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Dealer Q&A: Customizing Golf Cars
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Your dealership is located in a beach vacation area, correct and you sell mainly new and used golf cars for use at vacation or second homes?

That is correct.

And you also have a large rental fleet?

Yes we have about a hundred cars in rental.

So today I wanted to talk about the customizing golf cars, whether new or refurbished and the range of options that are open to your customers.  How would you describe the baseline customization that you perform in terms of what you do to the vehicle and what features and accessories you add for the baseline golf cars?

All of our cars, regardless of whether they are a baseline car, which starts around $4,500 and go up to as high as $10 to $15,000, the baseline cars, the mechanical part of the car is treated the same as one of our $15,000 cars.  We take the car completely apart, the chassis completely apart, and when we re-install everything, everything is cleaned and prepped and everything installed is new except for some of the metal components that can be sandblasted and powder-coated and then we use it like that as a refurbished part.  The differentials are refurbished.  On the gas cars we do a combination of new engines and refurbished engines. On the electric we use all new stuff.

In your area what is the mix in terms of gas versus electric?

It is about 50/50 gas versus electric.  At the beach the people who come for vacation or own property here, the cycle works about every two weeks. The people come back to the beach that own property. On whether to have gas or electric, they decide whether to have gas or electric and with gas they can just come down, get on it and go. They don’t have to worry about charging, or charging when they leave or after they are gone. So that’s why gas cars are about a 50/50 mix here.

So you talked about your basic refurbishment. What are some of the typical things, lets say on the low end, that you do to customize it for people?

Well on the beach everybody wants a lifted car. We use the 6 inch or 4 inch lift kits. We put the 23-inch tires be it a 14-inch, 12-inch or 10-inch wheel, the overall circumference of the tire is 23 inches. We also add the heavy springs in the rear because they have an optional rear seat kit that turns a two passenger car for the golf course into a four passenger car here so we change some of the suspension components around so it will carry the weight plus have the proper balance when stopping.   When you go to stop a car there is weight transfer and things like that.  We make sure the car will handle when there are three or four people on it. Obviously when these cars are born they are born as two passengers and two bags of golf clubs so we have done a lot of engineering to get the right type of springs and the right capacity of the springs in terms of spring tension and spring weight and we apply that to our cars so the customer has a rideable car, a drivable car that is safe.

I take it, that at the beach, if they don’t already have it you add some sort of sun top or enclosure?

That gets into our middle grade cars, our middle range cars.  Our $3,500 up to $4,500 cars we basically use a solid color painted body that is repainted off of the original body that was on the car and we normally stay with a solid color pair of seats. It will have some type of diamond plating that is decorative. But we spend most of our money in the chassis.  Trying to refurb everything in the chassis to give the customer a solid car. You know Club Car, E-Z-GO and Yamaha build these cars for a four year lease and we try to build our cars to last four or five years without having to do anything to them.

So moving to that mid-range vehicle, besides a sun top or enclosure what else would you do to the vehicle?

As you get up into the $6,500 range, say $6,500 to $8,500 range you are getting into more customization in terms of paint, seating and instead of diamond plate we use stainless steel for the decorative pieces. We use mostly 14-inch wheels with 205/60 14-inch car tires.  We use radial tires on our cars that really help our suspension that we use. The front suspension we use really drives like a car and steers real straight.  And some of the options, we use dash panels to cover up the glove boxes in the car. We use a dash panel from G&T and other companies that give the customer more of an interior look. We polish all the trim.  We use a tinted windshield instead of a clear windshield. Add rear view mirrors.  We always put rear view mirrors in most of our cars. In South Carolina you can’t drive the cars at night. We at least put taillights with brake lights on for safety.

Does the lighting go for the low end and the mid-range as well?

Yes it does.  Our custom part of the lighting we custom build our own wiring harness on the accessory side. We use on the motor or run side of the car the factory harnesses from Club Car, E-Z-GO or Yamaha. We do some custom modification on it when you get into the $6,500 to $8,500 cars because they have onboard charging for the electric vehicles. The charger is built into the car itself versus outside the car so you have to do some modifications to make that work in the car. But on the accessory side we custom build all our own harnesses. It goes through a six-panel fuse block and a relay so when you turn the switch off it turns off everything in the car regardless of whether it is a gas or electric.  We build them that way.  All the electric cars we build use a 48-volt to 12-volt reducer so actually you are pulling off the whole bank of batteries as opposed to just a couple the way other people do.

For the lower and middle-range do these all start as used golf cars or do you ever start with a new vehicle?

For the mid-range, the $6,500 to $8,500, the $6,500 range starts with a new car.  You can get a mild customized cart, say a non-lifted with 14-inch wheels solid color paint and nice custom seats. You will have a brand new chassis. We sell two brands.  We sell Club Car and Star. So that’s our new cart line and that starts in the $6,500 range to $8,500.  If you want to customize, like we have a couple of gas cars customized on new chassis, they are anywhere from $8,500 to $10,000.  They have full-blown custom, suspension.  There is a lot of stuff we do extra on those cars because of the price and we individualize all of the paint schemes. They are not duplicated.  If you come in and you want a Margaritaville cart, for instance, we build a Margaritaville car, it’s yours, it’s your signature, we will not reproduce it.  So when you get into the full-blown custom that is what you get into.  Kind of what I did for the NASCAR guys. We would take their carts and match their motor coach. So it was individualized for them. I’ve done Tony Stewart’s. I’ve done three for him. We matched all three of his coaches.

So when you get in over $10,000, you are talking about a lot of unique stuff and one off items?

When you get over $10,000 you are talking about powder coating the chassis. Doing a lot of chrome plating.  You are adding a lot more features to the car that are sort of like a hot-rod or full-blown custom car. The seating that we use is done by a gentleman that all he does is high-end custom cars.  The seating, the stitching, and the way they put them in the seat, the way seats are sewn.  They use French seams around the side. Everything is double stitched. The quality that we do is so much higher than what you can get elsewhere.  In the market today you have Suite Seats and Lazy Life and you have companies like that. Their seats are nice but they can’t touch what we do because this guy does the high-end custom stuff. The stitching everything is made to the seat.  It is contoured like it was painted on.  We have no wrinkles, no puckering.  When we do piping around the seat there is no varying from the line. It goes straight and a lot of these other companies, when you try to retrofit a cover on a seat, which is what a lot of the golf car builders do, it never fits unless you fit it to that particular piece of foam and that is what we do. It makes a lot of difference on that side.

The chassis’s we do we have special motor systems. We use special types of brakes. We use front disc brakes. And that depends on the speed of the car.  If we build a car that can go over 25 mph we put front disc brakes on it or front drum brakes. We make sure it has four-wheel brakes. A lot of the suspension components that we do we re-engineer it and its made at a machine shop that I deal with. All of it is powder coated and we change some of the camber adjustments and change the height of the car so we can get some bigger wheels without raising it way up. We change some of the front geometry like that. These are a lot of things that I have worked on for the last 10 years that are way out there because doing this stuff for the NASCAR guys.

So a lot of engineering goes into it?

Yes. I’m working on a couple of projects. I’m working on the Club Car Precedent but I don’t have it where I want it. The suspension is really something to be desired. There is not much you can do to modify it. It will take re-development of that suspension to make it work.  The DS Club Car I have it down pat. It drives like a dream. The E-Z-GO new RXVs have a really, really good suspension in that car. Yamaha Drive has a pretty good suspension. So those are cars we are looking to do some development on and customization because the cars already have a good suspension on them that you can use for speed.  Everybody on the beach wants to ride 25 mph.

How often do people come to you looking to customize their existing vehicle or do they more often look for you to supply the vehicle, whether new or used and start from there?

About 30% of our business is where we remanufacture the customer’s existing cart. We really like that side of the business because we don’t have to invest in a chassis and have a chassis ready. About 45% or 50% are people that don’t really know what they want but want a golf cart and once they see the type of carts that we build from the bottom side up they become one of our customers.   Then the remaining 20% are new cars. They want a new car and they like the idea of a two-year warranty. And even on our refurbs or rebuilds we give a two-year warranty, and that’s bumper to bumper. 

And you like to refer to them as rebuilds to differentiate from refurbished which is the typical term that applies to used vehicles that the OEM might sell after fixing it up?

My terminology, what we like to tell customers is that we have three different type of cars here.  We have new, we have completely rebuilt and we have refurbished.  My definition of refurbished is something that is less than two years old that you take apart, clean it, and inspect everything on it. You use the existing wiring harness, you use a refurbished motor that has new bearings and new brushes but you don’t do the windings. You dyno test the motor and we use a refurbished controller and we put the car back together. And we put new bushings and bearings back in the chassis. A lot of that car does not get powder coated it gets painted. It gets all new bolts.  That’s a refurbished car for us.

A rebuilt car is a car that is completely taken apart just like the refurbished car is.  We use nothing but the chassis, the differential and some of the front steel components that we sand blast and re-powder coat.  The differential is taken apart and inspected. If we find any piece of metal or anything like that in it, it is discarded. All new brakes, all new springs, all new retainers, everything in the braking system.  All new cables. Pedal assembly, we will use the pedal assembly because it is steel. We strip it and powder coat it.  The gas pedal we will use but everything else, your retainer springs, return springs, all your break rods – all that is brand new.  So that’s what we do on the rebuilds and of course the new car we sell what comes from the OEM.

And how long does the process take if someone comes in and they want say a baseline or mid-range customized car?  How long to get their vehicle?

About two weeks.  It takes fourteen days from the time they sign a contract. And the reason we can turn it around so quick is that we build chassis’s all the time. Constantly building chassis’s and we have refurbed chassis’s and rebuilt chassis’s so the only thing they are selecting is their paint color and their seats. And once they select that it takes about a week and a half and now in the busy season it’s pushing to about three weeks. It’s a pretty fast turnaround until we run out of chassis’s.  I’ve built high-end custom cars for Mike Helton that took me six months to build but they are all custom. I mean the chassis and everything were custom built. So some can take up to six or eight months but most of the cars we build for the community down here take two to three weeks.

What are some of the trends in the market that you are seeing for customization in features or accessories, lets say for this season?  Is there anything you are seeing that is new?

I see a trend, and all of it is cost driven too, some of the vendors that I deal with are building their own kits. We buy seats and tops and things like that from Custom Golf Car Supplies.  They are producing a package. They produce a body, a seat color and everything packaged together that I can put on a cart, that is lifted, gas, dashed and I can put on their body, their seat kit, seat cushions and their tops and windshield frames and all that stuff on. I can sell that car for $5,995 where normally if I paint it and put on seats and do all that I’m $6,995. So that trend has been pretty good for us. I’m also seeing 15% - 20% of the people are buying brand new cars because they can get them financed. They can get a two-year warranty and they are financing them for three years so for two of the three years the car is covered bumper to bumper.  That is one thing that Star is doing and we have people coming in and putting in 10% or 15% and they are buying an $8,000 or $9,000 car.  To answer your question about accessories, here at the beach, a lot of people are going to stainless steel and away from the diamond plate. And also powder-coated wheels are a big thing right now.

Do you have any advice for somebody looking to buy a customized golf car? What would be the top three things you might tell them or advise them?

Well the number one thing I tell people is make sure you are dealing with a reputable dealer that has a storefront.  Somebody who you can go stand in their lobby or showroom if you’ve got a problem, that’s the number one thing. Number two; always look at your cart from the inside out. A lot of these carts have a lot of stuff, a lot of trinkets, a lot of bling that are sitting on a 2006 chassis and not a thing has been done to it. Always make sure your cart is built from the inside out.  The third thing I’d say is always go into somebody’s establishment with a budget in mind. And always have a budget and what you are going to spend. You are going to go over it but have an idea where you want to be.

You mentioned before that some of your customers are seasonal or have long stretches where they are not using their vehicles. If I’m a person using these vehicles for the first time, what are some of things I should be doing if the vehicle, whether gas or electric, is going to sit for a while. 

The number one thing for a new customer is to get on a preventative maintenance schedule. Make sure the car is brought into a reputable service technician or center at least once a year and have them test the breaks, test the batteries, load test the batteries and make sure the batteries are being taken care of. That’s very important to the customer. The second thing, whether it is gas or electric, is educating the customer on what you are selling them. If it is electric explain to them about the charging system.  When they should charge it, how often, when they should check the water in the batteries. Instruct the person on how to use the car beyond turning it on, push the pedal and let it go. Customer service is a big thing here. We want to make sure the customer comes back. Bring your car by anytime and we give a free inspection. We don’t charge them.  If we see something like tire wear or something to that effect then we make suggestions on what you should do.

Our customers are pretty much year around but the way their lifestyle is at the beach is that they come down about every two weeks.  We have to instruct them how to take care of their cars, especially the electric cars when they are away from here.  Basically tell them not to leave the car discharged but charge it before you leave.  And that’s one thing I try to figure out when I sell a car. What is your lifestyle? Do you travel to the beach 15 times a day, six times a day or once a day?  One reason there are so many gas cars is people’s bad experiences with electrics. They haven’t been instructed on how to take care of them. We build eight and six battery cars and try to match the vehicle to their lifestyle.

Thanks Larry for taking some time out to talk about customizing golf cars.

It was my pleasure.

Larry Deese of Boulineau’s Beach Buggies can be reached at (843) 663-6969 or on the web at Boulineau’s Beach Buggies.