Downtown Charleston's horse-drawn carriages are an iconic piece of the Holy City's tourism scene.

Rolling forward

What: Old South Carriage Co. is updating its wooden horse-drawn carriages with a fiberglass composite.

Why: More durability, longer shelf life and lighter weight.

When: Wooden carriages will be repaired when they show too much wear and tear.

details: The iconic carriages are constructed with materials from about 20 companies, including 15 firms in the Lowcountry.

The traditionally wooden vessels regularly carry camera-toting passengers through the snaking maze of historic neighborhoods.

It's the job of maintenance crews to keep the carriages in tip-top shape, undoing the wear and tear and wrath of Mother Nature.

Some of the five local carriage companies are putting a contemporary spin on the historic carriage rides. One of the latest updates is taking its inspiration from aerospace giant Boeing, which builds its 787 from lighweight composite materials.

Old South Carriage Co. is gradually repairing its fleet of wooden carriages with a fiberglass composite. The transition started last summer.

Today, about two-thirds of the company's fleet of 15 carriages are formed with a technology that uses carbon-fiber composites.

"All we did is basically redo our old carriages," said David J.C. Compton, owner of the Old South. "We got a permit for our carriages, but it just happens to be fiberglass this time. It's the same frame, and when we repair it, we repair it with fiberglass."

It's not the only carriage company to use alternative materials. Both Classic Carriage Works and Charleston Carriage Works use aluminum.

Charleston Carriage Works, for example, shifted to aluminum carriages with a steel frame about seven years ago. The concept adds more durability and ligher weight compared to the wooden models, said owner Broderick Christoff.

"It's a change also for a safety standpoint because the Charleston climate is tough on the expansion and contracting of the (wooden) carriages," he said, adding that wooden carriages last roughly three years. "Our carriages do not have any wood on them, not even the wheels."

In the mix

As for Old South, the shift to the manmade material is part of some improvements to the company, which Compton started in 1983 with three horses and one small carriage.

Old South Carriage now has more than 20 horses and a fleet of 15 carriages.

"About the same time we were looking at this project, Boeing had just moved to town," said Dick Williams, Old South's operations manager. "I said to David (Compton), 'If it's good enough for Boeing to use composites to make airplanes with, it's good enough for us.'"

The upgrades to the company come as Charleston's tourism scene continues to grow and garner international attention.

"I look at these horses as athletes," Williams said. "You really look to have good equipment for them, be it the carriage or how it's set up for them and even the harness equipment. We have to spend a considerable amount of time and travel looking at some of the different techniques."

That has required some science to ensure the new carriages match the wooden predecessors as closely as possible, Compton said.

The new concept keeps the black carriage design with the signature sash logo, part of the uniform for the Confederate Army during the Civil War.

"The idea is that people can't tell the difference," Compton said.

The carriages are made with a mix of materials from about 20 companies. About 15 of those businesses are in the Lowcountry, including fiberglass design by Cutting Edge Composites in Summerville.

The construction process takes about two months, Willams said.

The advantages over the wooden models include a longer shelf life.

"We've always modeled our designs on what the Amish would tell us to do," Williams said. "We started asking questions and to ask why things were done this way or that way. It's led to innovation in how we construct the carriages and the comfort of the passengers and the comfort of the horses."

People, places, history

Composites are nothing new for the carriage industry.

Many carriage companies throughout the country use a hybrid of wood and composites, said Linda Kramer, president of the Carriage Operators of North America and manager at 76 Carriage Co. in Philadelphia.

She said the hybrid of the materials allows companies to maximize durability.

"Here in Philadelphia, we operate carriages that are a combination of wood and fiberglass," she said. "It has been used for both the cab and carriages, and as long as it is done well and it's safe, there is no negative impact."

Other Charleston carriages, Carolina Polo and Carriage Company and Palmetto Carriage are sticking with their wooden models. Palmetto's owner, Tom Doyle, said he prefers the traditional carriages that he stockpiles at a warehouse.

"I have a fleet of carriages that are all the same specs and also have a full-time three-person crew that repairs carriages," he said. "I have more carriages than I use."

More bells and whistles are also being added to carriages.

For example, Charleston Carriage Works added LED lighting to its models.

The repaired carriages at Old South also include LED lighting for the interiors and along the sides, all powered by solar panels on top of the roof.

"I'm hoping it will maybe make for more people to get on our carriage because it looks better," Compton said.

The changes come as the spring kicks Charleston's tourism season into high gear.

"Charleston's carriages provide a convenient and enjoyable way to learn about the area's fascinating people, places and history," said Helen Hill, executive director of the Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Taking a carriage tour is an iconic 'must-do' activity for many of our visitors."

Williams agrees, saying the carriages are seen as the "ambassador" for Charleston.

"It's a big contact for people who come to see the city, and we want people to have a great experience and enjoy the city," he said.

The company also recently renovated its ticket office on Anson Street. Other improvements in the works include replacing the wooden wheels on the carriages with another material, in addition to adding more technologies.

"We are always looking to innovate, and I think we have made a quantum leap from where we were to where we are now," Williams said.

Wade Spees of The Post and Courier contributed to this story. Reach Tyrone Richardson at 937-5550.