Carting Around Town

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Locals Larry Lewis and his wife, Jean Fallowfield, and their dog, Calypso, with their Moke (left) and Keohen Smith with his dog, Chewie, in his golf cart

Some of the coolest wheels in Laguna Beach are golf carts and Mokes.

By Joe Yogerst

 

A classic Woody wagon, vintage Volkswagen Microbus or drop-top Porsche are among the coolest rides along the Southern California coast. But a much more efficient way of getting around a beach town—in terms of cost, parking, eco-friendliness and even customization—is a form of transportation that many of us take for granted: the humble golf cart.

Sure, they’re still a staple of country club living and retirement communities, but their evolution into street-legal vehicles over the past few decades is astounding. With a top speed of 20 to 30 miles per hour, they’re never going to beat you off the line at a green light. But totally tricked-out golf carts that ply Orange County coastal cities today will turn far more heads than your suburban sedan.

Nowhere is this more evident than Laguna Beach, where so many residents have adopted the open-air rides that a couple of parades even feature decorated golf carts at Christmas and Halloween. And there’s an owner group—the Laguna Beach Golf Cart Club—with more than 430 members.

Keohen Smith, one of the club’s founders and a local real estate agent, started the Christmas Golf Cart Parade in 2020 during the pandemic. “It was a fun and festive way to social distance and have some holiday cheer,” he says, adding that he now plans them with other club leaders. “This year, we had over 40 carts and it’s only getting better,” he says.

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Golf carts can be seen just about everywhere around town.

Smith explains that golf carts are street legal everywhere that the speed limit is posted as 35 miles per hour and below. Technically, golf carts can be driven on Coast Highway along stretches with the lower speed limit, but it’s not recommended because of the traffic, especially on busy summer weekends. It’s better to use side streets like Glenneyre or Catalina, advises Smith.

In some ways, he says, golf carts are like any other automobile. “You have to register with the DMV and pay a registration fee every year like a car,” Smith says. “So they’re basically little vehicles”—complete with license plates, seat belts, brake lights and blinkers, he adds.

The mechanics may be similar, but they have a cool coastal vibe and can be customized in any number of ways to really stand out on Laguna streets. Plus, you get to feel the beach breeze in your hair as you drive—and parking can be easier with the smaller profile of a golf cart and some dedicated spaces in town.

 

Not Your Grandfather’s Golf Cart

These are nothing like the carts that your uncle or granddad may have piloted around a golf course.

Apex Golf Carts in Laguna Hills sells and rents new and used golf carts (both gas and electric types) and also services and repairs them. Among the options are all-electric Evolution Golf Carts with rugged tires that look like they could handle dune riding in the Mojave Desert or a jungle expedition in the Amazon.

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The popularity of golf carts has grown over the years. Pictured is Heidi Draper and her family in their cart back in 2013. | Photo by Brad Allan Photography

“Our bestselling vehicles are the Evolution D5 Series,” says Apex CEO Jessica Moeller. “These are the newer models and include the Maverick 4- and 6-passenger, and the Ranger 4- and 6-passenger. These carts include all the add-ons of modern luxury in a golf cart with a sleek look, great sound system, USB ports for charging devices, forward-facing seats, rear storage, etc.”

Powered by a 48-volt AC system and available in nine body colors—from Sky Blue to Flamenco Red—a top-of-the-line 2024 Evolution with all the bells and whistles goes for around $14,000 and includes an eight-year warranty on the battery. And, no, you can’t drive it off the lot. Seeing as all the roads leading down to the shore are over 35 mph, Apex trucks it to your coastal home or office for free in OC.

But you don’t have to spend that much. Apex offers used E-Z-Go, Evolution, Club Car, American Custom Golf Cars (ACG) and Yamaha golf carts for as little as $3,500. The business also sells a wide range of replacement parts and accessories, from heaters and horns to alarms, storage covers, cargo boxes and even surf racks.

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Keohen Smith in his golf cart with his dog, Chewie | Photo by Taylor Rule

Apex can also customize a cart with special paint, upholstery, rims and more. “We have tons of examples, but a fire truck golf cart has been one of the biggest hits,” Moeller says. “We have requests frequently for highly customized carts with initials or sports team emblems stitched into custom seat covers, custom paint, etc. Southern California is an amazing area to have a golf cart—and better yet, a custom golf cart.”

Moeller says that in addition to individual golf cart owners in the beach communities, Apex sells to “tons of local businesses” including security companies, churches, schools, hotels and retirement communities as well as handling golf cart rentals for all types of events. “The percentage varies but is likely 60% businesses and 40% individual consumers,” she estimates.

Smith bought his blue-green, four-seater E-Z-Go golf cart pre-owned 18 years ago. “Mine had a life on a golf course in Palm Springs before I even got it and made it street legal,” he says. Then he set about gradually customizing his ride. “It’s raised and has big ‘off-road’-looking tires with custom rims [and a] front bar with extra lights,” he says. “I also have eight solar Tiki torches, which look great at night and help keep me visible to others.”

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Smith’s cart

For winter, he puts on a rain cover to make the cart fully enclosed. “I can still drive around town in the heaviest of rains and stay dry and warm,” he says. “In summer, it’s back to the beach cart.”

Smith can often be seen driving around town with his dog, Chewie, who he affectionately calls his “co-pilot.” “He’s my partner and a cute little dog—that has his own bed. I’m technically his chauffeur,” Smith jokes.

So what does he like about driving a golf cart? “The ease of getting around, they’re fun, practical, easy to park—the city has even put dedicated golf cart parking throughout town—[and] you can customize them, which most have done,” Smith says. “There’s no two carts in town that look alike. I love the uniqueness of them all. Some old, new, groovy, lowered, raised, etc. There’s endless options available nowadays.

“On a beautiful day, would you rather be in a car or sitting outside on a golf cart enjoying the weather? Plus, it makes traffic enjoyable. Oh, did I mention they’re fun?”

 

Mokin’ Hot Ride

Another tiny vehicle that’s occasionally seen tooling around Laguna Beach is a Mini Moke. Originally designed for military use, the lightweight, front-wheel-drive, gas-powered, doorless contraptions never gained traction with the British army or navy but later took off as fun-to-drive recreational vehicles.

The first Mini Moke rolled off the assembly line in Birmingham, England, in 1964. They were later made in Australia, Portugal and, most recently, China.

Longtime Laguna Beach resident Larry Lewis, a retired general contractor, drives a 1974 purple Mini Moke that was manufactured in Australia before being imported into the U.S. by the previous owner. It’s powered by a four-cylinder engine and, in good British Empire fashion, the steering wheel is on the right side of the open cockpit. “It’s basically the same frame and running gear as a classic Mini Cooper,” he says.

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Larry Lewis and his wife, Jean Fallowfield, and their dog, Calypso, in their Moke (also pictured above) at the holidays

What prompted Lewis to invest in a Moke? “Twenty years ago or more, when my wife, Jean, and I used to go to Catalina Island on my boat, they rented Mini Mokes over there,” he says. “They were just an open body, little four-speed car you could race around the island. A few years ago, I was looking to buy a golf cart to cruise around town, but I wanted something unique.”

When he bought the Moke, it was purple with blue trim. He has since repainted it back to purple with white trim, as close to the original color as he could. And a friend gave Lewis a little hula dancer that now adorns the hood. Notably, his Moke isn’t limited to only streets with speed limit postings of 35 mph or less like golf carts are.

“It’s a perfect car to drive around town and fits in tiny parking spaces. Since it is street legal on all roads, we take it to the dog park, Balboa Island, Costa Mesa, Dana Point and all the events around town like the Sawdust [Art Festival], Heisler Park and, of course, [the] ‘Lagunatics,’ ” says Lewis, who volunteers with the beloved show at No Square Theatre and was even in the production for a few years.

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Lewis and Fallowfield’s Moke

Like golf carts, Mokes have evolved into 21st-century vehicles: The new ones are all-electric (rather than internal combustion).

“The electric Moke is the perfect ride for local neighborhoods,” says Todd Rome, CEO and founder of Moke America, which has several authorized dealer locations in Southern California. “They are street legal, electric and super fun. Each Moke is fully customizable. You can mix and match colors and options as you please for a truly bespoke experience. Plus, we just added lithium batteries, which extend range to 75 or 50 miles depending on which package you choose. That’s been a game-changer for Moke America.”

Buyers can build their Moke online at mokeamerica.com, choosing from 12 different colors (or camo) for the body, roll bars, grill and bumpers. Rather than the standard black bucket seats, you can add white seats or wicker seats and opt for a bench in the back. You can choose a Bimini top in solid or striped patterns or add a wood steering wheel for a stylish touch.

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The special edition Lilly Pulitzer Moke adds some extra style to a driver’s set of wheels. | Photo by @alexdigiacomo

“For after-market customization, we also sell a full line of patterned seat covers, tire covers, Bimini and full tops, a roof rack, woven tan floor mats, and Moke America merchandise,” Rome adds. “And some of our dealers—like Bert’s Mega Mall in [Covina, serving all of Los Angeles]—offer further customization features like specialty seats and rims.”

Moke America also produces special editions like the “007”-inspired, blue-and-white “San Monique” Moke that appeared in “Live and Let Die” with Roger Moore (Mokes appeared in four James Bond films) and the new peony pink-and-green Lilly Pulitzer Moke.

“I’ve had Porsches and different cars,” Lewis says. “But I can tell you that I get more looks and more people that wanna take a photo with the Moke than I ever did with a Porsche. Because it’s right-hand drive, my border collie, [Calypso,] sits on the left side. And people just stare and laugh and smile and wave. It’s just the greatest little car.”

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