Custom designers and filling stations keep golf cart drivers in the fast lane.
Photos: Anthony Rao
As Joe Average drives around The Villages in his standard-issue golf cart, he can’t help but notice the eye-catching colors and retro designs on some of his neighbors’ rides. It’s clear that if he wants to keep up with the Joneses, he’s going to need a “show car” to catch them.
Golf carts are an industry all their own in The Villages, which has at least 50,000 of the vehicles zipping around 100 miles of cart paths. Custom-design businesses cater to a driver’s every status-symbol whim, and showrooms carry the latest models with all the manufacturers’ new bells and whistles. Villagers also know it’s important to take care of their carts—they’re a necessity after all—and specialized service stations fit their needs to a tee.
If Joe Average wants to become Joe Streetrod, he can go to Village Streetrod Golf Cars, 11962 County Road 101 in Palm Ridge Plaza. The dealership’s Vintage line is based on Ford and Chevrolet automobiles and trucks from the 1920s-1940s, and styles include phaetons, roadsters, convertibles, coupes, and specialty vehicles like firetrucks and police cars.
General manager Brandt Bell emphasizes the distinctions between Streetrod’s “golf cars” and the typical “golf cart”: standard equipment on the golf cars includes custom aluminum commercial chassis with much more payload capacity (800-1,500 pounds) than a cart, along with hand-built, heavy-duty fiberglass bodies.
Customers choose the model and body style and personalize the cars with paint colors, flame designs, upholstery, and optional equipment and customizations. Those options include hood ornaments, a wolf whistle horn, and, yes, an “Ahoooooo-gah” horn.
“No two are alike,” Brandt says of the models, and a glance around the garage-style showroom confirms it: out front is a two-passenger hardtop painted in patriotic red, white, and blue stars and stripes. Firetruck designs include one in black and orange flames, and another in traditional red, both with side ladders. A green-and-white “Paddy Wagon” comes with four seats and a six-spigot bar for bottles of liquor in the back compartment. Pop open the hood of a beverage car and find an insulated cooler for 24 cans—Villagers can take the party with them in a Streetrod. The company also makes concession cars and six- to eight-passenger limousine golf cars.
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Many models sell for more than $20,000. Village Streetrod designs about 250 golf cars a year, but that number will jump to 1,000 next year thanks to the parent company’s acquisition of a new manufacturing plant, Brandt says. Streetrod Golf Cars was founded in 1995 in Iowa and has its headquarters there.
Villagers and friends Rich Gehris and Al Sanders are recent converts to the streetrod lifestyle, both purchasing models this year at Streetrod. Rich and his wife moved a couple of years ago to the Village of Santo Domingo from Pennsylvania and bought the requisite, typical golf cart. After a while, the temptation of the streetrod got to him.
“I’d be out driving with my wife and I’d say, ‘See that? It looks like a streetrod.’ Then we’d see another one go by. I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool,’” Rich says.
Then somebody told him about the Village Streetrod dealership.
“We came cruising by, and I said, ‘Oh, my God.’ I said to my wife, ‘I’d like something like that.’ She said, ‘I’ve got the checkbook, let’s get one,’” he says.
The colors of Rich’s 1929 Ford replica streetrod nearly match the Penn State University shirt he was wearing one day recently. Naturally, he encouraged his friend Al to buy one; his green golf car is patterned after a 1934 pickup truck. Al, of the Village of Palo Alto, most recently lived in Las Vegas, so The Villages’ golf cart culture was completely foreign to him—but not anymore.
“I love that you can go to the grocery store in a cart, you can go to the doctor in a cart, you can go to restaurants in a cart,” Al says. “It’s not mandatory, but it’s a lot more convenient and it’s fun driving them around.”
So much fun that more than 900 Villagers belong to the Streetrod Club, according to the club’s website. Members gather for activities, swap stories, and make suggestions to fellow streetrodders about how to make their wheels even cooler.
At one recent event outside the Streetrod store, club members rolled up for a barbecue and a drive-in movie on an outdoor screen, Rich says. They munched popcorn, tipped some adult beverages, and shared in the camaraderie of streetrods.
“Everybody kind of opens up,” Rich says. “It’s like, ‘Hey, we’re all on the same team.’”
Of course, virtually everyone is part of the golf cart team in The Villages. Even with traditional golf cart models, Villagers often add special touches, such as favorite team colors and logos, license plates from their home states, or flags, signs, stuffed animals, and other displays.
For cart owners, finding service has become much more convenient since 2015, when The Villages Golf Cars started opening full-service filling stations with drive-up fuel pumps and drive-thru maintenance. The company operates three stations—one at each of the town squares—that are designed to look like old-time garages to fit in with The Villages’ “historic” motif.
Gordon’s Garage, 1075 Old Camp Road at Lake Sumter Landing, was the first of the three stations and is perhaps the most aesthetically unique, with a sleek glass-and-silver retro look and several fuel pumps from a bygone era. Gantenbein’s Garage is at 910 Bichara Blvd. in La Plaza Grande near Spanish Springs, and Goedken’s Garage takes up a large storefront at 2636 W. Torch Lake Drive on the edge of Brownwood Paddock Square. With the ongoing home development south of Brownwood, as well as construction of golf cart bridges to connect the north and south areas, another filling station could be coming down the road.
The service stations provide all types of maintenance, from annual service to full rebuilds, oil changes, battery checks, speed checks, and road tests for both gas and electric carts. Customers also may take advantage of drop-off service, complimentary loaners, and non-ethanol gas at the pumps.
Each of these sites, plus a fourth location at Colony Plaza, also have showrooms for sales of new, pre-owned, and reconditioned golf carts. The Villages Golf Cars boasts that it’s the country’s largest retailer of Yamaha Golf Cars, and the stores also sell Club Car and E-Z-GO models.
In the past two years, innovations have allowed golf cart owners to drive farther, smoother, and quieter. Yamaha came out with the Drive2 QuieTech, a gas cart with electronic fuel injection (EFI) for better fuel efficiency and independent suspension for better handling. It’s considered the most technologically advanced cart in the marketplace, and its noise level is in the same decibel range as electric carts.
At La Plaza Grande, team leader Jason Wilson says Yamaha, indeed, is the biggest seller. Displayed on the sidewalk outside The Villages Golf Cars, a 2018 Yamaha gas EFI deluxe model with a list of 30 features has a price tag of $13,345. Another high-end Yamaha model has a Curtis Cab, which includes air conditioning and hard, sliding doors to fully enclose the two-seater. The cost: $18,494. Pre-owned and reconditioned cars are marked at $10,000 or significantly less, depending on the model year. The store also sells Yesteryear models based on classic car and truck designs.
The 2019 golf car models arrived in August at the Colony Plaza showroom, 363 Colony Blvd., where salespeople told inquisitive customers about all the new features.
Yamaha, for example, upgraded its gas EFI model with black, non-slip pedals and more lighting, including a front fog light, turn signals in the side mirrors, front-end turn signals that are striped along the sides with blinking lights, and a backing-up light bar at the top of the car frame that also shows turn signals and can be turned bright white so the cart can be seen better at night. The model sells for $13,363, but those features also can be added as upgrades to 2018 models.
Buyers put a premium on safety devices, such as seatbelts, lights, and turn signals, more than any other features, Jason says. LED headlights with high and low beams, self-canceling turn signals, and custom seats are top accessories in demand—anything to make the cart feel and operate more like an automobile. The company also customizes golf cars with rain enclosures and other accessories, he says.
Just as The Villages expands, the world of golf cars evolves as well. Twenty years ago, electric was all the rage, but today, Jason says gas cars have overtaken electric cars in sales—Villagers feel they can go farther with gas instead of having to charge up. Either way, many of them will still be chasing the Joneses.