Cars That Swim: The Cool Story of Amphibious Vehicles in the Marketplace

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Oct 18, 2012

Just as mankind has long dreamed of flying cars, so too does the eternal flame burn for cars that turn into boats. This week in Detroit, a company called Gibbs Sports Amphibian unveiled the Quadski, which resembles a jet ski on retractable wheels. It’s clearly aimed at the outdoor sports crowd whose other vehicle is a dirt bike, and that makes sense. So does concentrating sales in the Midwest, Texas and the Southeast.

The Quadski in action: it can hit 45 mph, on land or water. (Gibbs Sports Amphibians photo)Powered by a BMW engine, the 1,300-pound Quadski can hit 45 mph—on the land or the water. That’s an interesting twist, since most of these vehicles are much slower when they get wet. But you won't get the Quadski on the highway. Transitioning from one mode to another takes only five seconds, Gibbs says.

Founder Alan Gibbs says his Michigan-based company has spent $200 million developing amphibians. “It’s been a long, uphill battle, but clearly worth the effort,” he said. “We’ve created an entirely new powersports category.”

Giving up any pretense that a car that can swim is actually useful is probably a good idea. It’s fun. That’s it. Here's what the Quadski looks like, on land and on water:

The enduring story of the water-going car is that none of them have actually succeeded in the marketplace. But that hasn’t prevented legions of people from trying to make a go of it. Most died without even making a splash, but at least one created a few waves. The star car/boat is the German-built Amphicar, which with a Triumph Herald engine under the hood was briefly on sale in the U.S. The Amphicar, which had a special befinned and rakish charm, was sold between1961 and 1968, with 3,878 produced.

Are those people waving...or calling for help? The ill-fated Amphicar in action. (Amphicar photo)All the right ingredients were in place for maximum reliability and owner satisfaction: a British engine with a Lucas (“Prince of Darkness”) electrical system. Luckily, the horn was made by Bosch so you could at least signal for help if you broke down at sea. On the water, the Amphicar could go seven mph, but a whopping 70 on the highway.

Americans could buy them for $2,800 to $3,300, depending on equipment. The price was right, and some 90 percent of sales were in the U.S. But then regulation reared its head, with Amphicar being unable to meet the minimal environmental rules that went into effect in the 1968 model year. New Mexican Hugh Gordon bought the remaining inventory, and his Gordon Imports is still your best source for Amphicar parts.

OK, Amphicar, RIP, but there were, and are, many other entries in the car/boat sweepstakes. Here are a few, courtesy of the Telegraph:
  • The hideous Herzog Conte of 1979, which nonetheless was capable of 100 mph on land (see photo below).
  • The Rinspeed Splash of 2004, which had fold-out hydrofoils that held the vehicle over the water.
  • The British Amphibus of 1994, which had a Ford diesel and a Land Rover transmission. It made 70 mph and six knots.
The Herzog Conte of 1979 wasn't a looker, but it could reach 100 mph. (Herzog Conte photo) A really ambitious company, based in South Carolina, is Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International, which has a whole range of water-loving craft. The Hydra Spyder looks like a Mustang, but it’s powered by a 450-horsepower Corvette LS2 motor. It offers a lightweight all-aluminum lower hull and a fiberglass upper structure. Only one has been built, in part because the company is trying to get exemptions from bumper and airbag requirements. “The bumpers would drag in the water and the airbags would deploy with the G forces of hitting the waves,” says CAMI.

They Hydra Spyder will soon be doing duty as a Russian's yacht tender. (CAMI photo)The company also makes the Amphibious Responder, a totally serious rescue vessel designed for rapid extraction, emergency recovery, extreme disaster relief (floods, fires, tornadoes, tsunamis) and mobile ambulance duty through multiple terrains. You could re-stage D-Day with a fleet of them. I doubt it’s cheap, but one has been sold to the city government of Bangkok, Thailand.

Even wilder is the Terra Wind. It’s a luxury motor coach that can detour into the nearest lake, as long as you’re willing to part with $850,000. “The Terra Wind gives a whole new meaning to cross-country touring,” said John Giljam, president of CAMI. “Whether traveling on the land or in the water, you can be traveling first class.”

The Terra Wind accesses its inner duck. (CAMI photo)This magic bus can hit 80 mph on land and do seven knots in the water, thanks to a Caterpillar engine, an Allison transmission (for land) and a marine drive transmission with one-touch rudder (for the water). I’m not sure exactly I can identify the clientele for the Terra Wind (or the 49-passenger bus version--adventure tourism, maybe?), but the company seems confident it has something valuable. Three-zone bilge pumps! It’s a luxury motor coach…and a yacht!

I talked to Giljam, and he told me that CAMI has built 70 amphibious vehicles so far. It's on its sixth Hydra Spyder, which is going to a Russian tycoon who plans to use it as his all-purpose yacht tender on global jaunts. He said the Responder "can go into the heart of the storm, anywhere that's tore up, and save people's lives. It can scale downed trees, powerlines, telephone poles, whatever you throw at it." If you want the deluxe high-speed version with retractable wheels, expect to pay $650,000.

How can you not love the creativity that went into the car/boats? If I was an entrepreneur, I’d probably want to find another way to make my fortune, but I love the concept. And don’t forget that the latest attempt to create a successful flying car is moving ahead.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One