New York TImes
April 9, 2007
A Custom Ride, Legal for the Street or the 18th Tee
By DAMON HACK
Jim McIntyre drives to the grocery store in a golf cart resembling a 1957 Chevy Bel Air.
He motors down sidewalks wide enough for carts — the kinds that might be sporting an improbable flourish like a pseudo-Atlanta Braves helmet — and tunnels too narrow for cars and keeps his eyes open for the thousands of other carts whizzing around the neighborhood.
“There are 50,000 old folks here,” said Mr. McIntyre, 71, a retired PanAm pilot. “You have to be careful.”
He is one of about 64,000 residents in The Villages, a 20-square-mile retirement community for active people north of Orlando, Fla., south of Ocala, and overrun with golf carts.
At any moment, golf carts — many of them custom-built — are pulling into a movie theater or out of a pharmacy at The Villages. There are Hummer carts and those vaguely resembling Studebakers.
Anyone who has been around a retirement community in recent years would hardly be stunned by the proliferation of carts.
What’s eye-catching is how the carts, originally designed to ferry golfers around courses faster and more cheaply than a caddie, have become showpieces at golf developments, gated communities and even some private clubs.
Many of these carts have increasingly become a personal statement — a simulation of a coveted luxury auto or a tribute to a vanished sports franchise from a long-lost childhood.
According to industry experts, golf cart sales to courses have increased only slightly over the past 10 years, but sales to individuals have doubled.
That trend was spurred nine years ago, when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration established a category called low-speed vehicles. They are allowed to go up to 25 miles an hour on public roads with speed limits of up to 35 m.p.h. if they are equipped with various safety devices, including seat belts, headlights and taillights. “The fleet market to courses is a very slow growth, but the private individual market is constantly changing and growing,” Robert Thomas Jr., the president of Electronic Car Distributors in Rancho Mirage, Calif., said in a telephone interview. “Now golf carts are not just for golf, they are for the streets, for running around town. People are raising them up and lifting them and even taking them off road.”
Mr. Thomas said that of the 3,500 carts his company sells a year, he estimates that 75 percent of them are to individuals and the rest to courses.
Nowadays, residents in retirement communities up and down Florida, as well as across California and Arizona — a world far beyond Georgia’s storied Augusta National, home of the Masters — glide to mornings of shuffleboard and evenings of dinner and dancing in a golf cart. “These folks go to church in their golf carts,” Gary Lester, a vice president at The Villages, said.
The residents of The Villages have a collection of carts ranging from simple to silly, with some of them running on 8-volt batteries and others riding on magnesium alloy wheels.
While Mr. McIntyre recently sat in the parking lot of a supermarket, dozens of carts rolled by. There was a brown golf cart that looked like a UPS truck and another that looked like a red fire engine.
One cart was painted baby blue, another was fitted with decals of the Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
“Some of these are cheesy,” Mr. McIntyre said. “This one caught my eye.”
He was speaking of his own ride, which he bought for $8,500 from a cart dealer two years ago after seeing a similar one on the street.
He decked his out with fuzzy black dice and a Nevada license plate that spelled “FOOOORE,” meaning heads up. (Mr. McIntyre was a 3-handicap before knee surgery.) Then, he hit the road and the golf course with the rest of the population.
“I moved here, and I needed a cart,” he said.
Others here, Walter Biernacki among them, have felt the same urge. Last year, he sold a 1966 candy-apple-red Mustang GT and immediately started feeling seller’s remorse.
He went on the Internet to see if anyone could make a 1966 candy-apple-red Mustang GT golf cart. He found a company, Phat Cat Carts, in Clearwater, Fla.
“I told them all the things I wanted,” Mr. Biernacki said. “I even sent them the PPG paint code for the candy-apple red. Trumpet exhausts. Double-eagle GT tires. They even painted the letters white, just the way you can get them for the cars.”
His cart has a CD player and an AM/FM radio installed with a powerful antenna hidden in the wooden dashboard. It also has a horn, mirrors, turn signals and four-way flashers, helping make the cart street legal.
The seats are red-and-white vinyl and the steering wheel is a Grant. It cost $10,000 to assemble.
Mr. Biernacki, 60, keeps his Mustang cart cruising between 13 m.p.h. and 15 m.p.h.
“The high-speed motors are nice, but you might not make it home,” Mr. Biernacki said.
The slower speed has actually allowed more people to gawk at Mr. Biernacki and his companion, Sue Blomenberg, who said she could rarely drive into town at The Villages without someone giving her a thumbs-up.
“It’s an attention-getter,” she said. “We drove to Wal-Mart once and when we got out there were four people with cameras taking pictures of it.”
In September 2005, The Villages set a Guinness Book world record by forming a line of 3,391 carts. It stretched for several miles.
“Every golf cart you can imagine, from a hot rod to a jalopy,” Mr. Lester of The Villages said.
At Classi Carts in Tucson, customers can walk through the front door and enter a property that looks like a cross between a show room and mechanic’s garage.
On a recent visit to Classi Carts, there was a red California roadster sitting out back and rows of a new golf cart brand, E-Merge, sitting inside on a checkered floor.
The store’s owner, John White, has been customizing golf carts since 1992. One of his most famous was a cart turned into a baseball helmet with an “A” on the front for the Atlanta Braves’ organization.
The team used it to shuttle players around the field during home games.
Depending on the style of custom cart, some sell for as little as $5,000 and others go for as much as $20,000.
But not every cart owner is thrilled with the toy. Fred Konz of The Villages recently purchased a sparkling white, four-passenger vehicle with luggage carrier from Global Electric Motorcars.
As he completed a shopping errand, stacking cases of diet soda in the back seat for the week, he started to feel some sticker shock as he re-examined his purchase.
“With taxes and license it cost $11,000,” Mr. Konz said. “These things are outrageously expensive. They are a very bad buy for the money.”
Michael S. Schmidt contributed reporting.