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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Golf carts aren’t just for fairways anymore

With a population nearing 10,000, Wendell’s motto is: “Small Town, Big Charm.”  

Adding to the charm of the Raleigh bedroom community, says Mayor Pro Tempore Jason Joyner, is the increasing use of golf carts on roadways as well as fairways. The government affairs specialist paved the path for carts by helping rewrite ordinances making it legal to operate them on many Wendell streets.

“We’re a small town. We’ve got a main street. It’s nice,” he says. “But you know, it’s less than 20 vendors. So when mom and dad get in the car with kids, maybe they leave Wendell. Our thought has been that if we make downtown and being in town an experience that is fun, we’ll keep them here.” 

Since its been easier to use carts, their popularity around Wendell has defied Joyner’s imagination. “I thought we’d have 20 or 30 golf carts ultimately,” he says. “We’re well over 160 now.”

With fuel prices skyrocketing to near-record levels, more families are taking trips in battery-powered vehicles. Younger families use them for visits to the local pool or parks. Older folks find them comfortable for errands.

“We have a new brewery and when we did downtown parking around the brewery, we had designated golf cart spots,” Joyner said. “It’s a cool thing.”

Both electric and gas carts and similar-sized units called neighborhood electric vehicles or the heftier low-speed vehicles have become utilitarian transportation tools for off-road sporting endeavors such as hunting, fishing and beach exploration. They are also prominent across sprawling settings including airport terminals, campgrounds, university campuses and resorts. 

“We have a ton of farmers who come in here,” says Cheyann James, an associate with BJ & Son Custom Golf Cars, which has operated in Thomasville for more than four decades. “They want gas carts because they don’t want to deal with plugging them in. But most all of your beachgoing people and people who stay in campgrounds want electric. … They’re quieter.”

James was raised around what she calls golf cars. (Industry insiders prefer that term to more commonly used “carts.”) Her grandfather, Bobby James, started the family business across the street from its current site. “We’ve got one guy who’s not family, but he’s pretty much grandfathered in,” she says.

Servicing and accessorizing older carts is a big part of BJ & Son. 

“There are a lot of businesses that are into refurbishing carts and selling them. We’re one of the only ones in the service business,” James says. While BJ & Son sells 40 to 50 carts a year, some rivals “might sell 10 a week.”

Technological innovations have boosted  pricing into the range of entry-level cars. New, custom-built models sell for $6,000 to more than $20,000, while used or refurbished carts trade from less than $3,000 to $10,000-plus. 

“If you buy a brand-new golf cart and soup it up, you can be looking at anywhere from $13,000 and up,” she says. “[Many people] take an older one, strip it down to the frame and rebuild” for $6,000 to $10,000, depending on the accessories.

Some cart owners showcase their style with personalized colors, seats, wheels and other accessories. Others trick out their carts with fancy tires, spinner rims and custom graphics.

Some four- to eight-seat limo units sport headlights, turn signals and sound systems that are more powerful than those in some cars. There are air-conditioned and heated carts along with enclosed vehicles with coolers and even refrigerators powered by the cart’s lithium batteries. “You can put pretty much anything on them,” she says.

While older models were mostly fiberglass, today’s golf carts tend to be made with molded plastic and typically weigh 500 to 1,100 pounds. The battery-operated units reduce emissions and emit a barely perceptible hum. 

For electric carts, battery maintenance tends to be the biggest expense.  “You can get six to seven years from batteries, as long as you take care of them,” James says. 

WIDESPREAD USE

The 21st century beckoned a new dawn for the industry, particularly in the Carolinas, where golf carts ferrying people around coastal campgrounds and vacation communities are a common sight.

Bald Head Island is nestled at the southernmost tip of North Carolina’s lower barrier islands and includes about 1,150 private residences. Residents and visitors catch ferries between Southport and the island, where cars aren’t permitted. Golf carts and bicycles are the main vehicles used there.

Bald Head is well known for its 4th of July Golf Cart Parade when dozens of carts are judged in categories such as patriotic, tacky tourist, and island-themed. Enthusiastic crowds applaud as the cart caravan travels from Marina Harbor Park to Old Baldy, the state’s oldest standing lighthouse, and around the island.

In recent years, the golf cart trend has spread into smaller towns and private city enclaves across the state. In golf-centric Pinehurst, carts are frequently parked around the village.  

The eco-friendly nature of carts has prompted Wendell and other cities to rewrite local ordinances to permit people to drive carts on city streets. While studying public administration at Appalachian State University, Joyner learned how coastal communities were instituting golf-cart ordinances. He put that knowledge to work with policies adopted in Wendell.

In downtown Beaufort, golf carts are allowed to travel freely on public roads if they are street legal and registered. The town implemented a cart ordinance about five years ago to slow traffic and make the area more livable. Southport requires that golf carts be registered annually. In 2018, the town adopted a liability disclaimer saying that cart users operate at their own risk.

Belmont, a fast-growing Gaston County suburb of Charlotte, allows carts on most streets provided owners buy a $25 annual registration and inspection and a $5 decal and show proof of insurance. 

Not everyone is jumping on the trend. Waxhaw, a fast-growing Union County town near Charlotte, issued warnings prohibiting golf carts on its publicly maintained streets. Other cities have placed restrictions.

But North Carolina lawmakers have shown flexibility for towns to set up fee structures that enable money to flow from cart licensing into parks and recreation budgets, Joyner notes. “It made a good thing help pay for another good thing.”

▲ Wendell’s car dealership, Universal Chevrolet, added a golf cart to get around the sales lot.

Joyner, a Wendell resident since 2012, works in downtown Raleigh with his wife, Meghan, at their consulting firm.

“When I get back to Wendell, it’s truly a little bit different world. You can disconnect a little bit,” he says. “I have friends that will come in from Raleigh or from somewhere else. No one ever wants to take the car to go get dinner. Everybody wants to go on the golf cart and ride to downtown to go get dinner.”

Carts can also allow for Southern hospitality, he suggests. “I get to know my neighbors because if I’m riding my car, I might wave at you but I’m not stopping my car to get out and talk to you.”

 “I think that it’s the future for suburban communities if you want to give yourself a brand. We’re the only ones in Wake County that are doing it, and we certainly have gotten an unofficial brand out of it.”

Golf carts have a history of safety issues, despite generally traveling at modest speeds. Failing to pay attention, reckless speeding, or abrupt stops and turns can lead to passengers being thrown from carts. Arms and legs hanging out of golf carts have led to many bad injuries. 

All that is true on the course, but the stakes get higher as more carts traverse public roads. In areas without paths designed for carts, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety coined their use as “a safety nightmare waiting to happen.”

In June 2021, a 41-year-old Wake County optometrist was heading home in a cart after a party at her Holly Springs golf course community clubhouse when she was killed in a crash. Her husband was charged with death by motor vehicle and possession of an open container of alcohol but did not receive a prison sentence, according to Wake County Court records.

About 156,000 people in the U.S. required emergency-room treatment for golf cart-related injuries between 2007-17, according to a 2020 study published in the Journal of Safety Research

“Golf-cart use remains an important source of injury for people of all ages, especially in children,” researchers concluded. “As use continues to increase, it is unlikely that golf cart-related injuries will decrease without substantial changes to product design, regulation, and/or legislation.”

For 20 years, North Carolina has regulated low-speed vehicles and their ability to travel along state-maintained roads. Golf carts cannot be operated on a roadway at speeds topping 35 miles per hour, and drivers must maintain liability insurance. A valid driver’s license is required. 

To be considered street-legal in North Carolina, a cart needs to have the basic mechanisms of normal cars. That includes  headlights and brake lights, turn signals, safety reflectors, U.S. Department of Transportation-approved tires, parking brakes, rearview mirrors, a horn and seat belts.

“Every town has different regulations. Some of them just require seatbelts, turn signals and brake lights,” says Cheyann James of Thomasville’s BJ & Son Custom Golf Cars. “Some of them require for you to have a windshield wiper.”

Under North Carolina driving laws, “rules of the road” apply to golf carts as any other motor vehicle. That means users can’t sip a beer while driving down the street as they might heading down a fairway. ■

— Brad King

Golf carts were introduced in the early 1930s as a means of assisting disabled golfers. It wasn’t until the 1950s that they went more mainstream, aided by the entrepreneurial instincts of a future North Carolina business leader. 

Today, increasing popularity of golf and off-the-course uses has spurred estimated sales of about $1.3 billion annually with expected growth to $1.8 billion by 2028, according to Portland, Ore.-based Allied Market Research. Golf courses, which make up more than half of industry sales, typically retain their carts for about three years. Resellers often add fresh paint, new wheels, fancier seats, and other bells and whistles. 

Three companies dominate the U.S. market and are based in Georgia: Club Car and E-Z-Go in Augusta and Yamaha in Newnan. “It’s about comparing a Ford to a Chevrolet,” says Cheyann James of Thomasville’s BJ & Son Custom Golf Cars. “All three (brands) do the same thing. “ 

Augusta-based brothers Beverly and Billy Dolan founded E-Z-Go in 1954. Golf carts in use grew  from about 1,000 in the early 1950s to 120,000 a decade later. The Dolans sold their business to diversified manufacturer Textron in 1960.

Beverly Dolan, known as the “father of the modern golf cart,” later headed Textron’s Homelite chain-saw business in Charlotte and was a longtime director of First Union Bank  and Ruddick, which owned Harris Teeter. He eventually became CEO of Providence, R.I.-based Textron.

Likewise, golf carts are among many products made by Japan’s Yamaha Motor Corp. Its Newnan, Ga.-based golf car company pioneered electronic fuel-injection and four-wheel suspension technology.

Club Car was founded in Houston in 1958 but moved to Augusta in 1962. It produced the first golf car with a steering wheel, which gained popularity as comedian Jackie Gleason and golfer Sam Snead were photographed riding maiden vehicles. It’s the official golf car of the PGA of America and the European Tour. 

Ingersoll Rand, a manufacturer based in Davidson, owned Club Car from 1995 to 2021. Los Angeles-based private-equity firm Platinum Equity bought the business for $1.7 billion in 2021. 

Improved safety features and solar-powered vehicles are contributing to growth, along with renewed interest in golf and soaring gasoline prices. ■

— Brad King and Harris Prevost

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