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

Special to the Times

John Regalado is rockin' 'n' rollin' down Beacon Street in one mean, souped-up machine. He's got a two-stroke engine that can outrun nearly anything in its class, a boombox that'll pump ZZ Top tunes four blocks away and a tow rig that can pull a dump truck across town.

Not bad for a golf cart.

And on sleepy Santa Catalina Island, where more residents drive golf carts than cars, the vehicle's rear-mounted tow rig and "Back Off" mud flaps make Regalado the king of cool. The 39-year-old Catalina native converted the cart several years ago, and he often tools around the island blaring rock music and pulling broken-down carts to his garage for repairs.

"It's been a busy morning," Regalado says as he tows his third cart of the day back to the garage to fix a flat tire.

Residents on this island 23 miles off the coast of Los Angeles do love their golf carts. While commuters in the rest of smog-shrouded Southern California idle in traffic snarls or dart in and out of fast lanes, most Catalina commuters putter around the island's bungalow-lined streets in golf carts at a steady clip of 12 m.p.h.--rarely any slower or any faster.

It's a pace that suits life on this tranquil island, a salty Mayberry where residents consider a road with three carts and a minivan a cause for a SigAlert.

In Avalon, where most of Catalina's 3,300 residents live, the streets buzz with gas and electric carts on their way to the grocery store, the post office or a picturesque bluff.

Islanders also drive full-size cars, but in 1979 the City Council limited the number of cars on the island to 800 because of increasing traffic congestion, and now residents must wait up to 10 years for a permit to get a car.

As an alternative, many turned to golf carts--pink carts, plain, white rusting carts, even a fire-engine-red Rolls-Royce replica cart. About 1,000 of the carts can be found on the city's streets. Most carts cost from $4,000 to $7,000 and, like cars, must be insured and registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles.

More than half of the 50 teachers and other employees at Avalon School drive carts to the campus, including Principal Mark V. Ur, who left his car on the mainland when he moved to the island five years ago.

Ur said his slow-paced mode of transportation is the envy of other school administrators in the Long Beach Unified School District, which includes the Avalon school.

"I think it's kind of unique to drive back and forth to work in a golf cart," he said.

To explore Catalina's hilly interior, islanders must drive cars. But in Avalon, carts are so common that the sheriff's station has an undercover golf cart for stakeouts and a black-and-white cart with lights and a siren for patrol. "It's kind of overkill to chase down golf carts in a police car that goes so much faster than the carts do," says Sheriff's Sgt. Elaine Minnis.

Minnis says deputies sometimes pull over cart drivers for running stop signs, but sheriff's deputies rarely use their sirens. "Usually, because the golf carts are open, you can just yell at the drivers to stop," she says.

Problems do arise when residents confuse one another's carts and motor off in the wrong one. It's easy to confuse carts because many are similar and the ignition keys often match, she says. Someone once motored away with Minnis' personal cart while it was parked in front of the sheriff's station.

"The driver was so embarrassed," she says. "It's an honest mistake."

Accidents occasionally occur when tourists drink and drive or let their children drive a cart, Minnis says.

"It's not a toy. We do have hills and it can be very dangerous," she says. "The biggest problem is the carts are fun and people tend to think they're at Disneyland."

For a brief moment recently, a peaceful oceanfront walkway looked a bit like "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride." Tourists behind the wheel of a rental cart swerved into a pedestrian-only area along the oceanfront. As the cart accelerated down the walkway, pedestrians scattered and a sheriff's deputy gave chase.

Although no one was hit, a stern rental clerk reclaimed the cart and kept the chastened driver's $30 deposit.

Most islanders, who tend to be a bit more reserved behind the wheel, own their own carts. Some residents bought golf carts to use while they wait to get a car; others prefer to drive carts, saying they require less maintenance and are easier to park along the city's small streets.

Bill Whitaker, retired Avalon school principal, runs a golf-cart rental business with his son. Whitaker, who transferred to Avalon from another Long Beach school in 1969, is only months from getting a permit to drive a car around the island. But he said he'll still keep his golf cart. "It's great. If everyone drove one in L.A. County, there would be few, if any fatal accidents. Of course," he added, "nobody would get to work on time either."

Josephine Swett, who often borrows her neighbor's cart to run errands, says she thinks the carts are the best way to get around town. That wasn't her first opinion.

"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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