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Published: Tuesday, 4/3/2001

Grand Rapids firm customizes carts for airports, hotels, even golf

BY JON CHAVEZ
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Donna Meyer tightens a component on a frame for one of the hand-assembled customized carts. Donna Meyer tightens a component on a frame for one of the hand-assembled customized carts.
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GRAND RAPIDS, Ohio - There isn't a golf course within sight of Emerson Abbott's barn-sized but mostly nondescript metal building nestled amidst the quiet farm fields of southernmost Lucas County.

But once inside, visitors might think they'd wandered into the maintenance motor pool at Pebble Beach.

Lined up neatly, ready to roll, is a small fleet of electric golf carts representing the full sales line of Wheels To-Go, a small business that Mr. Abbott purchased in 1992 but has been expanding ever since to meet the growing number of custom uses consumers have found for golf-cart-sized vehicles.

``Since I bought it, I've always been into research and development,” Mr. Abbott said. ``I've always got people calling us asking, `Can you do this, can you do that?'''

A self-taught mechanic, Mr. Abbott usually can and does.

He annually sells about 100 of the customized carts, which list for $4,500 to $6,900, depending on size, the number of wheels (three or four), and the number of people they can carry.

But it isn't just casual golfers who buy from Wheels To-Go. Customers include disabled golfers, seniors (who often pack a standard 465-pound cart in their recreational motor homes), factories, hospitals, and nursing homes.

Recently, officials associated with Delta Airlines paid him a visit in need of a special cart to ferry passengers around Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport.

The airport has very small elevators in which motorized carts generally don't fit. They asked him to create a cart just 66 inches long and 36 inches wide that would carry a driver and three passengers.

After two weeks, he came up with a cart that fits the request and carries more than 1,000 pounds.

Recently tested at Hartsfield, the cart called the A.P. (for airport) Cruiser fit into all the elevators but one and traveled the 1.5 miles of terminal corridors in about 9 minutes on a busy day.

American Airlines now has expressed interest the cart, which he said could answer his desire to get more airport orders.

His carts are popular because they are relatively small - at 30 or 36 inches wide - and can fit in a minivan or the hold of a motor home.

They can travel 25 miles or about 31/2 hours on one electric charge, have a built-in charger, and can reach speeds of up to 12 mph.

Mr. Abbott began in construction, then started a small assembly shop, before he became a dealer for a golf cart maker about a decade ago.

The maker, Ranger All Season Corp., of George, Iowa, sold him the business, which he said is profitable, but he would reveal no numbers.

Most likely, if Wheels To-Go takes off, it will be without Mr. Abbott.

He said his heart isn't in the business since his wife, Mary, died of cancer in 1996, and he has put Wheels To-Go up for sale. He is asking $1.3 million.



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