Custom carts zoom to top of luxury list
By Maria Montoya
Doris Biondi is a hot-rod grandma. She has a heavy foot and loves to ride with her top down. Luckily, though, her ride of choice is a luxury golf cart modeled on a 1934 Ford coupe convertible that tops out at a speed of 20 mph.
''I am just having a ball in this thing. It has everything you could ever need, plus more,'' says Biondi, 78, who lives in The Villages, a retirement community in Lady Lake, Fla. ''Everywhere I go, I have people stopping me to ask me about my cart.''
Biondi is one of a growing number of people upgrading from standard-issue golf carts to fancier customized vehicles. The trend dates to Jackie Gleason, who tooled around in a faux Rolls-Royce in the '70s, but sales have taken off the last couple of years, particularly in California, Hawaii and Florida. Ranging in price from $11,000 to $25,000, these hot wheels are being used not only on the golf course, but also in gated communities, which restrict cars and encourage carts to lessen congestion. Sports stars such as Deion Sanders and Joe Montana are buying them to get around their lavish estates. The cool carts are even popping up on Hollywood movie sets.
''We are booked. We even had to bring in some extra people to keep up with the demand,'' says Luis Martinez, sales director for Genesis Golf in New York City, which is licensed to manufacture mini Humdingers, Lamborghinis and other exotic carts.
''People figure they are going to spend $6,000 to $10,000 on a regular cart, so why not get something nicer?''
Extras like air conditioning, stereos with radios and CD players, built-in ice chests and leather interiors may not make customers better golfers, but they sure are attractive to those cruising the streets.
''My golf cart is my buddy. It just has everything. I don't think I would golf as much without it,'' says Vic Armstrong of Bloomington, Ill., who received his Elmco Royal Ride, modeled after a Rolls, as a birthday present from his wife.
''I have no use for a car at all now that I have my hot rod,'' Biondi says. ''It's how everybody recognizes me.''
Don Durflinger, a sales representative for Elmco, based in Cooksville, Ill., credits the increase in custom cart sales to a great economy, golf's current trendiness and a recent 10% tax break on electric vehicle purchases. He says many models have become so popular that mom-and-pop cart dealers are making knockoffs and selling do-it-yourself kits for as little as $500.
''There is definitely a lot more competition out there than there was ever before,'' Durflinger says.
Custom carts, once a small part of the $600-million-a-year cart industry, now are 20% of sales, says Don Del Place, managing editor of Golf Car Advisor magazine.
''Each succeeding year, these carts just become more popular,'' says Del Place, adding they're in demand with baby boomers wanting replicas of cars that were hip when they began driving. ''With more and more communities being built around golf carts, I think the niche will just keep expanding.''
U.S. motor vehicle safety standards issued last year, which allow electric vehicles on public streets with speed limits less than 30 mph, also are fueling the frenzy.
''The new standards definitely triggered some interesting ideas,'' says Ann Hanson, vice president of marketing/sales for Think Mobility, Ford's new electric vehicle division. ''These vehicles are truly unique. They are as safe as a car, but can get around as easily as a golf cart.''
The Think Neighbor will be released early next year, but consumers can check out the carts at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., during the holidays, where they'll be used to move shoppers around.
''People want to be on the cutting edge, and this is a fun way to do that,'' says Hanson, who says that, at $6,000, the trendy Fords are priced comparably to non-customized Club Car or E-Z-Go carts.
For Gary Leigh, developer of Walnut Brook, an upscale planned community in Rochester Hills, Mich., custom carts are more than a means of getting around. Leigh uses a Cadillac, a Royal Ride and an eight-passenger limousine as marketing tools to show off his models and community design to prospective home buyers.
''These carts just really create a nice impression on people. Many times people are shocked at how fancy they are,'' Leigh says. ''They're just the greatest idea.''
Larry Rogers, owner of LA Concept Cars in Tampa, says the custom carts can't help but exude prestige and gather gawkers.
''There are no limitations on what we can do,'' Rogers says. ''As long as someone is willing to spend the money, you will see these big-ticket carts being built.
''They are just really expensive toys for adults.''Correction: Genesis Golf is an Authorized Dealer for the above mentioned vehicles.
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