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Got driver, snowbirds can fly

Plymouth ex-officer amasses lots of miles, and a few pounds, in long road trips

By Robert Carroll
Globe Correspondent / May 16, 2010

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A few minutes behind the wheel is normally all Arthur “Skip’’ Budge needs to reach a level of comfort with a vehicle. He’s quick to acclimate himself to its brake pressure, wheel alignment, and often dizzying control panel.

But nearly 1,000 miles into this particular Florida to New York drive, Budge can’t reach peace behind the wheel of the spotless, ocean-blue 2008 Nissan Altima.

“Oh, it’s not the car,’’ Budge says into his cellphone as he cruises Interstate 95 north outside Washington, D.C. “It rides beautifully. My problem comes from what’s in the car.’’

A die-hard Red Sox fan from Plymouth, Budge was delivering a vehicle sporting New York Mets logos on its head rests, a Mets cup holder, and, for anyone outside the car who might care, a bright and bold Mets license plate holder.

“I called the owner from the road and let her know how tough this is for me to do,’’ he says. “She made it worse by telling me she was at Game Six [of the 1986 World Series] and saw the ball go through Buckner’s legs. I told her I was awfully close to just leaving the car somewhere.’’

In the three-plus years since starting Skip’s Snowbird Shuttle Service, the 54-year-old former Plymouth police lieutenant says he has never failed to deliver on mark and on time. And that includes more than 150 Massachusetts-to-Florida runs covering nearly a quarter-million driving miles.

“Very rarely am I late by even five minutes,’’ he says.

The idea of creating a business of delivering vehicles up and down the East Coast for retirees came to him as he sat in his car at a stop light. “I watched a tractor-trailer drive by hauling all these vehicles,’’ he says. “I figured they were for snowbirds heading south. I figured I could do that and probably for cheaper. So I did some research.’’

In 2006, trucking companies generally charged about $750 to deliver a vehicle between Massachusetts and Florida. Budge figured he could do the same for $550. He counted on his law enforcement background and spotless driving record to build trust with clients. He relied on close contacts to help him push his venture.

“I would always leave my cards with family and friends, like Mike and Joan Manfredi, who own Fat Mike’s Diner in Plymouth, who helped me out tremendously,’’ says Budge. “I was all about word of mouth.’’

Word that first autumn traveled faster than a Porsche on the New Jersey Turnpike. Customers, Budge found, were attracted not only to his reduced pricing (Budge today charges $585 plus gas and tolls; trucking companies found online routinely charge between $800 and $1,000 one way) but also the timely door-to-door service, constant cellphone contact for travel updates, and the option of cramming the vehicle with as many personal belongings as will fit — and that includes people and pets.

“Skip has been delivering our cars regularly,’’ says Betty Hooven, who summers on Cape Cod and winters on Florida’s east coast with her husband, Bill.

“Bill drives up with Skip. And our dog [“Finny,’’ a goldendoodle] goes with them because we refuse to fly him. It works out perfectly. We always enjoy our conversations with Skip.’’

Still, as Budge points out, not all excursions feature clear roads, cloudless skies, and casual conversations. Flat tires, scratched paint, and dented bumpers are unavoidable.

“I’ve had to repair flats when the jack was in the trunk under everything,’’ says the card-carrying AAA member. “It would take me forever to unload and get the jack or spare tire and then load up again.’’

Budge says the worst mishap came during an overnight stop in Baltimore in the spring of 2007. As he slept in a hotel, thieves smashed the car’s driver-side window, stealing the navigation system and satellite radio. For nine hours the next day, Budge drove without a window through driving rain. Reaching Plymouth, he gave his customer his own car to use while the window was replaced.

“It was the least I could do,’’ he says.

Roadside problems notwithstanding, Budge says his biggest concern is the toll on his waistline. He admits that waitresses in more than a few Southern fast-food joints know him by first name. A cook in one particular South Carolina waffle house throws pork chops and eggs on the grill before Budge even finds a seat at the counter.

“Weight gain is a concern,’’ says Budge, who estimates he can go 100 miles between coffee shop and rest stops. “I’m not a large person by any means, and all the weight goes right to the stomach. I weigh in the 180s now. I’d like to be back to 165 pounds. Fortunately, my blood pressure and cholesterol are fine right now.’’

During May, his busiest month, Budge says it is not out of the ordinary for him to fly to Florida and drive a vehicle back within three days, only to do it all over again a day later. “Barely enough time to say hi to Lynne,’’ his wife, he says.

Lynne Budge says knowing her husband is constantly up against interstate motorists can wear on her. She relies on her experience as a police officer’s wife to help stave off concern.

“You can’t help but get worried about him when he’s doing all that driving,’’ says Lynne. “We keep in constant communication during the day.’’

She says both benefit from guidelines set at the start. “He won’t drive later than 6 p.m. on the way down [in the fall, when days are shorter] and 8 p.m. on the way back’’ in the spring.

Each trip takes about 2 1/2 days, and he stays at hotels or with relatives when he needs to sleep. He makes about $400 a trip; if he flies back, he can usually get cheap air fares.

For now, Skip Budge says he’ll continue his business as a one-man operation. “But if it keeps growing, I’m going to have to expand and bring in another driver,’’ he says.

As for the Mets-blue Nissan Ultima, Budge again delivered without a hitch.

“The things you do for this job,’’ he says with a laugh.

Robert Carroll can be reached at parrysound4@yahoo.com.

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