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The personalized putt-putt tour

No guides are necessary in the little Tour Coupes. Driving by San Diego sites triggers tailored audio bites.

September 10, 2006|Jane Engle | Times Staff Writer

THEY look like souped-up golf carts. And they talk.

But these cute, 8-foot vehicles aren't populating a Disney cartoon. They're zipping along San Diego streets.

The Tour Coupes, as they are called, are the latest way to take in city sights. As you putt-putt around in these rented vehicles, an audio recording kicks in each time you pass the San Diego Zoo, the Gaslamp Quarter, Old Town or dozens of other tourist attractions. The recording describes the site and its history, plus plays music and other sounds.

This self-guided tour on wheels, the brainchild of San Diego natives Anthony May and Melissa Mahan, is actually a three-wheeled, two-passenger conveyance that's registered as a motorcycle (but you don't need a motorcycle license to drive it). It's equipped with a 49cc, two-stroke gas engine -- which May said is "not high-polluting." The vehicles are street legal and can go up to 40 mph.

But it's what's in the dashboard that makes it really unusual. A navigating device similar to the global positioning system, or GPS, included in some cars, pinpoints the vehicle's location. Then the device activates a recorded narration about that site.

"We focus on history from the late 1800s to now," May said.

You can choose English or Spanish for the storytelling, which was researched and composed by Jim Carrier, author and founder of IntelliTours in Montgomery, Ala.

Or you can flip off the narration and pop your own compact disc into the Tour Coupe's player.

Either way, "we want you to get lost," May said -- or at least meander at your own pace.

Just be sure to keep an eye on the gas gauge.

The vehicle's range is about 90 miles. It's equipped with a 1.5-gallon gas tank and gets 50 to 60 miles per gallon, May said, depending on the weight of the passengers.

May, a publishing executive, and Mahan, who has been a franchise manager, got the idea for Tour Coupes last year while seeing Europe on a bus tour. In the Netherlands, May said, they spotted a mini-coupe on the streets and thought, "What a way to see the city on your own time." An audio tour of the Louvre museum in Paris inspired them to marry the two ideas.

Their 18 Tour Coupes were custom-built on the East Coast by a maker whom May declined to identify, citing competitive reasons. He started renting them out Aug. 19, and now, he said, rents three or four a day, with only word-of-mouth marketing. By winter, he added, he hopes to expand to Los Angeles and start selling the vehicles for about $6,500 each.

You can rent Tour Coupes seven days a week for $165 a day or on a sliding hourly scale: $45 for the first hour, $35 for the second and $30 for each hour thereafter. Drivers must be 18 or older; passengers must be at least 6 years old. Reservations are recommended. The company is at 502 7th Ave., (877) 494-RENT (494-7368),

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