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Chariots for the Course

Shaun Tolson

When it comes to the golf industry, today’s greatest new pieces of technology will feel obsolete in only a few short seasons. Take that $500 driver that you just purchased. Two years from now, a newer, lighter, stronger alternative will appear, equipped with more technology to straighten your hook, minimize your slice, and improve your shot’s overall trajectory even more. It’s the nature of the modern game, and golfers have grown conditioned to it. Occasionally you may meet someone who’s held onto a club for five, six, seven years. They’ll talk up the club’s comfort and the level of confidence that they have when they swing it; but by the golf industry’s standards, that club isn’t an asset, it’s a relic.

Ask a golfer to trade in his Pro V1s and play with a single-piece ball from the 1960s and you’ll be lucky if he says two more words to you the rest of the day. You might as well ask him to tee it up with a feathery. Take away his brand-new, graphite-shafted, 460 cc titanium-headed driver and hand him a 50-year-old persimmon driver instead, and he’ll react as though you just gave him a hickory-shafted club straight out of the bag of Old Tom Morris.

The point is, when it comes to the pieces of equipment that golfers used 50 years ago, they look and perform nothing like what we have today. Save for one—the golf car. For almost 50 years the vehicle has seen little in the way of advancement, until now.

It was 2005 before Anders Lynge, a young Danish industrial designer, fully recognized the fact that the golf car was the sport’s only outdated piece of equipment, and even then, it took him four and a half years with a team of almost 50 engineers before he unveiled a vehicle that brought the golf car into the 21st century.

Lynge doesn’t even play golf, but if you ask him, that’s the factor that allowed him to see the golf car for what it was and what it had failed to become. “If you’re used to the way that it is, you tend to accept things for what they are,” he says. “Most of the other cars are based on products that have been around for a long time, and there’s a lot of trouble throwing away your own architecture. Starting from scratch gave us a lot of possibility to do this unique vehicle, and I’ve been very passionate about building the best possible car.”

The company that Lynge founded is called Garia (www.garia.com), and the golf cars that it produces include a street-legal vehicle equipped for regular use on the golf course ($18,000), a 2+2 model ($18,000), and a Mansory edition equipped with carbon fiber body panels and other supercar-inspired modifications (prices vary, based on the level of customization). Each Garia vehicle is manufactured by Valmet Automotive, an independent Finnish automobile manufacturer that recently rolled out a series of Porsche Boxsters and Caymans and will soon begin production on the new Fisker Karma.

Lynge acknowledges that his work to revolutionize the golf car was not rocket science; it simply required a thorough analysis and observation of how people were interacting with the vehicles that previously existed. A Garia golf car succeeds based on the sum of all the individual amenities and details that it possesses—from refrigeration systems to installed trash receptacles and 12-volt AC adapters for smartphone charging. Of course, these new additions seem obvious now, but it took decades before anyone thought to implement them. Perhaps the most obvious refinement is the way golf bags fit into the back of a Garia vehicle at an angle, which provides golfers with better access to their clubs. “Nobody thought that was a problem,” Lynge says of the previous, vertical positioning for golf bags, “until we showed them the solution.”

Even when observing the golf industry in Denmark (where most golfers walk the course), Lynge knew there was a market for a better golf car. However, it wasn’t until he visited some of the top private golf communities in the United States that he fully grasped just how impactful his new vehicle could be. Lynge watched as residents would drive to their golf course communities in luxury automobiles, but were then relegated to driving around the neighborhood in what he describes as “$3,000 plastic boats.” Even if people only rode in their golf cars for a four- or five-hour round of golf each day, Lynge believed it still was too long a period of time for them to be seen in a product that failed to reflect the quality of their other possessions.

When the weather is agreeable, Lynge chooses to drive to work not in his traditional automobile but in a street-legal Garia, which peaks at 25 mph and has a battery life strong enough to last for up to 40 miles of driving. The commute, he says, is always a blast. “Even though the ride takes 10 minutes longer, I take it anyway because I really love the trip, getting some fresh air, and the level of attention and smiles that you get driving such a car,” he says. “I’m really happy that we succeeded in building a car that the outside world can’t help but respond to.”

Scaled-Down Style

Not everyone will feel that they need a luxury golf car that emphasizes functionality and performance, like the Garia. Some enthusiasts prefer a custom golf car that turns heads not for its engineering but for its styling and aesthetics. If the thought of cruising around a golf course or a private residence club in a miniature electric vehicle with the look of a Rolls-Royce, Bentley, or Ferrari appeals to you, you’ll want to contact John Pennington at Pennwick (www.pennwick.com).

The Utah-based custom golf car company is entering its fifth year of operation, though Pennington has worked in the industry for almost a decade. Over the past five years, the 34-year-old owner/designer has watched as demand for his various models has operated in an almost cyclical fashion. At the beginning of 2007, Pennington surveyed the classic automobile market and, after seeing the increased demand for American muscle cars and street rods, he designed and launched the Smoothster and the ’56—golf cars that hearkened back to the days of American motoring in the mid-20th century.

However, that type of automobile only has a strong market in the United States, and by the time Pennington had those two cars ready for production, the American economy was in decline. Fortunately, international interest picked up, but that audience wanted cars that reflected classic European luxury vehicles and Italian sports cars. Once again, Pennington had to go back to the drawing board. When he was done, Pennwick had the Brooklyn, Shadow, and F5—cars that emulated the look of Bentleys, Rolls-Royces, and Ferraris. After a few years of steady sales on the international market, Pennington now is seeing a renewed interest on home soil. And in a fortuitous turn of events, the vehicles with the highest demand are the Smoothster and the ’56.

Ranging in price from $15,000 to $24,000, depending on the level of customization, each Pennwick production vehicle requires about a month to complete. However, Pennington embraces any opportunity to design from the ground up, and he says such requests come in frequently. “A month doesn’t go by when I don’t have someone request a vehicle that we don’t make at all,” he says. “And the answer is always yes; we can make anything. It won’t be named after a specific brand, but I can always draw something out and say, ‘this is what it is and this is what it will be called.’”

The likelihood that Pennington will commit to a bespoke design is dependent upon its overall marketability. The cost to build the first example of any new vehicle hovers around $60,000. Pennington knows he can’t charge a customer that much for a golf car, but if he anticipates that others also may want one, he can split the cost of the research and development and guarantee the customer the first one made. He says that’s exactly how the F5, the company’s Italian sports car–inspired vehicle, came to be.

According to Pennington, most people believed the F5 would fail; they didn’t think he could find a way to lower the body or re-create the proportions of the car on a smaller scale. But by altering the wheelbase and chassis length, Pennington and his team found a way. It’s a perfect example of how and why Pennington’s work provides him with so much satisfaction. “I love that every car is unique and a different project,” he says. “We cater to every customer’s wishes, and they’re all unique. There’s nothing redundant about this job at all.”

In the Hot Seat

Like Garia, the genesis of Ultimate Golf Seating (www.ultimategolfseating.com) grew out of a discovery that a major segment of the golf and golf car industry was lacking any representation. However, while Garia’s founder had no experience playing the game, Dave Vahala frequently wrote his name down on a scorecard. When Vahala teamed up with his brother, Dan, to launch their high-end golf-seat company in 2008, he had played the game for more than two decades. In fact, it was after a round of golf with his brother that he conceived the idea.

As the Vahala brothers finished up on the 18th green, Dave’s back ached and he found himself longing to sit in something more comfortable than a golf car. At the time, the Vahalas managed Vahala Foam, an Indiana company that produced high-quality seating material installed in many RVs, boats, and custom vans. As Dave finished up his round that day he had an epiphany. Golf cars didn’t include comfortable, custom seats not because it couldn’t be done but only because no one had committed the time or energy to do it.

In their first year, the Vahalas invested in focus groups and made routine visits to golf car dealers around the country. The feedback was mostly positive. “What we discovered in our first year is that we really had something here,” says Dave, the company’s president and CEO. “The only objection was price.” And as the manager of the Vahalas’ marketing department explained to them, if price is the only concern, the company is bound to succeed.

Vahala acknowledges that his line of high-quality seating is expensive—the company’s latest models, the Supreme and Supreme Sport, retail for almost $1,600—but he also says that the seats are priced that high because they cost that much to make. The brothers focus on four aspects when they design and build their seats—comfort, style, ergonomics, and quality. The end result is a golf car seat of a caliber similar to the seating found in luxury automobiles, and which offers many of the same features: adjustable sliders, forward and back tilt options, fold-down armrests, adjustable headrests, lumbar support, and high-quality foam cushioning.

Customization is available to a certain degree; customers cannot alter the construction of each seat, but they can personalize its appearance based on the materials and colors. Such customization usually costs $150 to $200 more per order.

Naturally, some customers are bound to be skeptical that such an upgrade in seating is necessary. To that audience, Vahala points out that a typical round of golf lasts four hours, and in some cases, golf car owners use their vehicles for much more than just transport around a golf course. “If you were planning to watch a four-hour movie, would you choose to sit on a folding chair?” he asks. “Our seats offer a great alternative to standard seating in two important ways: how they feel on your back and how they look on your cart.”

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