Mechanical Progress

Behold the kitschy splendor of the golf cart
Ford Thunderbird golf cart

Like it or not, Dwight Eisenhower had a hand in the way your golf course looks. Eisenhower, who was president from 1953 to 1961, did more than any commander in chief before or since to popularize the game, playing an estimated 800 rounds of golf while in office. The combination of Ike’s passion and the rise of television showing heroes like Arnold Palmer and bucket-list venues like Augusta National created a massive golf boom in the U.S. And some of the most enduring images of the time are of Ike, smiling behind the wheel of a baby-blue three-wheel golf cart.

Mechanical Progress golf carts
Former president Dwight Eisenhower and his former vice president Richard Nixon motor through Burning Tree Country Club in 1961. Photo: Bettman/Getty Images

Merle Williams of Redding, California, is credited with inventing the first electric golf cart, introducing it in 1951. He had initially built the carts in the 1940s as a response to the gas embargo of World War II, envisioning them as a way to make life easier for the wives of U.S. soldiers fighting overseas. But it was quickly determined that the carts were perfect for lugging golf clubs while being easy on a course’s grass.

By the mid-1950s, photos of Ike playing everywhere from Augusta to Cypress Point to Glen Arven to Burning Tree were in every major newspaper. The game became part of the political landscape in Washington, D.C. It’s rumored that a famous image of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro playing golf with Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara was inspired by them trying to poke fun at Ike. More Americans than ever began taking up the game. And golf cart companies were popping up to take advantage of this new trend. A 1954 advertisement for the Golfmobile in People Today magazine read, “The ancient Scottish game of golf is giving way to mechanical progress.” 

“Presidents were so much more influential in culture back then,” says Connor T. Lewis of the Society of Golf Historians. “There was no social media; it was just newspapers, radio and early television, and presidents were always on TV. So when Eisenhower started riding around in this hot new thing called the golf cart, millions took notice. They wanted to ride.”

Mechanical Progress golf carts
A fully loaded three-wheeler in 1968. Photo: Getty Images Archive

And so, golf courses suddenly had to accommodate carts. New courses built miles of cart paths, while existing ones had to figure out where to put them. By the turn of the century, golf carts had become so ubiquitous in the U.S. that they seemed to be every bit a part of the game as the flagstick.

These early carts are a telling window into the fashion of Ike’s time, when pastels, fringed rooftops and Ben Hogan–style caps ruled the day.

Mechanical Progress golf carts
A TV camera mounted to a cart following the action in the 1965 Masters. Photo: Leonard Kamsler, Popperfoto via Getty Images
Mechanical Progress golf carts
Alice Cooper and his ride in 1975. Photo: Robert Knight Archive/Redferns

A custom cart on display in Indian Wells, California. Photos: Matt Junior