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WESTSIDE COVER STORY : Cart Wheels : On Sleepy Catalina, Avalon Motorists--Even the Sheriff--Travel at a Golfer's Pace

April 16, 1995|JAMES BENNING

"We wouldn't be caught dead in one of these carts when I was young,' says Swett, 60. Swett owns a Volvo sedan, but several years ago, she says, it became hip to have a cart. Now, she's considering buying one.

"All the kids have 'em," she says as she piles groceries into the front seat of her borrowed cart. "They really are fun. It's almost like riding a motorcycle. It feels like you're going fast, and you have the wind blowing in your hair."

Moments later, Swett fires up the plain white cart with a twist of the key, backs onto Metropole Avenue and, with the road nearly empty and her curls catching the breeze, motors up the hill toward home.

When Jack B. Wall motors around town, he turns heads. When the former Rolling Hills dentist moved to Catalina eight years ago, he traded in his Lincoln Continental for a Rolls-Royce replica cart.

"I decided I wanted the best golf cart I could get," says Wall, 71, who retired about 20 years ago.

The red cart, with its white upholstery, gold-colored hubcaps, detailing and Rolls Royce-replica hood ornament, frequently attracts the attention of tourists and locals. "The kids always say, 'Gosh, how fast does that cart go?' " he says. "Everybody that comes over takes pictures."

Wall's son, Miles (Rocky) Wall, bought a 1957 Ford Thunderbird-replica cart from a Palm Springs company that builds custom bodies on stock golf cart chassis. The Thunderbird runs about $9,000. Owners say the company recently finished a 13-foot-long pink limousine golf cart that was ordered for a princess at the Royal Palace in Saudi Arabia.

Most islanders say they're content with their plain white carts, which they can buy from two dealers on the island. Like most aficionados, though, some debate the merits of particular carts and cart terminology.

One debate centers on whether the vehicles should be called "golf carts" or "golf cars." Catalina cart salesman John Macktell argues for the latter. "A cart is something you push, a car is something you ride in," he maintains.

Residents also argue over who had the first golf cart on Catalina.

"Everybody claims to have been at the game when Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points," Macktell says. "Here everyone claims to have owned the first cart. I've talked to 15 people who claimed they owned the first cart."

Cart connoisseurs also debate the benefits of gas carts over electric carts. Nearly all of Avalon's residents drive gas carts because, traditionally, they have offered more power than electric carts. But Macktell, who sells only electric carts, says the latest electric carts emit no pollutants and offer as much power as gas carts.

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Gas carts, which don't have emission-control devices, generally emit more pollutants than most cars in California. Avalon is the only city in California where state smog regulations don't apply because officials say the island lacks a smog problem.

One big problem with electric carts, Macktell acknowledges, is that they must be plugged into a standard outlet to be charged. Most residents don't have garages, and dragging an electrical cord across a sidewalk violates a city ordinance. "We're working with the city on that," Macktell says.

It's less of a problem than it used to be, Macktell says, adding that electric carts now go farther than ever without a recharge. Several years ago, carts could go only about 40 golf holes, or about 8 miles, without being plugged in. The newest models can go up to 80 holes, he says.

On a recent morning, Paula Levin's problem wasn't a low battery. Her gas-powered Yamaha cart was sidelined with a flat tire.

She stood along Descanso Avenue as Regalado rumbled up the road in his tow rig, attached Levin's cart and towed it to the garage. It was Regalado's fourth call of the day, and he had hit his stride.

Within moments, Regalado rolled up to the garage, repaired the flat, tightened the lugs and returned the cart to Levin. On good days, cart repairs don't take long, Regalado says. That was good news to Levin.

On Catalina, she says, she needs her wheels.

Correspondent Psyche Pascual contributed to this report.

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