Wheelnutz transforming lives through a love of cars

Gavin McCarthy and Jade Burgmann standing beside a car engine

A love of cars doesn’t belong to any one group. It’s something that unites people from all walks of life — including people with disabilities.

That’s the idea at the heart of a truly remarkable enterprise based in Queensland: Wheelnutz. With workshops in Brendale and Logan, Wheelnutz teaches mechanical and automotive skills to people with disabilities. It is a disability services business owned by Capricorn Members Gavin McCarthy and Jade Burgmann.

“The workshops are set up as automotive garages and they are run like businesses,” Jade said. “A lot of these young people who come into the garage want to learn the skills necessary to go on to some kind of employment in the future, so we run it like a place of employment.

“They’re not only learning the technical skills and gaining some industry knowledge; they’re also learning all the soft skills necessary for employment—turning up on time, turning up clean and presentable, learning how to communicate with their workmates in a way that’s respectful.”

Jade and Gavin also own Adventure Crew, which provides NDIS-accredited outdoor activities for people with disabilities, like kayaking, fishing and swimming. Gavin said it was through taking people away on four-wheel driving trips (often respite breaks for primary carers) with Adventure Crew that the idea for Wheelnutz was born.

“We’d take them away for a weekend or for a few days and then they start expressing an interest in what goes on with the vehicles that we were using,” he said. “We had a few four-wheel drives so we started Wheelnutz in our garage at home, showing some of our guys how we service the car, how we fix it, how we modify them for the trips that we were doing.”

That was December 2020. By February 2021, Wheelnutz had become so popular that Gavin and Jade found commercial premises on the Gold Coast to use as a training base. Although that location has since closed, the two other locations continue to grow in popularity, with more than 60 people now regularly attending. The business has 18 staff, including some who came from the industry and have disabilities themselves.

The participants work on their own cars or staff cars, and work on everything from oil changes to complete restorations.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the time these guys are doing really big fabrication, modification works,” Gavin said. “For example, we’ve just done a N70 Hilux. We’ve converted it from an independent front end and it’s now solid axle swapped. So, all of the running gear under that car is now Nissan Patrol.

Photo collage of multiple people working in some cars.

It’s course sprung all around. It’s got a Nissan Patrol gearbox in it. The whole car is half-and-half Nissan Patrol and Toyota Hilux.”

Although Wheelnutz does not provide accredited training, the company’s instructors are familiar with the skills required for accredited courses and some participants have gone on to pursue further training and careers.

Jade said participants range in age from their mid-teens to their late 60s.

“And really the garage is accessible for anyone and everyone who just simply has an interest in automotive,” she said. “We’ve got a mix of male and female participants who’ve got a wide variety of disabilities or health conditions.

“The vast majority of the folks in the garage are on the autism spectrum, but then we’ve also got a large number of people with acquired brain injuries or intellectual disabilities. It’s quite varied.”

“At the end of the day, it was only ever going to be a space where people come together because they’ve got a shared interest and they just love cars, they love tinkering with cars, they want to get their hands dirty and kind of get under the bonnet and just have a play with these big shiny things that they probably wouldn’t be allowed to do anywhere else.”

Gavin and Jade each grew up with a parent involved in the automotive industry and are both passionate about the opportunities the industry can offer people with disabilities, and the strengths and skills people with a disability can offer the industry.

“We not only have participants who have NDIS plans, but we’re also seeing more and more people who have either experienced a workplace or vehicle accident, which has resulted in them being eligible for some state-funded rehabilitation support,” Gavin said.

Wheelnutz has won awards for its unique program and some participants have gone on to join the industry professionally. That hasn’t always been a successful transition, but Jade said there’s no reason many people with disabilities couldn’t become star employees at most workshops, with just a few minor tweaks to how the workshop operates. For example, a young person who is autistic may have some sensory challenges, and just having somewhere quiet where they can remove themselves for five minutes to reset and regulate their emotions (like a lunchroom that is quiet outside of lunch hour) can make a huge difference. In terms of impact and outcome, Jade considered it no different to another employee popping out for five minutes for a cigarette.

Gavin said there’s plenty of opportunity for workshop owners and the wider automotive industry to get involved in Wheelnutz and support the skills development of people with disabilities. He said they’re always looking for projects (they’re currently getting a 1970 Pontiac Firebird roadworthy under Australian law, and putting a V8 in an old FJ40 Land Cruiser) and donations of old equipment are always welcome.

“We’re trying to broaden the scope of what we’re doing,” Gavin said. “I’d like to move into tyre fitting and changing tyres. There is a massive shortage of tyre fitters and wheel balance aligners at the moment, but we want to expand what we’ve got. So, any sort of help from within the automotive industry with equipment that these guys can use and learn on and hopefully find employment as a result of, would be very welcome.”

Gavin and Jade encouraged business owners, especially those in rural and regional areas, to reach out for guidance on employing people with disabilities.

Find out more and contact Gavin and Jade at wheelnutzgarage.com
This article was published 15/02/2024 and the content is current as at the date of publication.