Magazine | December 09, 2019, Issue

The Non-Golf Cart

(Michael Godek/Getty Images)
On the ultimate conveyance

My other car is a golf cart. Or, looked at more veraciously, my other golf cart is a car.

Worry not, this isn’t some anti-car, pro-electric-vehicle, quinoa-and-Gaia, you’ve-ruined-my-future-you-rotters sort of thing. Quite the opposite, in fact; if I had my way, we would immediately pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to drive. It’s just that I don’t usually need a car now that I have a golf cart. I can get to the beach on my cart; I can go to the bank on my cart; I can go to the supermarket and the hardware store and the pharmacy on my cart. I can even go out for dinner on it. Thanks to the Florida legislature, I’m allowed to cross the road in my cart, and, thanks to the free market, the area in which I live has slowly but surely been designed and redesigned to accommodate exactly that habit. So, I indulge it with abandon. I cannot remember the last time I sauntered over to my local sports bar without seeing a golf cart parked outside its doors.

When I tell people this, they often ask, “Like an old person?” Or, “Do you even play golf?” To which the answers are “No” and “No — at least, not yet.” Older people have golf carts here, of course, and some of the people who have golf carts use them to play golf. But neither is prerequisite, or even relevant. I own a golf cart because it takes a lot of the stress out of my life. I own a golf cart because, once you have got used to going everywhere with the wind in your hair and the sun on your arms, it’s tough to go back. I own a golf cart, ultimately, because I like it. I like the fact that I can charge it in any place that has a standard 120-volt electrical outlet. I like the fact that it is extremely quiet, and that, when it does make a noise, it sounds like something straight out of The Jetsons. I like the fact that, as a matter of course, the most I’m obliged to do in order to maintain it is top up the water in each of the 8-volt batteries. Not to go full Church of the Florida Golf Cart here, but I defy anyone in his right mind to explain why he would take a car to the beach when he could bungee-cord a couple of folding chairs to the back of his golf cart, throw a cooler in the little trunk underneath the back seats, and park in one quarter of the space it takes to house a Ford Escape. If a golf cart was good enough for the astronauts of Apollo 15, it’s good enough for me.

They’re fun to tinker with, too. Unlike my car, which is locked down by the manufacturer in the same way as is my iPhone, my golf cart lets me service, upgrade, alter, debug, reconstruct, and revamp it without any official outside help. Which, of course, is precisely what I have done. Like most of the carts around here, mine started life as an entirely ordinary Club Car Precedent that had been pressed into service at a local golf course for a few years before being sold at auction. Now it is unrecognizable. Using a bunch of videos I found on YouTube and some parts I sourced from one of the thousands of aftermarket suppliers that have sprung up across the Internet, I’ve upgraded the engine from a 3.3-horsepower unit to a 9.1-horsepower model; I’ve raised the number of seats from two to four; and I’ve installed rear-view mirrors, left and right turning indicators, and, for each and every passenger, an aircraft-style seatbelt. When I have some more time to spare, I intend to replace the wheels, switch out the steering assembly for a sportier kind, and pull out the current dashboard so that I can add an odometer, a battery meter, and a Bluetooth stereo. Who needs a Ferrari!?

Down at the beach, you see all sorts of carts. There’s a cart with New York Yankees–themed seats; a cart with a fluffy pink steering wheel; a cart with comedy-sized wheels and an exaggerated lift job — a monster truck of a cart. Some people put bumper stickers on their carts. Others install special seats for their pets. One couple I know has wrapped their cart in a giant polyurethane sheet, the better to keep the water out in case of a sudden Floridian downpour. Matching golf carts with their owners can feel like watching that early scene in 101 Dalmatians in which the dogs and their owners are complementary to a fault. 

I have written a great deal about the tendency of free markets to create and to foster an almost endless supply of unique and peculiar products — products that, in a planned or restricted economy, would never have so much as occurred to the people in charge, let alone have come to any sort of fruition. To this almost endless list we must certainly add the golf cart — especially in its newer, non-golf-attached context — for in its original form, and having been hijacked as a means of transportation by tinkerers in warm climates, it was invented sporadically in a staccato series of spasms and stages by people who, probably over a couple of beers, thought, “Hey, y’know what?” 

As far as we know, the idea was first hit upon in Texarkana in the early 1930s by a businessman named J. K. Wadley who, having seen a supermarket in Los Angeles use an electric cart to transport senior citizens to and from the front door, wondered whether he could apply the technology to his local golf course and so spare himself a long walk. At first, Wadley’s idea didn’t catch on — in part because the carts he purchased were poorly suited to drive on grass, and in part because his hypothesis was tested during the Great Depression — but, as the technology improved and as others got in on the game, his suspicion was eventually confirmed. Inspired by memories of gasoline rationing during World War II, a host of golf-cart manufacturers sprang up in the 1950s, so that by the end of the decade there were six competing businesses and a product growing fast in popularity.

By the late 1970s, so many non-golfers had begun to take an interest that the Club Car company altered its standard model so that it came with a rear cargo box, and Yamaha was offering a flagship product, the Neighborhood Electric Vehicle, that made no reference to golf whatsoever. And the rest, as they say, was history. As has happened so often in America, a product that was designed to do one thing was commandeered to do another. Just as the switchback railway became the rollercoaster, the Army’s MILES training system became laser tag, and the good ol’ pie pan became the Frisbee, for tens of thousands of people the golf cart has become the non-golf cart. The “wanna go to the beach?” cart. The “we’ll pop over at five-thirty” cart. 

Or, in time, just “the cart.” 

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Readers write in with fond memories of fatherhood, some long-held admiration, and some prefix pedantry.

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