A one of a kind gift for a one of a kind man: Friends build Harley sidecar for friend in wheelchair
"It was one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me," said Rob Engstrom.
"Dave and I have been friends for coming up close to 15 years now. I met him and his wife one day while I was walking my dog, Spokes. We've been friends ever since. To be quite honest with you, they're like my family," said Engstrom.
For nearly half of their friendship, Bindert had been keeping a secret from Engstrom, a project he and co-conspirator Dell Zehm, owner of St. Croix Harley-Davidson had been puzzling over for the past five years.
This story really started back in 2007 when Bindert's wife Brenda bought him a surprise Christmas present.
"In December 2007, Dave's wife came in and bought him a bike (motorcycle) for a Christmas present. We took it over to his house on Christmas Eve and secretly stuffed it into their garage while they were out having dinner together," recalled Zehm.
Bindert liked surprises.
Then a number of years ago, Bindert called up Zehm to ask for a favor.
"I called Dell up and asked him if he'd rent me a motorcycle and a sidecar. He asked what for and I told him. He knew Rob, so he said just come and take it," said Bindert.
Engstrom has been confined to a wheelchair for the past 34 years following an accident that happened while he was skiing out in Colorado in 1984.
Turns out, Engstrom has always enjoyed going fast, a "need for speed" so to speak.
Engstrom and Bindert have a bit of history with sidecars.
"I tried to build one out of an old Hondamatic. It was kind of a Mad Max build. About the nicest thing on it was the ramp and that was about the sturdiest thing on it as well," said Engstrom.
"Dave took them for a ride and it almost killed them. He said it went into kind of a wobble and he really thought that he had killed them both," said Zehm.
Bindert and Engstrom had experienced some more successful rides after the Mad Max attempt, but it was never easy.
The problem with a regular sidecar was Engstrom needed to be lifted into it, which wasn't very comfortable.
"So it was kind of fun to go for a ride in a sidecar, but it was always a major pain to do it, being lifted in and out. As I got older, my body just didn't do well with that," said Engstrom.
After the harrowing ride in Engstrom's Mad Max invention, Zehm thought the sidecar idea was finally finished, but Bindert had other ideas.
"I told Dell, we have to do something before he kills himself (and me). Let's build him something. So Dell and I came up with this idea to build a sidecar that would fit a wheelchair," explained Bindert.
That's when the quest for a better solution really started.
"It sounded easy. We got on the internet and there were all kinds of examples, but they all were fraught with problems. We kicked it around, looked for people to build one but they were all reluctant because of the liability. So it kind of got put on the back burner. Over time something would come along and we'd get excited, then we'd lose interest and so on and so forth," recalled Zehm.
Than last January everything changed. Zehm got his hands on a sidecar he thought could work.
"Last January I called Dave up and I said, 'Dave I think we have a sidecar that will work.' He said, 'Okay. We'll bolt it to my bike to keep the costs down.' I said, 'Are you sure you want to do that?' and he said yes," said Zehm.
The actual sidecar from which Engstrom's sidecar would be made found its way to St. Croix Harley as part of a trade-in from Canada. The initial appeal of it was it was really low to the ground.
Engstrom enjoyed some celebrity in the Stillwater area because folks knew him from driving around in his van with his dog Spokes on his lap. Bindert wanted to keep the sidecar project a secret, a surprise.
"Dave was trying to keep this a secret, but we thought there were just too many people that knew this was happening. We're thinking this is going to be the worst kept secret ever because everybody that we'd approached (over the years) wanted to donate or be a part of it somehow. Now this was getting exciting," said zehm.
Having the idea was one thing, building it into a reality turned out to be a completely different challenge.
Re-engineering the existing sidecar started by cutting it in half. St. Croix Harley-Davidson Shop Manager Craig Fryberg, a custom car enthusiast, was responsible for a lot of the mechanical work.
"I knew he would have the ability to figure out a brake and make sure the mount was safe," said Zehm.
The sidecar had to be widened enough to accommodate a wheelchair. It had to have a ramp and it had to be mounted as low as possible to Bindert's existing bike. It needed the hardware to secure a wheelchair in place. It also had to be able to brake carrying roughly 600 pounds, and above all, it had to be safe.
"The big issue was making sure we had enough braking power. What happens with a sidecar is, when you try to stop it, the sidecar wants to continue so it pushes you over into the other lane. It also works like an anchor when you try to take off and pulls you toward the mail boxes (shoulder and whatever is over there off the side of the road)," explained Zehm.
The finished sidecar was the product of a number of craftsmen and a lot of big hearts.
What could have been just a utilitarian looking "tub" to house the wheelchair, ended up looking like a chariot thanks to work by a gentleman who repaired boats for a living. His fiberglass work required that a custom mold be made of wood first, into which the fiberglass was set. When he heard Engstrom was to be the recipient of the tub, he turned down the standard solution. "No, not if this is for Rob," he said. And a chariot was born.
Bindert is a painter by profession so the final finish was never in doubt, right down to the pinstriping, list of credits (in small print matching the humility of all those who contributed) and Spokes' name on one side of the car opposite Engstrom's name on the other.
There were days when Zehm had his doubts about whether the project would come to fruition, but not Bindert.
"Dave really is the one that made it happen. He oversaw every stage. It took a lot of people getting involved. From the first day, he just knew it was going to work," said Zehm. "Everyone who helped was excited to do this."
After a few test rides, Bindert and Zehm were convinced it was ready to present to Engstrom.
Here's what the moment felt like in Engstrom's own words.
"Earlier that week Dave asked me if I could pick him up on Saturday and take him to Harley so he could get his motorcycle. So I didn't think anything of it and said, 'Yea, no problem,' So I picked him up and Dell was having some kind of sale going on so it seemed like there were a thousand people out there, a lot of people looking through his shop and stuff like that. So I went into the shop with Dave and ran into Dell and his wife. We go back in and I'm like, 'Wow, that's kind of cool. They have a sidecar and it looks acceptable and it has my dog's name painted on the side of it.' So I'm like, 'what did you guys do?' It was a total shock, total surprise. I had no idea any of this was coming. I was literally in tears. I still today don't know how to react to such a nice act of kindness. Every time I've been in it, Spokes has been with me on my lap just riding along enjoying it," said Engstrom.
"Rob wheeled in and it was like he couldn't believe what he was seeing because he had thought about this for so long and so hard," said Zehm.
"You should have seen the look on Rob's face when he saw it," said Bindert. "I don't think he realized what it was at first or that it was for him, so he was a bit overwhelmed."
"Of course it's pretty hard to not know that it was built for him because Dave had his name painted on one side and Spokes' on the other side. Rob was absolutely speechless. So he rolled himself up into it and off they went for their first ride," said Zehm. "It was great seeing it all come together."
"It was just a very kind thing. I can't thank them, all of them, enough, I don't even know how," said Engstrom.