Bev Dolan, Father of the Golf Cart

Note: In mid-summer 2000, we interviewed Mr. Beverly F. Dolan, Founder of E-Z-GO and the Father of the Golf Car Industry as we know it today. He was President of E-Z-GO and several other companies, and is the former CEO & President of Textron – one of the biggest industrial complexes in the world.

Who is Bev Dolan? He’s a Georgia boy (Augusta) and a ‘good ole’ one at that. After chatting with him for over an hour we can describe him in single words: Warm, friendly, smiling, soft-spoken, honest, unassuming, open, humorous, understanding, forgiving, sharp, and highly competent as the CEO of a major industrial complex should be.

This gracious man provided¬†the easiest interview we have ever done. More than that, he tells the history and development of the entire golf car industry. Read it and you’ll most likely learn something you didn’t know. The Interview starts below. Thank you.

- GolfCarCatalog.com

Q
Mr. Dolan I guess we can begin this interview by commenting that you are the Father of the Golf Car.

A
Well I don’t know that I would go that far.

Q
Let’s start at the beginning. Was the ‘Autoette’ the first commercial golf car on the market?

A
The Autoette was the first one I know about. The Blood Manufacturing Company somewhere in California. It was sort of a boxy looking car and it had two electric motors in the rear, one on each wheel with a jack shaft and a chain drive. The sprocket was just about the same size as the wheel. That is probably the first one that I was familiar with. But almost immediately there were many, many manufacturers…Electric Carrier in Texas, Fairway King, and of course Cushman. Cushman came out in 1954. Then there were Victor, Sears Roebuck and Electric Carrier. They all began to proliferate in the mid fifties. By 1960 most of these companies were gone. There were literally dozens of them. And a lot of these companies were extremely well financed.

Q
More than yourselves? (E-Z-GO?)

A
We were not financed at all! I had $200 that I got as ‘mustering out’ pay from the Army. On the 12th of June, 1954, I was discharged from the Army and started E-Z-GO the next day. The only money that I think we had invested was $103 for a B-17 24-Volt Electric Motor that operated the B-17 wind flaps. We hooked this up to a 36-Volt battery pack and away we went. We bought them at an Army surplus store in Los Angeles call Pearson Electric. I don’t know how many motors they had, but they had more than we needed at the time.

Q
These were used motors?

A
No, they were new. There were surplus stores all over after the war. You could buy an airplane in Augusta, Georgia and there was more gasoline in the tanks than you paid for the entire airplane.

Q
You took a 24 volt motor and adapted it to a 36 volt system?

A
Yeah, and in the first 30 seconds it would throw all the solder off the commutator and after that it would work alright.

Q
So your first car was a 36 volt system with a 24 volt motor.

A
We never did build a 24 volt golf car but a lot of the cars were 24 volt at that time. Lot of them were single wheel drive with a straight chain and sprocket and jack shaft arrangement. They were very simple. One reason for the 24 volts is you can control it with an open contact switch.
You can’t control a 36 volt this way, it’s too hot…too many amps. To go to a 36 volt system you had to have a way to control the arcing. You had to have solenoids and one thing or another in order to do that. It was a little more complicated so a lot of people went with the 24 volts. This was in 1954.

Q
I’ve heard the story that you and your brother Billy were sitting on the porch of Augusta National Club House at the Master’s Tournament and saw a golf car go by.

A
It was April and I was getting out of the Army in July, 1954 and I was looking for something to do. The golf car, which was an Autoette, went by and Billy made the comment, “You know somebody is going to make a lot of money out of those things one of these days.” The golf car was brought up for Bobby Jones. Well, I had my ‘rabbit ears’ up looking for something to do when I got out of the service in 90 days. I went back to Ft Jackson and in about two weeks I called my brother and said when I got out in July I wanted to start building golf cars and would he like to join me. The rest is history.

Q
You were very close to Billy?

A
Oh yes, oh sure.

Q
Were there just you two boys in the family?

A
Yes, just the 2 boys. My father was quite old when I was born. When I was in college he liquidated his lumber business so I had no family business to go into. I had to find something to do and I knew that I wanted to go into the manufacturing business. Didn’t know what. My Dad was very successful in business and it never dawned on me to do anything but start my own business.

Q
So you were the only manufacturer of golf cars in Augusta in the beginning?

A
Yes. Then later on Pargo started, which was an off-shoot of E-Z-GO. This was probably 1958.

Q
How was Paul Corley associated with E-Z-GO?

A
Corley had a machine shop in Grovetown, Georgia, not in use at the time and Billy and I were in a one room machine shop in downtown Augusta. We had just built the first car and were ready to start production. A friend told us there was this guy, Corley, who had a big machine shop with lots of equipment and nothing to do. So we made Paul a Third Partner and away we went.

Q
And that lasted how long? You eventually went back to Augusta?

A
Well we were there about 3 years building cars and had E J Smith & Sons, who was a golf equipment distributor, distribute cars for us in 8 Southeastern States. But it wasn’t a very pleasant arrangement. Rather than trying to help us, he tried to ‘fuss’ us. Not that it wasn’t good for his business. I went to work one day and the doors to the factory were locked. I saw Paul and said, “Paul what’s going on?” He said, “Well, George Smith and myself have decided to form this company called ‘Pargo’. We’re going to build a new golf car and we’re not going to operate with you any more.”

Q
They were trying to shuffle you out the door?

A
Well that was their intent but we didn’t ‘shuffle’ that easily. Corley said, “I’m buiding them and Smith is selling them. What to we need the Dolans for?” This was in the Spring of ’57 and it was very difficult to operate out of there for the next several months. I told them it would take a little time for us to find a new place to move our factory.

Q
How many cars were you building at this time?

A
We were building about 30 or 40 cars a month. We were struggling along, not making any money. So I finally found this b
rand new 10,000 sq ft cotton warehouse full of cotton. I knew the guys who owned it and talked them into renting it for $500 a month.

So we made plans to move our stuff out of Corley’s place. This was the weekend of July the 4th. Everybody was nervous because Corley didn’t know we were moving out. I knew there was going to be a squabble over which equipment belonged to whom. At 5 O’clock here came the heavy equipment up the dirt road to pick up all of our stuff. Nobody knew what was going to happen. Anyway we got it all out of there and got moved that weekend. Then we made more cars in the new place in July than we had ever made before.

Of course at the same time they were up there working on the Pargo. And they came out with the Pargo which really never was a successful venture. Like so many other golf car manufacturers, they could make a golf car but couldn’t make one with all the fine points that people really wanted. Somehow Billy and I realized the design points needed to adequately use the cars on a golf course.

Q
Was the first Pargo car actually an E-Z-GO?

A
No, they developed one that looked like a Prince Albert tobacco can. (Interview note: E-Z-GO/Textron now owns the Pargo Company.) Funny lookin’ little thing. I don’t think they ever made any money anyway. But they sure were a thorn in our side and it took us 20 years to finally put them out of business.

Q
Was Corley still involved in your business?

A
Yes, I used to have to go up there once a year and go over the financial figures with him. I tried to buy him out but he wouldn’t sell. I always got along with Paul even to the end. So finally we made the statement that E-Z-GO would never pay a dividend, we’d always re-invest the money in the business. Finally he saw that he could get some money (for his interest) or sit there forever and agreed to sell in about 1959.

Q
What was your production at that time?

A
In 1960 we were probably making 60 to 70 cars a month. E-Z-GO makes about 600 cars a day now.

Q
When did Club Car come to town?

A
There was a guy named Bill Stevens who invented and manufactured a hand truck with belts on the back that allowed moving heavy appliances up and down stairs. He saw we were doing pretty good so he went out to Texas and bought this company called, Club Car, and brought it to Augusta. He hired this high powered salesman to sell these things and he claimed they would just run forever…how efficient it was…all aluminum frame..so light…all BS. They really struggled with this thing. They had a young son in charge of sales, very religious, and we always wondered how he could sell a golf car because if you didn’t sell it in a bar, where would you sell it? They never got it off the ground. Club Car would have died in it’s own juices had it not been for the other part of the story. We already spawned Pargo made by the Columbia Car Company (named so because it was made in Columbia County, Georgia). Stevens was really never successful because he didn’t understand the golf car market.

So in the meantime we sold E-Z-GO to Textron in 1960. We continued to operate it for 13 years and we grew pretty rapidly. Then in 1973 Textron asked me if I would move to Minneapolis to straighten out a snowmobile company thay had up there that was in trouble…Polaris.

Well I had lived in Augusta all my life and this was something new, so I did it! I stayed there for 3 years. (Interview note: Polaris and E-Z-GO were at this time joined and Bev Dolan was the president of both.) During this 3 years I got the company (Polaris) turned around and everything was working. Next Textron said they had a chain saw company in Charlotte called ‘Homelite’ that was in trouble and asked if I would go there and straighten them out. So I went to Charlotte.

This was the first and only time that I was ever not directly in control of E-Z-GO. This was 1976. A year or so later I woke up one morning and my borther Billy and 5 or 6 of top guys at E-Z-GO (not all the top guys but some of them) had secretly bought the floundering Club Car (golf car company) from Johns Manville. They were going to revive the company and build a new golf car right there in Augusta just 3 or 4 miles from where E-Z-GO was.

Q
Was this ‘Out of the Blue’?

A
Yes! This was a big surprise for me. He had not consulted or informed me of this. A lot of things occurred during that time that should not have occurred. At any rate they made Club Car go, they knew how to do it. So Club Car was ‘reborn’ and they did a good job. They thought when a significant part of management left, E-Z-GO would fail just like Pargo had. So it was very bitter in Augusta back and forth between the two companies and I think there is still bitterness today.

Q
What did you think about your brother Billy going to Club Car? Was there a riff? Did you ever reconcile?

A
Yes there was a riff for a couple of years. Billy died in 1988. We definitely reconciled. I think when I look back over it – not getting into a whole long diatribe of personal and sibling relationships – probably the thing that set it off (and this is just speculation because I don’t know) is when I hired a new President of E-Z-GO. When I went to Charlotte to Homelite, I made this fellow President of E-Z-GO and Polaris to take my place. That was NOT a real popular move. His name was Fritz Myers who was a former national sales manager of Lincoln Motors. I made what I thought was the best decision for the company at the time. They (E-Z-GO top management) didn’t like it. But they saw an opportunity with Club Car and moved on it. If I had been in their shoes, I’d probably have done the same thing

But I wouldn’t have done it in the dark of the night. It was unnecessary. As long as you are drawing your pay from a person, you ought to be loyal to that person. If you’re going to change to do something else, tell him what you’re going to do. Don’t continue working for him when you are actually working against him…and taking his money. That’s the kind of thing that always got under my skin.

Really Club Car did very well. They made a few changes. Changed the styling of it. They had this fellow, Dom Saporito, from Harley-Earl Associates who was the body designer for E-Z-GO. They got him to design the Club Car body as well.. A great design man, hell of a guy.

Q
Did the Club Car designs come off the E-Z-GO table?

A
No, Saporito had done a lot of work for E-Z-GO and Club Car got him to do this work for them. Of course he had no obligation NOT to do it. Then Club Car was sold 2 or 3 times including Clark Equipment (who paid way too much money for it. They would never realize the investment value).

So that’s the story of the animosity. Always has been and always will be between E-Z-GO and Club Car. But E-Z-GO has never looked back and has kept forging on.

In the history of E-Z-GO, the period of 1976 to 79 was the only period that I did not have direct control of E-Z-GO in my whole career. When I went to Textron and became President of Textron, I was back in control.

Q
And E-Z-GO was still your baby?

A
Oh Yeah!…and it always will be. Everything just continued to grow. We had 2 or 3 different Presidents trying to find the right guy. And then L T Walden came along. He is a great, great guy. Can’t say enough about him. Came out of Gibson, Georgia, a little town down there with only one traffic light. He has developed and he has grown and is still doing a great job. He is a ve
ry smart, faithful, hard working, great guy. Good man!

Q
Can we go back and talk about your relationship with Roy Little, Founder and President of Textron?

A
Sure. The phone rings one day and it’s Roy Little on the phone. He asked if I wanted to sell E-Z-GO. I said NO! And a couple weeks later he called back again and said the same thing. This time he added, “Why don’t you (all) just come up here (to Providence, RI) and talk with us?” then he added, “And bring your lawyer.”

This was all at a time that we were ‘over the hill’ in terms of growth and probably didn’t realize it. It was just at the right time. So we sold the business to them and it worked out real well. We had a stock deal and the stock has done unbelievably well.

I’ve often been asked if I would do it the same way all over again. Well when I look at my own career, I don’t see how I could have done it much better one way or another. I learned a hell of a lot in my association with Textron and these other companies to build a base for E-Z-GO. So you don’t know whether the same thing would have happened without Textron. E-Z-GO’s financial problems were over, of course. But it was something more than that. Textron had the systems and the market and we saw how they did it and then we did it for ourselves.

Q
Did Textron exert tight control over E-Z-GO?

A
No….Hell… we’d see a (Textron) Vice President about every six weeks. We’d take him out and get him drunk and that was that!

All of that worked out well. I knew everbody who ever worked at Textron beginning with Roy Little, the Founder. I really enjoyed that whole association. From 1960 to 1992 and then 3 more years on the board until 1995, 35 years. It’s been an interesting ride all the way though. Lot of good people. I sometimes smile about getting out of the Army with no real job prospects and end up being at Textron in charge of Bell Helicopter, Marine Hover Craft, weapons and sensory companies and various and sundry other companies and of course E-Z-GO. Been a wonderful career. I’ve been lucky. I’ve always worked hard but I’ve had a lot of luck too.

Q
Can we go back to the Cotton brothers, Ken and Troy and their association with you and E-Z-GO and also Doug Powell and Melex Golf Cars?

A
Yes. Well Doug Powell was an interesting fellow. The Cotton’s and Powell had a Cushman distributorship and then started doing business with us (E-Z-GO). Powell treated us like ‘country boys’ which we may have been, but not really. He was always threatening to go to Europe and get one (new golf car brand) made. And finally he did.

They took one of our cars and sent it to Poland. It was a big and good Polish company. We did business with them at Textron. First thing I know this Melex thing turns up, an exact copy of an E-Z-GO. We knew that we had previously made a mistake in one of our E-Z-GO jigs. And when we took the Melex apart, there it was, the same mistake. But the Melex never was a good car compared to E-Z-GO. It looked like it, but it just wasn’t. Again it’s just like Pargo, somebody building something they didn’t know how it was going to be used or what environment it would be used in. These guys thought they could build a golf car but didn’t know about so many nuances that you must consider to really have it right. And they never had it right.

Q
How did you get it ‘right’? What did you do?

A
I graduated from the University of Georgia with a physics degree. I got out of the Army and I always was a pretty good ‘shade tree’ mechanic. Brother Billy was a good ‘shade tree’ mechanic as well. We had always been around golf courses and had, I think, an insight into the market. You just can’t get any guy off the street who doesn’t play golf or know about golf courses and tell him to build you a golf car. He ain’t going to get it right.

We understood the center of gravity problem, we understood the terrain it was going to be operated on and we understood what would be ‘acceptable’ on a golf course.

The main thing we understood was that we weren’t building a sports car. We wanted to build a unit that was going to be used as a rental vehicle and would be sold in fleets, easy to service with no worries. And we have not changed that philosophy to this day. Other people have tried to sport ‘em up and jazz ‘em up – this, that and the other – and E-Z-GO still fights doing that. Like Toro came out two different times with golf cars that didn’t work. One was a sport little deal like a Jaguar. The second one they came out with, “ha ha ha”, well cutting grass is not the same as building a golf car.

Q
We are coming to the end of the hour that you have so graciously allowed us.

A
Yes. But there is one chapter we need to cover. Six months before we sold the company to Textron, a fellow named Bill Tilley came into our office from Bristol, Virginia. His family owned Bristol Steel and Iron Works and he wondered if they could buy into the company (E-Z-GO). We kept saying no, and finally we agreed to sell half of the company. That was 6 months before we sold the whole company to Textron. They (the Tilley’s) were good people. I’m sure Bill is dead by now. He sold out his business and went to Ireland to raise race horses. So for 6 months the Tilleys owned half of the business. This is not a big part of the E-Z-GO history, but it needs to be said.

Q
And your association with Roy Little of Textron? Did you know him through other connections?

A
No. He just called one day. Roy loved golf. Roy loved several things. He loved to acquire companies, didn’t like to operate them – just acquire them, he loved to play golf, he loved to play bridge, and he loved to dance! He was a great man. He died about 5 or 6 years ago at the age of 97

Q
What do you see in the golf car industry and in the electric car? We understand your son is working on handicap scooters.

A
You can’t do electric cars with existing technology. If you put lead acid batteries in an electric car that goes 70 or 80 miles an hour, you’ve got trouble. There are bound to be accidents. When those batteries short out, you’ll have the damnest fire you’ve ever seen. I can’t visualize those being on the highway. Until there is a break through, I don’t see how they can compete with a gas engine car. Maybe one of these days we’ll harness the atomic resource. I think a lot of money ought to be invested in research.

There is one other thing I want to mention about the development of the golf car. Golf cars had a hard time being accepted. A lot of people felt like ‘monkeys’ riding in a car on the golf course. Then a very important thing happened, President Eisenhower had a heart attack. His doctor, Dr. White, a heart doctor from Boston, said he could continue to play golf, up to 3 times per week, but he MUST use a golf car. That instantly legitimized the golf car. If you look at the numbers, the upward growth curve of the golf car after that statement came out, you can see it. The President can ride a golf car and so can everybody else. The stigma had been lifted.

Q
One last question. When we attend the PGA golf show we run into a significant number of people like the editors of golf magazines and others who are totally against using golf cars. They pretend that golf cars don’t even exist. What do you say to these people?

A
@#$! ‘em [Laughter]. How do you think golf courses are maintained today? Caddies got money for carrying the client’s golf clubs around. The course did
n’t get any of it. But there are no more caddies today. The economic side of the golf car is an interesting story in itself. First the Pros found out how much money there was in renting golf cars. Then the courses took that away from the Pros. People are demanding more and more maintenance of golf courses and golf car rental is a very significant part of paying that cost.

 

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