It's a sure sign of spring when Augusta resident Robert Washington sets Tweety free.
As the weather warms and days get longer, Mr. Washington often leaves his gleaming white Lincoln in the driveway, choosing instead to run errands, drive to church or take evening spins around the neighborhood in the gleaming yellow machine he affectionately calls the Tweetymobile.
A golf cart by name only, the four-seat electric vehicle has been taken from mild to wild with a body kit that recalls classic roadster design, an all-weather stereo, lights. a trailer hitch, even floor mats bearing the familiar visage of the vehicle's namesake. Mr. Washington concedes that the vehicle was purchased - and pimped - as much for novelty as practicality.
"It's like a parade every time we go out," he said with a laugh.
Increasingly, golf carts, both new and used, are serving as blank vehicular canvases - easy, relatively inexpensive ways to satiate a hot rod jones.
Jay Eastman is the vice president at Mr. Golf Cart in Waynesboro, Ga. Seated behind the wheel of an E-Z-Go with custom paint, a lifted chassis, knobby tires and a brush guard wrapping around the front, he cruises through the work bays, paint facility and extensive parts and cart storage areas. The facility, which employs more than 70, sells about 12,000 golf carts a year, most with custom modification. The business began hobby-fashion, in a single-car garage in 1987.
"My dad and his partner, they hit it at the right place and the right time," Mr. Eastman said. "There weren't many people around doing this. If you tried to get into it now, well, it would be hard. But they came into this when people were looking for a way to replace all those four-wheelers and go-karts that were expensive and unsafe."
Although the only limits on golf cart customizing seem to be imagination and fiscal restraints, Mr. Eastman said much of the work done at Mr. Golf Cart is a means to a practical, rather than aesthetic, end. Steering past busy bays, he points out an extended cart, its front end still in pieces.
"We took that car and sawed it dead in half," he said. "Separated it, put an extra seat in and made it an extra passenger vehicle. Paint, lift kits, all the accessories - we can do it all."
Not every custom cart needs to serve a practical purpose. At Augusta Turf & Specialty Vehicles in Augusta, Jay Thornton wheels a new project into the sun. The cart, which is to be shipped to the customer the next day, bears the familiar rugged lines of a Hummer H2, scaled down for the diminutive frame of a golf cart. Ordered to match the new owner's full-size model, it's an item that Mr. Thornton accurately describes as a toy.
"That's it basically," he said. "Just a big play toy. It's a neighborhood-use vehicle."
A new custom cart like the Hummer can cost as much as $18,000, but Mr. Thornton said customizing doesn't necessarily require killer cash. An entry-level custom cart, with perhaps custom paint and wheels, can often be found for only a few thousand dollars. Even more enticing, Mr. Thornton explained, is the flexibility inherent in the relatively simple vehicles.
"If you get a car and discover you don't really like the color, well, in a matter of hours you can change it. It's something that's easy to change around and people do, a lot."
Matt Vallez writes the Technically Speaking column in Golf Car News, a trade publication. He said a large proportion of custom golf carts are found in communities that might frown on the traditional automobile but embrace the quiet compactness of electric carts. He estimates that only about 20 percent of custom golf carts ever see fairways and greens.
"If you go into these communities, you'll really see the potential," he said. "People are taking these golf cars and doing what they might have done to a '67 Camaro."
He said trends include neon ground-effect lighting, DVD and CD players, custom paint and even the occasional set of spinning rims - similar to the set that adorns the Tweetymobile.
Laughing at his nod to urban cart culture, Mr. Washington explained that his spinners were the only set of 13-inch hubcaps he could find. But he's also proud of them.
"The thing is, it's all pretty addictive," he said. "You get one of these and you do a little work. Then you do a little more. Then a little more after that."
Watching as a couple discuss what options to include and exclude from a cart they are currently purchasing, Mr. Thornton lets loose a small laugh:
"That's the real thing right there - nobody wants to be like the neighbors."
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or email@example.com.
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