12 December 2022
Leonie Tagan hasn’t let her debilitating medical condition stop her pursuit of a life crammed with adventures. Helping this courageous lady to fulfil her dreams is a specially modified Disco 2 that gives her the freedom to do things her own way
Born in Middlewich, Cheshire East, Leonie Tagan moved to Australia with her family in 1992 – when she was just six-years old – to Hallett Cove, a coastal suburb of Adelaide in a protected conservation area. Like most young girls Leonie had a serious love of nature and sports and most of her weekends were spent seeking out some of the best off-road destinations with her parents and younger sister. By the age of 12 she was already driving their Mitsubishi Pajero in the outback or on friends’ land.
“I think it’s in the blood that I would have the Land Rover disease,” quips Leonie a few minutes into our interview. “I’ve always loved four-wheel drives, and once my parents bought their first green oval-badged 4x4 – albeit a Range Rover [1998 Vogue Plus] – I was smitten. It had air suspension and I loved watching it trying to level itself, especially on a hill or a curb; we were so mean to that poor car! Once the Discovery came out I just loved them and knew one day I’d have one. Not everyone in Australia likes Land Rovers, though. I’ve had several partners that wouldn’t let me get one, a lot of them forget that Toyotas are Japanese.”
At 16 she had her provisional driving licence and her lifelong love of cars soon became an addiction. She turned it into a profession a few years later, training as a vehicle paint technician. Not long after, aged 22, Leonie was dealt a massive blow when she was diagnosed with functional neurological disorder (FND) – a medical condition in which there is a problem with the functioning of the nervous system and how the brain and body sends and/or receives signals – as well as chronic regional pain syndrome, meaning she’s in pain 24/7.
36-year-old Leonie has a thirst for adventure and tries not to let her condition get in the way of it
“When I first found out I had this disability I was in a really bad place and I didn’t want to live my life, I thought it was over,” she confesses. Leonie’s paralysis started in her hand but after a few years she had problems walking as it spread to her legs. “I hated wheelchairs and I hated that I needed one and found it very shameful, but I think it’s because I was worried how people would perceive me – the world isn’t made for wheelchairs. But then as you learn the freedom they give you, you start to feel more confident. When people say ‘wheelchair bound’ I hate that term, because your wheelchair is your chariot of freedom and society doesn’t always see that. I could be so much worse and I count myself lucky. I don’t miss walking but I do miss manual cars,” she adds.
As the interview goes on, her doggedness, grit and determination really start to shine through. “When my licence was medically revoked I was devastated, but I wasn’t prepared to give up one of my biggest passions.” By this point Leonie already had her dream Land Rover which she sourced online. It was an automatic white Discovery 2 with an ARB bull bar already fitted (an essential in rural areas where kangeroos tend to jump out in front of cars), as well as a two-inch lift kit and snorkel which would prove handy for off-road escapades. “My dad and I flew up to Melbourne where the owner picked us up and once we checked it over we drove it back the eight hours home. They off-roaded it a lot round Victoria high country and did a lot of off-roading trips in it, but it was really well looked after and maintained and had full service history,” she reveals. “The owner found me on TikTok recently – he is really proud of that car and so glad I still have it.”
If Land Rover did wheelchairs… Leonie’s off-road chariot is a serious bit of kit
Fortunately in Australia there is a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) whereby the government funds costs associated with disability, and in the case of Leonie it not only included her two wheelchairs but also the modifications fitted to her D2 so that she can use it on- and off-road. Normally a vehicle has to be less than five-years old and in warranty for the modifications to be covered by the scheme, but Leonie wasn’t about to give up on her beloved Land Rover. “It took me 18 months to fight my case. I had to get a vehicle condition report from a licensed certifier in addition to evidence from a driver-trained occupational therapist that I had the ongoing capacity to drive. I also had to prove the modifications were suitable for my disability support needs, while all the steering controls and alterations to the brake and accelerator controls were assessed to meet the Australian standards and rules relevant to my state. There were endless reports that we had to do but they finally approved the funding and it was well worth the lengthy effort.”
Leonie can control the accelerator and brake via a hand control while still being able to hold the steering wheel
As such Leonie’s Discovery has now become her lifeline, and her number plate – Tenacious – couldn’t be more apt. Her 21-year-old Land Rover with 425,000km on the clock never gives up and nor does she. Modifications took a month to fit and were entrusted to Willshire Motor Trimmers which specialises in classic car restoration, but is also a leading supplier and installer in the mobility sector. The upgrades include bigger discs which make a huge difference to the braking power, requiring less braking force from her arm when she uses it via the Fadiel Italiana E-radial hand control that also allows Leonie to control the accelerator while holding the steering wheel. A JoySpinner electronic spinner knob operates the indicators, high beams, horn and window wipers all via her thumb, and there’s a Bruno hoist for her big off-road power chair and automatic tailgate. Her other wheelchair is made to her measurements and really lightweight so she can lift it in and out of the vehicle herself.
Leonie’s other wheelchair is custom-made for her and lightweight so she can lift it into the Discovery herself
LED driving lights have also been fitted (customised by Leonie with the outer ring handpainted in purple – her favourite colour) to improve night driving while a Pioneer entertainment system with smartphone connectivity and reversing camera brings peace of mind and convenience. Slightly larger 265/75 R16 AT tyres and GME CB radios are a welcome addition for when Leonie goes off-roading. Leonie and her father also machined out the webbing between the ports to help prevent the manifold from warping and she plans on upgrading her suspension to better cope with the weight of her power chair which tips the scales at 200kg.
Despite her significant health challenges Leonie is still able to enjoy many other hobbies include horse riding (the other love of her life is Legacy, a Cleveland Bay sport horse she’s had since she was two-months old), sculpting and modelling, and photography. She’s currently studying a diploma in the latter with the hope of making it a sustainable business but she couldn’t do it without her trusty Discovery as she explains: “A lot of the photography I do is off-road and not accessible by normal vehicles, whether that’s horse shows or people’s private property to capture them horse riding in dunes or marshes.”
Having fun with the YTG4x4 club at Loveday Adventure Park
While the vehicle mods are crucial to helping Leonie drive as they require little physical exertion and work perfectly with where her paralysis is, she still suffers from severe fatigue – so after her last trip when she drove for 12 hours over a weekend (with six of those intense off-roading) it took her weeks to recover. “My body was like ‘what did you just do to us’, but it was so worth it. It was my first outing after I got my licence back and with the YTG4x4 club [Yeah the Girls 4x4] at a place called Loveday 4x4 Park with 8000 acres of sand dunes, ruts and hills and 14km of river frontage. It was so much fun and I can’t wait to go back.”
Even driving at home around her parent’s 23 acres of land is an off-road adventure for Leonie. “Any drive just gives me a rush as I wasn’t able to get behind the wheel for so long,” she reveals. “I’m also surrounded by Land Rovers here as we’ve got another D2, a couple of Discovery 1s and a two-door Range Rover Classic.
“I really like going to the beach as well, but my favourite thing is mud – even in my power chair – I’ve been trying so hard to get it bogged but I just can’t. I think it’s made by Land Rover… One of my fondest memories with the Disco, though, has to be at Saunders Gorge, a series of really crazy steep rocky tracks. Once I got to the top of the ridge I had two eagles flying along at eye level, it was so incredible, and they’re massive – their wingspan is as wide as the car.”
Tenacious! Nothing stops this girl in her Disco
While Leonie would love a new Defender, money permitting of course, she already has her dream Land Rover. “The Disco is full of so many memories. I just can’t imagine it never being a part of my life. It would be like losing a family member if anything happened to it. It’s kept me safe through so much, and been my freedom,” she explains.
As well as the Disco, she also has a 1967 Chevy Impala and 1973 a Holden HQ panel van that she plans on restoring one day. “As much as I try to do everything I did before, I can’t spray paint as a living anymore, but I am determined to respray these two cars myself.
“I’ve been through quite a journey of self-discovery and learning that I can’t change my situation, the disabilities are what they are and they are far worse now than they were then, but I don’t give up. I’ve probably now got the most confidence I’ve had for most of my life and it is fine if I find things I can’t do. I’d rather try and then learn I can’t do them, than not try at all. But I nearly always find a way. You end up quite clever when you’re disabled with out-of-the-box thinking. In fact, I’ve just managed to find a way to start up archery.”
In her spare time Leonie dresses as Wonder Woman at events to help raise money for Heartkids. Inset: Leonie’s other love in her life – Legacy
Somehow, Leonie manages to find time to do charity work too, dressing up as Wonder Woman for events, mostly HeartKids – a cause that is very important to me with a son who was born with significant congenital heart disease. With our interview already running over and into my bedtime (what with Australia being 11 hours ahead of the UK) – I decide to wrap things up but not before asking a particularly tricky question and one that resonates with me. She calls herself a wheelchair warrior, and I call my son a heart warrior. I always said that it shouldn’t define him but at the same time his ‘disability’, for want of a better word, is part of his diversity and identity. I wondered what her feeling was on this?
“I like people to see me as a person, but also my disability and my wheelchair. I get a lot of people say to me they just see me – and I know they’re trying to be nice. But I find it offensive, as when you have a disability anything you do in life is hard, so it’s nice when they acknowledge both. At the same time however, it’s not all that you are. I don’t like it when people run up to me with stupid questions like ‘can you still have sex?’ and say stupid things like ‘you’re too pretty to be disabled’ when I’m trying to buy a loaf of bread, but if they ask me about my disability I will talk to them,” she answers.
I have just one more question – if she has anything to add. “I’d love to be a motivational speaker one day,” she replies. “If I could help others get out of that dark place – disabled or not – help them to see their worth and still do the things they’re passionate about, it would be amazing.”
And do you know what – I couldn’t think of anyone better. Leonie’s sense of humour and compelling personal story made me a firm believer she could do it and I defy anyone else to not feel inspired or humbled by her journey through chronic pain and fatigue, to still achieve pretty much everything she sets out to do.
Leonie is one of the most inspiring women I’ve talked to in all of my 20 years as a motoring journalist.
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