A Tex-Mex song is blasting from the stereo in “El Unico” as the one-of-a-kind vehicle slowly ambles down Glenoaks Boulevard, past the San Fernando Swap Meet.
“El Unico” is speeding on the sidewalk before it moves onto the road to avoid some food vendors blocking the sidewalk ahead.
As it passes next to vehicles sharing the road, at first it’s hard to pinpoint what it is— a car, a moped?
It’s actually an electric wheelchair that Joaquin Llamas, a retired Pacoima resident, transformed into a unique mode of transportation that takes him just about anywhere that is nearby.
“It’s the only one. There’s not another like it,” says the 76-year-old with a wide smile.
Llamas said he enjoys tinkering with “El Unico” and is still modifying it.
“I need to work on the inside because it’s a little uncomfortable for my knees. And I need to replace the latch on the door because sometimes it opens when I’m going down the road,” he said.
Using his ingenuity
A former cabinet maker who enjoys working with wood, Llamas — the retired Pacoima resident began transforming a regular wheelchair into his current transportation three years ago when he could only walk short distances and stand up for approximately five minutes.
He thought the wheelchair by itself “was a little boring” and decided to put a little flair into it.
“Playing around,” and using his ingenuity and whims as a guide, Llamas put a wood frame all around the wheelchair and shaped it into a form where he could add a motorcycle windshield in the front to protect him from the wind and insects.
The chair now looks like a cross between a moped and a car. It has a rearview mirror, and also a door. In addition, there is a roof to protect Llamas from the sun, which is covered by a canvas and fringe. Letters spelling “El Unico” are placed on the side of the roof.
“El Unico” has a maximum speed of five miles per hour and includes a car stereo connected to Llamas’ cell phone through Bluetooth that blasts the songs he enjoys as he drives it down the road. It has an accelerator and brake that he modified, while the steering wheel comes from a video game console. There’s also a 3-D image on the front, and lights for better visibility.
Everything is attached to an extra battery Llamas put in for extra power.
There’s even a small trunk in the back for when he goes to the grocery store, where he also hangs the walker he uses when walking inside the hospital or other indoor places.
Altogether it took him about 80 hours to work on the project, including the painting.
“The entire design is mine,” Llamas says proudly. “At first it had a different design. I didn’t like it and I modified it.”
Saves “a lot” on gas
Llamas uses “El Unico” to go everywhere. He said he goes inside stores with El Unico, but turns off the automatic mode and goes into manual to have better control.
“I go very slow so I don’t hit anybody or bump into things,” he noted. “I try not to create any problems for anyone.”
When theSan Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol caught up with him, Llamas was heading home from a doctor’s appointment at Holy Cross in Mission Hills, about four miles away.
“I save a lot on gas,” he said, noting that he uses “El Unico” for any trip that is close by. He parks in spaces reserved for motorcycles or the disabled, depending on the location.
“I even go to the drive-thru,” he adds.
For longer trips, he uses his car.
Everywhere he goes in “El Unico,” Llamas attracts attention from other drivers and pedestrians.
“People tell me, ‘pump up the music’ or ask me (to take) photos and videos. “Police stop me and they want to take photos too. It’s fun,” Llamas said, adding he often jokes with people he sees on the street by asking them, “did you order an Uber?”
Llamas said he follows the rules of the road and often stops before passing driveways to let vehicles go through.
“I’m not in a hurry,” he said. “I just need to get where I’m going.”