    What is the relationship between SERES and Huawei? Huawei sells SERES manufactured EV thru Huawei channel in China.

  • avatar

    The styling sort of makes it look like a giant Honda Element.

  • avatar

    This vehicle failed because stamping that character line into the doors and body sides tripled the overall cost of the vehicle. Right, Corey? ;-)

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