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Gawk carts

Forget the tinted windows, 20-inch rims and PlayStation 2. If you're searching for a truly tricked-out ride, look no further than George Buchner's garage.

His teal '57 Chevy golf cart has been fine-tuned to perfection, right down to the handmade dice in the mirror. It was deemed suitable to haul Santa Claus himself in the community's annual Christmas parade. And yes, it has the requisite luxury hubcaps.

"Those are '57 standard wheels on there," Buchner, of Sun City Center, says with pride. "You go up and down, people stop and say, "That's nice.' "

In a community where golf carts are the preferred mode of transportation, custom cart enthusiasts like Buchner stand out with deluxe models that resemble everything from Rolls-Royces to pickup trucks to airplanes.

Nothing, they feel, is too good for their 5-horsepower babies.

"You can put TVs in them, telephones in them," said Stuart Anderson, owner of West Coast Golf Cars in Sun City Center. "We can put anything in them you want."

With three days of golf cart inspections starting Monday, Del Schulz, a community association director who conducts the inspections, said he expects the owners of the fanciest carts to be out in force.

"They like to get out and be seen," he said. "Sort of like a woman with a new dress."

It'll be the biggest showing since December, when 188 souped-up carts came out for the Christmas parade. At the moment, Guinness is considering that event for a place in its record book, under the new category "World's Longest Golf Cart Parade."

Most of the 5,000 golf carts registered in Sun City Center and Kings Point look alike. Your standard EZ-Go or Club Car costs about $3,500, and it's good for trips to the grocery store and trips down the fairway. There aren't many two-car garages in the community, but there are a lot of one-car/one-cart garages.

But a handful of drivers dress up their rides with unique bodies, deluxe paint designs and luxuries like stereos and chrome hubcaps.

"Some people, dollar (amount) is no limit on what they want to spend, if it's what they want," said Steven Richards, co-owner of Sun City Golf & Cars.

In the business, these machines are called golf cars. The more formal name is appropriate, given that factory-direct luxury cars can run anywhere from $7,000 to $20,000.

Golf cart manufacturers are tight-lipped about their sales figures, but Don DelPlace, publisher of Golf Car Advisor magazine, says golf carts are more than a $600-million-per-year business.

Luxury and custom cars make up about 15 percent of that market, says Richard Steward, owner of Golf Car Portal, an online dealer directory.

It has gotten so lucrative that automakers such as Lamborghini have jumped into the golf cart business. Customers can purchase body kits that will transform their carts into Humvees, Studebakers and antique Roadsters. There are even golf cart limousines that hold up to eight passengers.

When it comes to add-ons, the sky's the limit.

"You can run the gamut with those things," said Howard Marschner, retired owner of Sun Bay Golf Carts in Ruskin. "We put in radios and stereo systems and seat covers and carpeting."

One common upgrade is speed. Golf carts come off the line with speeds of 12 to 15 mph, but most Sun City Center residents boost the speed to reduce travel time.

The top legal speed for a low-speed vehicle in Florida is 25 mph, but Jim Cooper, co-owner of Sun City Golf & Cars, says he has heard of outlaw mechanics who boost drivers' speeds to 40 mph or more.

"Our residents here are jealous of the other people who have a little bit faster (cart), and they hate it when somebody passes them on the street," Cooper said. " "I'm tired of this cart,' they say. "Everybody's passing me.' "

Ray Hadley boosted the speed of his canary-yellow Camaro-style car with flames on the side into the 25 mph range. He says his neighbors get a little rattled.

"When they see this cart, and it's a little faster than the norm, they get" _ Hadley laughs _ "I don't know if it's intimidated or just envious."

And then there are those who pay big bucks just to outfit their cars with the finest gadgets.

"They want the wire wheels just like you put on Cadillacs," Cooper said. "You're talking $600 to $700 for a little set of four of them. They're a little bit bigger, plus there are actually chrome spokes."

Jerry Powers outfitted his own teal '57 Chevy cart with rims from an actual Honda Prelude, which set him back a couple of hundred bucks.

A number of residents add sound systems to their rides, but the bumpy golf car paths in Sun City Center and Kings Point can wreak havoc on a traditional radio.

"Some people have gone as far as to put a marine radio in, which is going to cost you three times as much money," he said. "It's not going to be perfect, but it will last longer."

Raymond Logsdon drives the Cadillac of luxury golf cars _ literally. His $9,000 Cadillac golf cart came equipped with turn signals, a fan, a sunroof and even a golf tee dispenser.

"It has the whole deal in it," he said, his tape player blaring Ronnie Milsap's Greatest Hits. "Everybody's pointing at me every time I go down through here."

Shouts and stares are nothing new to riders like Logsdon. Hadley said you have to expect a reaction when you drive down the street.

"I've got a lot of comments, from "Man, that's the ugliest thing I've seen,' to "Boy, I love that! Where can I find it?' " he said.

Hadley, who has already put close to $4,000 into his new Camaro-style car, said he was looking for something a little "off the wall."

"Even though I'm living in Sun City Center, which is 55-and-over, I didn't want to act like I was totally over that hill," he said.

Count drivers like Edwin Paquette among the young at heart.

Paquette spent several years transforming his golf cart into a "Golf Yacht." A friend gave him enough plastic to craft a small bow in front, and he attached wood siding to the sides and back for a deck.

And talk about bells and whistles _ Paquette actually installed a ship's bell and a small whistle to use in lieu of a horn. He has miniature life rafts, anchors, semaphore flags and a toy parrot.

That sort of attention _ and the neighborly hellos that come with it _ are a great icebreaker in a golf cart community.

"It's like a conversation piece," said Buchner. "No matter where you go, they say, "I remember the days when I had one.' "

With 5,000 golf carts registered in Sun City Center and Kings Point, it's no wonder that they are used for more than golf. Here one crosses busy State Road 674.

Buchner's '57 Chevy is a conversation piece, he says. "No matter where you go, they say, "I remember the days when I had one.' "

Edwin Paquette reveals his yacht on wheels. It features a ship's bell and whistle in lieu of a horn, a toy parrot, a small bow in front, and wood siding on the sides and back.

Raymond Logsdon's $9,000 Cadillac golf cart has turn signals, a fan, a sunroof and even a golf tee dispenser. He gets comments ranging from "That's the ugliest thing I've seen" to "I love that."

The Publix near Sun City Center has spots reserved for carts. Other area businesses do, too.

Annual Golf Cart Inspection

March 17-19, 9 a.m.-3 p.m. each day at the Prince of Peace Catholic Church at 702 Valley Forge Blvd.

Inspections are not required, but they are encouraged for safety and theft purposes.

Inspections will be conducted by volunteers from the Golf Cart Safety Committee, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, Freedom Plaza, Sun City Center Community Association, King's Point Federation, WCI Communities, SCC Security Patrol, King's Point Security Patrol, West Coast Golf Cars and Sun City Golf & Cars.

For more information, contact Del Schultz at 633-3500.