Author: Sam Brady, 24th September 2020

Since the mid-twentieth century, the shape of wheelchairs used for sports has changed significantly. To name a few examples, backrests have been lowered, armrest have been removed and wheels are cambered. These changes help to maximise performance and efficiency, among other things, allowing for the high quality of wheelchair sport that can be seen at elite levels. However, the racing wheelchair has seen the most significant alteration in its form and shape over recent history. Like other sports wheelchairs, these changes have been made to improve performance and user safety, but the demands of wheelchair racing have made designers consider the materials used to make the chair and the forces that act upon it. This article aims to present a very brief and compact overview of this technologies’ development.

Racing wheelchairs and other sports wheelchairs share ancestry in the everyday wheelchair. However, the unique needs of wheelchair racing required significant changes to occur early in the racing chair’s history. Unlike other sports, for instance, wheelchair racing requires the user to build up speed and momentum, as opposed to frequent start and stops, thus leading to a different technical design. At first, races took place in wheelchairs with large push rims and small front casters, which was functional, but not especially fast. Over the 1980s, notable developments took place. Originally, users had to hold onto caster wheels to stop them fluttering when going downhill.[1] To address this, wheelbases were extended, and front wheels were made bigger. As well, push rims became smaller, allowing users to accelerate quicker.

This wheelchair held by the National Paralympic Heritage Trust can demonstrate some of these developments.

Paul Cartwrights sports wheelchair used in the 1984 Paralympic Games.

Bromakin wheelchair, 1984, ©NPHT Paul Cartwright

This wheelchair was donated by Paul Cartwright and was made by Bromakin Wheelchairs for use in the 1984 Paralympic games. Aside from the size of the push rims and extended wheelbase, of note is the angle of the seat. As Cartwright said:

The footrest was too high so I had a new version built which was more of a V shape to cut down wind resistance. It moved my centre of gravity forward to give me more power to push.[2]

This image of influential athlete Chris Hallam MBE winning the London Marathon in 1987 also shows the shape racing wheelchairs could take. The rear wheels are tilted at a slight camber, providing stability and making pushes more efficient, and there is a bar between the front caster wheels to stop them fluttering.

Chris Hallam at the finish line of the London Marathon

Chris Hallam crossing the finish line at London Marathon, 1987 ©Getty Images

Further, 3-wheeled racing wheelchairs began to be designed and used. These wheelchairs also donated to the National Paralympic Heritage Trust, demonstrate this. The first was a prototype made by Jackson Cycles in 1986 for Paul Cartwright, and the second was used by Chris Hallam. This prototype shows the culmination of the previous developments, with the shift to the 3-wheel design. Slowly, users started to favour the 3-wheeled design and by the 1988 Seoul Paralympic games, the Paralympic rules were changed to allow this new form of machine. This was a transformative moment in racing chair design, replacing the chairs with limited or no steering, and swapping out caster wheels for a larger, spoked front wheel.

3 wheeler sports wheelchair prototype made for Paul Cartwright in 1986.

Jackson Cycle Prototype Wheelchair, 1986, ©NPHT Paul Cartwright

Photo of Chris Hallams racing wheelchair

Chris Hallam’s Racing Wheelchair ©NPHT Chris Hallam MBE

Some of these developments can be traced back to Bob Hall, who is known as the ‘father of wheelchair racing’ and developed every day and racing wheelchairs with his company Hall’s Wheels. The shape of the 3-wheeled racing wheelchair can be linked back to Hall, and this design inspired other athletes.[3] Later, Hall developed a titanium wheelchair with Merlin Metalworks, which was seen as a revolutionary design at the time and produced significant results.[4] This development process was marked by some notable changes, such as reducing the weight of the front axle (as the majority of the load is concentrated on the back wheels), a new axle system that greatly increased rigidity and a camber adjustment system.[5]

As Dan Chambers notes in a talk, by the 1990s, the shape of the racing wheelchair began to solidify, and subsequent changes were made to the materials the chairs were made from.  The project Hall worked on with Merlin Metalworks, for example, included the use of titanium as opposed to steel, reducing the overall weight of the chair by 30%.[6] However, titanium was too flexible, and was replaced by aluminium, which became an industry standard. Aluminium was light enough to not hinder performance, strong enough to support the athlete and the activity, and is easily shaped into whatever is needed.[7] Other material changes were in the seat, as padding and webbing was replaced with seats made from welded metal sheet, allowing for propulsion to be effectively transferred through the chair and providing a better foundation for users. As well, carbon fibre wheels began to be favoured, due to their lightweight nature.

Change also occurred in pushing technique, and push rim technology altered accordingly. As push rims became smaller to reduce velocity in the gearing, a new system of energy transfer was derived. As the athlete pushes against the rim, rubber on the glove interacts with rubber on the push rim, and the resulting friction transfers the athlete’s energy to the wheel.[8] Whilst this does not change the overall shape of the racing chair, this change in technique has an effect on how the athlete is positioned, as the athlete essentially leans forward to allow for a downward ‘punching’ motion against the push rims. This underlines the development in sports wheelchair manufacturing which began to focus on the various forces involved, in order to maximising performance, which is something of great concern to elite racers. Today, computer testing is utilised to examine these forces, and this allows for designers and athletes to understand how small changes in technique or material can impact performance.  Additionally, like non-racing sports wheelchairs, high-end racing wheelchairs are often built to the specifications of the user, meaning that elements such as the seat are still open to re-design and modification, even if the 3-wheeled design is here to stay.  

The technical marvel of the racing wheelchair is demonstrated by the astounding results of the athletes who use them. Yet, the racing wheelchair, and other sports wheelchairs, are relatively young technologies, which continue to be redefined and redeveloped by users and engineers. This piece presented many broad strokes in this object’s developmental history but has skipped over important elements such as seat positioning and compensators, the use of carbon fibre, or even the changing costs associated with wheelchair racing. Nonetheless, the racing wheelchair holds a fascinating history which will be further explored as this research develops. 

[1] Chambers, Racing chair evolution: Past, present and future, 2012
[2] Biography about Paul Cartwright, National Paralympic Heritage Trust.
[3] Mandeville Legacy, Sports Wheelchairs in the 1980s: The Impact of New Designs and Materials,
[4] Vandermark, Wheelchair Design: Race version,
[5] Vandermark, Wheelchair Design: Race version,
[6] Vandermark, Wheelchair Design: Race version,
[7] Chambers, Racing chair evolution: Past, present and future, 2012
[8] Chambers, Racing chair evolution: Past, present and future, 2012

Reading list:

  • Biography about Paul Cartwright, National Paralympic Heritage Trust.
  • Biography about Chris Hallam, MBE. National Paralympic Heritage Trust.
  • Dan Chambers, Racing chair evolution: Past, present and future. “Ingenia live: Engineering for Sports” Presentation, 2012. Accessed online.
  • Mandeville Legacy, Sports Wheelchairs in the 1980s: The Impact of New Designs and Materials, 2011.
  • Rob Vandermark, Wheelchair Design: Race version, 2008.