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Built to order for Betty-Jo Hovdebo with custom paint, Jake's long travel lift kit, and 14-inch Tempest wheels.

Wayne and Betty-Jo Hovdebo were at the communal campfire at a park near Caroline, Alta., a couple of years ago when they noticed one of the regulars wasn't there.

Word soon spread that he was out tricking up his golf cart, the common mode of transport in many camp communities, with the express purpose of coming up with something more eye-catching than the Hovdebos' new model.

"I said, 'We can't let that happen,'" recalls Betty-Jo with a laugh.

So they did some research in hopes of adding a few bells and whistles and were blown away by the vast array of possibilities they found. After a few months – and about $7,000 – they were tooling around the campground in a head-turning fire-engine red cart that looked more like a 1940s-era pickup truck than anything built for a golf course. It even has an ooga horn for effect.

"We've always had a truck and usually red, so it suited us," Betty-Jo says. "It's perfect for hauling wood around the cabin and it's just so much fun."

Whether for practicality, fun or simply keeping up with the Joneses, the humble golf cart is taking on a role that was previously the domain of sports cars and customized trucks. But these eye-popping carts aren't spending much time on fairways; they're showing up in large numbers at campgrounds, RV parks and in gated communities.

Evidence of their rising popularity is the number of retailers reporting vastly increased sales in the past few years.

"Over the first four years we were pretty stable, but in the last five years we're selling a lot more high-end models," says Don Brooks, owner of O'tools golf cart refurbishing in Forest, Ont.

Things are so good for Koolsville Kustoms that the Calgary operation almost tripled the size of its operations over the winter and reeled off $250,000 in sales in the first two months of this year.

"Things are booming here and people want their toys when they have a few extra bucks in their pocket," says Koolsville owner Mike Pledge.

That they do.

Entrepreneur Rick Browne needed something to get his family around Cedar Springs, a rustic cottage community on the Niagara Escarpment in Burlington, Ont. Since the community has its own nine-hole golf course and since the Brownes love luxury vehicles – there's a Mercedes SLC and Porsche Panamera in their garage – they opted for the best.

That meant turning over about $30,000 to Bennett Golf Cars & Utility Vehicles in Stouffville, Ont., for a custom-painted purple golf cart and a top-of-the-line European-made Garia model that not only resembles a Smart car but came with a refrigerator, champagne bucket, heated windshield, sunroof, wipers, headlights and turn signals.

"It's a toy," says Browne, who's in the heavy equipment leasing business. "And nobody else has one quite like it. I love the looks I get when I go on the course or drive down to the community centre."

These toys come with some impressive options – air conditioning, chrome steering wheels, custom dashboards, mag wheels, gun racks, stereos – and a lot of style.

There are basically no limits when it comes to creating a golf cart that will be the talk of the club or trailer park – except maybe a turbo charger. Some look like Harley Davidsons, Corvettes, Mustangs and Model Ts. There's even one that looks like an 18-wheeler.

Instead of serving strictly as utility vehicles or hauling golf clubs, they become their owners' pride and joy.

"I baby it," Calgary trucker Rick McIntosh says of his electric-blue cart that has a retro feel to it. "I'm always polishing it up.

"Lots of friends want to rent it for golf, but I just don't want to take it out of the resort. It sure would look good on a golf course, though."

There are many reasons for the popularity of customized golf cars. In addition to making a fashion statement, they're incredibly practical for those with vacation properties.

As with most trends, the customizing wave is fuelled by aging baby boomers who are retiring to rural areas, RV parks and cottages.

"They're almost family vehicles," says Bill Bath, sales manager at Bennett. "People don't want to be driving their cars around at the cottage, so they park them and use the carts to get the kids and grandkids around."

They're practical and feel safer to older drivers not comfortable with getting behind the wheel of an ATV.

Once you get past an initial investment that can range from $3,500 to $20,000, carts are economical to operate. But their appeal goes beyond that.

"It's almost like a little romance, because it's an emotional thing," says Brooks. "You drive an electric cart with all the bells and whistles and it's fun. It's an expression. It's your own little hot rod."

As the business has grown, more options have become available as manufacturers scramble to both create a market and satisfy it. In addition, with proper lift kits and tires, golf carts can be turned into anything from hunting vehicles to ambulances, snowplows and fire trucks.

There's even one model that was built to accommodate a casket.

"They're great for little cottage communities where a regular fire truck or ambulance can't get in," Bath says.

The environmental angle is a big attraction, too. With batteries improving and coming down in price, electric models are hot sellers because they're quiet and emissions-free.

Many retailers believe they're on the verge of an explosion, believing it's only a matter of time before these vehicles become street legal. While allowed on roads in many American and European jurisdictions – some can hit 40 km/h – they're restricted to golf courses and private roads in Canada.

With the population aging, the golf cart could be the answer for many.

"It's so needed here," Brooks says. "You can fit a wheelchair on the back of some models and a golf cart just makes more sense than scooters."

And you can do so many more cool things with them.

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