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A complicated series of wings can be unfurled from the cockpit to create a hydrofoil once you hit water

By Novella Carpenter

Opening day for boat season on your left! It is upon us. In cities with any body of water to speak of, yachts, sailboats and water racers are launching into the drink, floating around in circles and showing off the delights that a boat coupled with springtime can offer.

Those of us stuck in cars tend to pout as this event unfurls. We are jealous of the delicious freedom a boat offers, the spritz of water droplets on the driver's face and, well, the delightful option of cannonballing into the medium upon which we drive.

Last February, for entirely different reasons, an industrious Cuban family attempted to float to Florida on an homemade boatcar. The vehicle--a 1959 Buick--was seized by the Coast Guard and sunk off the coast of Cuba; its 11 occupants were detained. The boatcar makers, Marciel Basanta Lopez and Luis Grass Rodriguez, sealed the Buick's doors and used the original V-8 motor to power the craft. This wasn't their first boatcar; last summer, they had attempted a similar feat by attaching empty 55-gallon drums to a 1951 Chevy pickup with a propeller attached to the drive shaft. They almost made it.

No need to pick up a blowtorch and get crafty, though, because some amphibious vehicles have hit the market. The Splash, made by the Swiss tuning company Rinspeed, promises to go 125 mph on the road and 50 mph on water. The Splash was unveiled at the Geneva auto show a few months ago and wowed everyone with its ultralight carbon-fiber composite body. A complicated series of wings can be unfurled from the cockpit to create a hydrofoil once you hit water, and boat driving is done with a series of levers, just like on a speed boat.

The interior of the Splash, what with it's being a prototype, is bare-bones. Forget rocking to "Eye of the Tiger" while rushing over the water; in addition to no heat or power steering, there is also no radio. Even though it can go fast, the Splash has a tiny two-cylinder engine that can run on natural gas in addition to regular petroleum.

This use of alternative fuels is standard practice for Rinspeed, which released a pickup truck Porsche hybrid concept that ran on methane. The downside of the Splash (besides that dumb name)? It is a convertible (so you couldn't drive it during a rainstorm), the doors don't open, it has no suspension to speak of and--oh yeah--it costs about $1 million just to build the thing.

Slightly more accessible is the Aquada, made by Gibbs, a London company. Yours for only $250,000, the Aquada is what the company calls a High Speed Amphibian. It operates in the water using a patented jet that expels 1 ton of thrust that moves the boatcar across the water. The Aquada doesn't have levers to drive in boat mode; you simply use the steering wheel and press the accelerator as if you were on the road. Unlike a regular car, it has a sealed aluminum-bonded space frame that makes it buoyant. It also features something called trim tabs that attach to the rear of the car to make it plane, bilge pumps that remove excess water in the vehicle, and retractable wheels.

When steered into the water, the Aquada recognizes the change and acts accordingly (wheels retract, marine lights activate); the driver must rev the engine to 2,000 rpm in order to provide sufficient thrust.

Gibbs is also producing a concept vehicle called the Humdinga (is that a lawsuit I smell?). It looks like a Hummer with a boat mast on the grill and has the same capabilities: the four-wheel-drive vehicle can travel up to 100 mph on land and 40 mph on water. The pitch here is obvious--an off-road vehicle that can drive across a river or a lake? Tremendous appeal for the macho set, who will have to wait until mass production starts in the next few years. Watch out this summer for a race between the Splash and the Aquada across the English Channel--someone call the Cubans!

Got a cool prototype car? Email Novella at [email protected].

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From the April 20-27, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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