Thursday, December 29, 2016

Bob's Buggy, Part II

The cost of "modding" a buggy usually exceeds the purchase price by a factor of two.

We've had the $299 golf cart for a few weeks now, and have made a number of modifications to it to make it "street legal" here on the island, and to make it go a little faster, be safer, and look nicer.   But I think I will pull back from spending too much more on it anytime soon, as we have thrown enough money at it already.

As with any project or hobby car, you need to first establish a budget.   And the budget should be based on what the car is worth, realistically.   There is no point in throwing tens of thousands of dollars into a car worth maybe $5,000 to $10,000 on a good day in pristine shape.   You are better off just buying the pristine example rather than throwing money at an old rust-bucket.   And I say this from experience.

The problem with project cars is that you can get into the project cheaply enough, but the cost of parts and upgrades (all-too-easily put on a credit card) add up over time.  You spend your leisure hours drooling over catalogs of parts and thinking of the day you can pay down your VISA enough to buy a new fart muffler.   It is a bad approach.

Thus, with the buggy, I decided ahead of time to set a budget.   For this vehicle, about $1000, which we've already reached.   Why $1000?   Well, this is an older cart, the last year (1994) of the Marathon model which was superseded by the more popular TXT model.  If you want to "mod" a buggy, I would suggest starting with a later model TXT as parts are more readily available and cheaper to boot, and it is easier to make it go faster. 

You will still end up spending twice the purchase price to mod one, however.

For that reason, you might want to look at one from a buggy dealer or one used from someone who blew the cash on modding one.   Again, batteries are the big deal - costing from $85 to $300 each, depending on type.   For six to eight batteries, this adds up, and they need to be replaced about every five years, sadly.   Buggies are not a cost-effective form of transportation!

Local dealers and individuals are selling modded EZ-GO TXT models for about $4000 or so.   You can spend more, of course.  You can spend as much as you want to.   So spending more than a grand on a 25-year old Marathon seems kind of wasteful to me.   So that's my budget - $1000.

What did it need besides a lot of pressure washing and polishing?   Well, the two main things are safety and speed, and the latter is related to the former.   At the stock 12 mph speed, it is hardly faster than a bicycle and a good recipe for being run over.  So we want to make it go a little faster - perhaps 17-20 mph or so.

And that is not as easy as it looks.  The easiest solution is to upgrade from the stock 36 Volt battery pack to 48 volts, either by adding two batteries (which I did) or by switching to expensive 8-volt batteries.   I took the cheap route, obviously.

But what to do with the extra voltage?  The easiest solution is to buy a new 48-volt controller and a new 48-volt higher torque motor.   Easy, but pricey.  The cheapest controllers are about $500 or so, and the motors about $800 apiece (!!!) or a total of $1300 to spend on a $299 golf cart.   In my mind, not worth it.

I found a fellow on the "Buggies gone wild!" discussion group who found a cheaper solution.   Just add a "booster pack" of batteries and wire them around the controller via a relay so the motor sees direct 48V from all of the batteries combined.   This requires you buy a 48V relay ($55) and a huge-ass power diode ($48) to prevent the current from feeding back into the sold-state controller.  The 36V stock motor will take the excess voltage (I am told) although it may shorten the service life somewhat.   This raised the top speed from 12 mph to 15 mph, which is not a bad jump.  Total cost, with batteries, battery boxes, relay and diode, about $325 - more than we paid for the cart!
This schematic laid out how to boost your buggy without buying a new controller.  I have revised it to show the actual connections on my machine.  However, it does have some risks involved, to the motor, the buggy, and yourself!

The diagram is accurate, and the system works.  When the boost relay is activated, the additional 12 volts is added to the existing 36 volts, and this goes right to the motor, bypassing the solid stand controller.  The power diode prevents current from feeding back into the controller.  The diode is important.  A third relay could be used in its place, but I suspect it would not switch fast enough to avoid damaging the controller, hence the diode. Plus the diode is a little cheaper.

However, putting 48 Volts to a 36 Volt motor might shorten its service life - although some old-timers say these motors can handle the voltage.   It also means your brakes will have to work harder to stop.   Finally, if you "floor" the accelerator from a standstill, the buggy will lurch forward and that can be kind of dangerous (it is unexpected) and also put stress on the pinion gear in the rear axle.   But the fellow who came up with this puts 72 volts to his buggy (for a total of 108 Volts!), so at least we are not being that extreme!

108 Volts to the motor.  Ouch!

The problem with speed mods is that each one gives you maybe one or two mph in speed increase.  Once you have more voltage and more amperage and more torque, you can put on bigger wheels and tires to increase the effective final drive ratio and get maybe 2-3 more mph out of it.   But bigger wheels and tires means you have to put in a lift kit - one thing requires another.  You can replace the whole front axle with a lifted one for $300, or buy a cheap "block" lift kit for $89.  Guess which one I chose?

But getting back to safety, one problem these "buggies" have is that most have only rear, cable-operated brakes.   They were designed for 12 mph golf course duty, and if you ramp up the speed to 20 or 25 mph, they may not be very effective.   While installing the lift kit, I was shocked to find the right brake was disconnected as the cable had gotten bound up (bent) and would not retract.  The left wasn't much better.  So new cables on both sides.  A brake job and adjustment is next (as is lubing the differential and all the zerk fittings).

What's more, with the higher center of gravity as well as increased load (another mod is a rear fold-down seat - about $260 to $300 so the cart will seat four) the handling goes all to hell.   Sudden turns can be quite squarely!
Which is why they require seat belts on our island.  I have read about some gruesome golf cart accidents in The Villages, where old people fall out of the damn things and either smash their heads on the pavement or are run over by passing cars.  Not falling out is a good deal.   I was fortunate to find a set of retractable seat belts from a neighbor, new in the box, for $80.

So the total cost so far is.....


Seat Belts  $90
Rear View Mirror $10.83
Side Mirrors $15.99
Beacon  $7.79
Horn $32.85
Horn Button $5.99
Light Switch  $5.99
Brake Cables $54.85
Windshield  $89.99
Service Manual  $9.99
Battery hold-down  $18.95
Reflectors  $8.95


Relay  $47.99
Diode  $48.37
Batteries $200.13
Battery Boxes  $41.90
4Ga Wire  $22
Lift Kit (allows for larger tires, more speed)  $78.99
Accelerator switch: $14

Purchase Price:  $299

Total:  $1094.55

Now this is without any "cosmetic" modifications, such a paint job, fancy upholstery ($55), a rear-facing seat ($275), a fake burlwood dashboard with glove box, ($189), a kicker stereo, under carriage lighting, brake light switch, turn signals, and so forth.   You can go crazy with these things, and the cost of each bite at the apple is that oh-so-easy-to-put-on-VISA amount of $200 or less.   You can go broke, one "mod" at a time!

And it doesn't include all the small fasteners, crimp fittings, pop rivets, electrical tape and shrink tubing I used from stock.

We'll keep using it and have fun with it and if we get bored with it - sell it.   Maybe we'll do more cosmetic things to it over time, if we can find parts at the right prices.  And that is kind of the fun aspect of this - scrounging for things and finding "stuff" to make it work, on a budget.  For example, the rear cargo deck was made from scrap plywood scrounged from a dumpster and some scrap carpeting I had laying around.

And maybe if we like it enough, down the road, we'd build another one.  This time starting with a TXT, of course!

UPDATE 2020:   over the years, we've had to put more money in this buggy and probably have about $2,300 into it so far. I found a Curtis 48V controller and eBay for about $250 which is the hell of a deal.

The 6-volt batteries eventually died. I don't think they were as new is the previous owner suggested. They kept losing water over time which is a sure sign your batteries are going south. We replaced them with six 8-Volt batteries which was cheaper and now the cart can easily circumnavigate the island twice.

We've done the few other things. We breupholstered the seats with some vinyl we bought from jo-ann fabrics. All in all it's been a reliable little buggy, but I ended up spending more than I thought I would.