- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2005

THE VILLAGES, Fla. — Here, in this master-planned laand of golf greens, polo fields and gated cul-de-sacs, the snowbirds are all atwitter over what is on Lillie Lipscomb’s driveway.It isn’t just that Mrs. Lipscomb, who used to work for Chrysler in Detroit, went and purchased a golf cart. It isn’t just that the cart is a fiberglass replica of a 1934 Ford, bug-eyed headlights, chromed hubcabs and all. What really wows them are the iridescent flames across the jet-black hood — flames that constantly change hue, from blue to bronze to amber to green and gold, depending on the sunlight.

“Soon as I delivered it,” said Alan Zimmerman, who sold Mrs. Lipscomb her new chariot, “she had a bunch of neighbors outside her house going OOOH and AHHH and EEEE, like they’d seen a spaceship or something.”

The clincher was the beverage cooler — the one under the hood. “I’m amazed by that cooler,” said Gil Owens, 70, a retired correctional officer from Enfield, Conn. He noted it even had a drainage plug, for water to be removed when the ice melted. “I mean, who would have thought you could pack a few cold ones under your front hood?”

Mrs. Lipscomb, 62, didn’t blink at the price to be paid for putt-putting about in style: $20,400, including taxes. Her eyes do narrow, though, when people use that four-letter word — cart — while referring to her hot wheels.

“How could you call this a golf cart?” she asks. “It’s a car — a custom street rod, you know.”

Such little-wheeled luxury may seem extreme, but luxury golf carts — some of them modeled after Lincoln Navigators, Humvees and even Lamborghinis — are popping up on fashionable driveways nationwide. And, for the truly status-conscious, there are custom-built models.

In many gated, recreational communities that cater to older Americans in Hawaii, California, Florida and other states across the Sun Belt, the personal golf car is fast overtaking the automobile as the preferred mode of day-to-day transportation.

The craze hasn’t seized just die-hard duffers who you might expect to be bogeying their days away — although pro golfer Nancy Lopez has often been spotted cruising the fairways of The Villages in her custom car, a replica Hummer H2, which, without any bells or whistles, has a base price of $18,000. Even rank-and-file retirees who spend no more than a weekend a year on the fairways are garaging their once-beloved automobiles and using stylish golf cars for travel close to the nest.

It makes perfect sense to Gary Lester, a spokesman for The Villages, a 22,000-acre sanctuary to 45,000 snowbirds in the heart of Florida that markets itself as “the most golf-car-friendly community in existence.”

As he sees it, growing numbers of retiring baby boomers, fed up with the daily stress of gridlocked traffic and the hassle of having to hunt for parking, are seeking out insulated, supersized developments such as The Villages where all of one’s needs are a mere golf-car ride away.

Here, there are 30 restaurants, six churches, 300 holes of golf, a polo grounds, a high school, a plethora of theaters, clubs, grocery stores, strip malls and office complexes — all of them, Mr. Lester notes, accessible through a network of paved trails, “golf-car-legal” roads and 15 two-lane tunnels (which go under the major intersections).

There has never been any gridlock either, with one notable exception. “When Arnold Palmer and Nancy Lopez were playing a match here a couple of years ago,” Mr. Lester said, “I remember the most amazing sight: a string of golf cars backed up down the path toward that golf course, a half-mile long.”

Traditional golf carts typically sell for $5,000 to $6,000. Most, like the EZ-Go Freedom SE, seat two passengers, fit two golf bags in the rear and feature 36-volt electric motors that can reach a maximum speed of 15 mph. Presently, these “Plain Janes” represent 90 percent of the roughly $200 million golf-car market.

But spiffy, personalized rides are catching on big-time, especially among baby boomers who are retiring early, said Michael Hruby, owner of LuxuryCarts.com, an online distributor based in Mililani, Hawaii.

In the past six years, Mr. Hruby has watched sales of his luxury lines grow by 40 percent a year. In 2004, he did $1 million in business. “And I think we’re still at the starting line,” he added.

Dave Russell, sales manager at The Villages Golf Cars, agrees. “We’re seeing more interest in the custom cars among the 55- to 60-year-old boomers,” he said. “Their taste in golf cars is definitely more high-end.”

The interest in these chariots couldn’t have come at a better time; the golf industry as a whole has been stagnant since the economy tanked four years ago, which means people like Bill Andrews, president of Cart World in Lady Lake, Fla., have had a tough time selling “fleet” carts.

Now that demand for high-end carts is picking up, though, Mr. Andrews is looking to tap the trend by dolling up his standard models with pinstripes, 10-inch tires, rack-and-pinion steering, lockable front trunks, simulated burled-wood dash panels, carpeting, and very basic air-conditioning systems that run on ice poured into the canopy.

Of course, when it comes to snazz appeal, nothing compares to a replica car.

Take, for instance, the Cadillac Escalade Cart, from Sport Electric Vehicles: AM/FM radio, CD player and 8-inch television on the dash; a global-positioning system; 13-inch aluminum wheels; leather seats; carpeted floors; and the hood, grill, headlights, taillights and turn signals of a regular Caddy.

Sticker price: $22,000.

For those who want to make a fashion statement and haul up to 24 mph, which is well more than what a standard, low-speed golf car will do, there is the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle — NEV, for short.

Mr. Hruby said his hottest-selling NEV looks like a scaled-down version of a Lincoln Navigator, with a gas engine that packs as much as 18 horsepower, “for the guy who wants a little oomph from his pedal.”

Neil Borden, 59, a New York City native, sees little need for the extra oomph of a NEV. He traded in his simple EZ-Go earlier this year and upgraded to a “golf car with class” — a ‘34 Ford replica. It maxes out at 19.8 mph, but for Mr. Borden, that is velocity enough.

“I’m retired,” Mr. Borden said. “What do I need to be in a hurry about?”

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