SANTA CRUZ (July 2009) - They’re tiny and zippy, painted a piercing yellow, and look like a Boardwalk ride gone AWOL. If you’ve been on West Cliff Drive lately, you’ve probably seen a couple of Cruz Carz whizzing past, the shotgun passenger shooting video with an iPhone, and passers-by photographing them in return.
They looked like fun, and since this is a “staycation” summer for us, my daughter and I headed over to the Cruz Carz rental lot and took one of the little three-wheelers for a spin.
Cruz Carz, with its fleet of 10 mini-vehicles, was opened in April by Santa Cruz residents Judy Locke and Lynn Falcon.
Locke, a physical education teacher at Soquel High, is also known locally as the gal who organizes swim meets for the Santa Cruz County Aquatics swim team. Falcon is a VP at Comerica Bank, and her family, longtime Santa Cruzans, owns Stagnaro Bros. Restaurant on the municipal wharf.
The Cruz Carz warehouse is hard to miss, located next to the Depot Park soccer field and painted the same zingy yellow as the vehicles. Summer business has been brisk, and while most of the customers are tourists, local residents are taking notice, too.
“We had one group of locals rent cars for a Sweet Sixteen party,” Locke said. “The kids had to be driven by the adults, but they set up a treasure hunt, then met at a restaurant afterward.”
Sadly for teenagers, insurance limitations mean you have to be 21 years old to drive a Cruz Carz. “It’s too bad,” Locke laughed. “Because teens love these things. If we could rent to teenagers, we’d be rich!”
Cruz Carz employee Katie Cline explained the controls to us, and gave a bit of advice. Remember to release the parking brake, and to switch off the blinker after you’ve made your turn. Obey all traffic rules, and stay off the freeway.
Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times and … no, wait, those are the safety instructions for the Giant Dipper.
Cruz Carz are basically three-wheeled motorcycles encased in a shiny two-seat carapace, with chrome roll bars extending above the passenger seats. The 100 cc motor gets about 80 miles per gallon, and the cars can hit 45 mph - going downhill.
“Don’t just pull out in front of oncoming traffic,” Cline advised. “These things can take a few seconds to get up to speed.”
And stay out of the bike lane, Locke added sternly. “No bike lane. Bike lane bad,” she said. “We’ve gotten complaints.”
And we were off! Well, not immediately. Before hitting the open road, I took a couple of laps through the Depot Park’s back lot to get used to the throttle and brakes. My daughter started snapping blurry photos with a jiggling camera, and then we were off.
We buzzed up the hill and over the trestle bridge, past the Dream Inn and out to West Cliff Drive. I tried to be nonchalant, but it was hard to keep a grin off my face. I felt like we’d hijacked a bumper car for a low-speed getaway, and it was comical to see the double-takes of people walking and jogging along the path.
People waved, made (friendly) hand gestures, and called out greetings. Hmm. Never get that kind of attention in my minivan. And the paparazzi! We probably had our pictures taken a dozen times.
The view from the passenger's seat
Cruz Carz come equipped with a specially-programmed GPS unit that will speak up periodically to highlight points of general and historical interest. The three GPS tours include a "beauty" tour, encompassing West Cliff Drive, a historical tour winding through Mission Hill and downtown, and a Santa Cruz-to-Capitola tour that meanders along the coast.
My daughter’s only complaint had to do with the helmets - standard issue with a Cruz Carz rental and a good safety precaution - because they prevent that freewheelin’ wind-in-the-hair sensation.
The wind washed us in salt-scented air and a line of pelicans swooped low over the road as we trundled along the scenic route we’d driven hundreds of times, but never in a pint-sized convertible. Out near Natural Bridges State Park a line of kids on bikes whipped their heads around, yelling “lookit that car!” and “wow, that’s sick!”
We doubled back to the wharf, and rumbled slowly out to the end and back. Fortunately, the first half-hour on the wharf is free, which gives you just enough time to hit Marini’s for a cone and head back onto Beach Street.
Our hour went fast, and we pulled smartly back in to the Cruz Carz warehouse, maneuvering with more élan than we had shown on our cautious departure. The grin was still on my face, and my daughter had a thoughtful look in her eyes. I believe she’s planning a treasure hunt.