Amphibious vehicles could soon be zooming out of James Bond's garage - or pond - and into yours.
The Quadski - a one-person all-terrain quadbike that doubles as a personal watercraft - is being billed by its makers as the first high-speed, commercially available amphibious vehicle. It's scheduled to go on sale in the US by the end of this year for around US$40,000 (NZ$49,000). Michigan-based Gibbs Sports Amphibians Inc hopes to sell the vehicle worldwide by 2014.
WHAT IT IS:The Quadksi is a one-person all-terrain vehicle with four wheels that can retract into the vehicle when it goes into the water.
SPEED: The Quadski can go up to 72kmh on land and in water. It transitions from land to water mode in five seconds.
COMPETITION: Gibbs says no other amphibious vehicle offered for sale has managed to go faster than 16kmh in the water.
PRICE: The company says it will cost around US$40,000.
IDEAL CUSTOMERS: Individuals and families who like hunting and fishing as well as first responders and military.
CHEERS: Until now, drivers might have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to retrofit a regular car and make it go - slowly - on water. The Quadski vehicle has better technology, and its price tag puts it within reach of far more customers. The company also expects to make eight other personal watercraft. That should eventually bring down the costs.
JEERS: It's hard to imagine many people paying US$40,000 for it in the current economic climate.
With its all-terrain tyres and four-cylinder, BMW-supplied engine, the Quadski can drive up to 72 kilometres per hour on land. To take it into the water, the driver presses a button. In five seconds, the four wheels fold up and tuck into the sides. The Quadski can also go a brisk 72 kilometres per hour in the water before a press of the button brings the wheels out again.
"You just drive straight into the water, quite fast, and keep on going. It's sort of magic," the founder of Gibbs Sports Amphibians, Alan Gibbs, says.
History is littered with attempts to make fast, long-lasting amphibious cars, from the campy German Amphicar of the early 1960s to current companies that rework sports cars by hand for US$200,000 (NZ$244,000) or more. But Gibbs, a former diplomat and entrepreneur from New Zealand, says the Quadski is the first land vehicle for sale that can go more than 16 kmh in water. A lightweight, fibreglass hull and front wheels that rise mechanically when the vehicle hits the water are among the tricks the Quadski uses.
Gibbs, who has made everything from bras to television sets over a long career in New Zealand and the UK, launched Gibbs Sports Amphibians 16 years ago after building his own amphibious car and wondering if he could make it on a larger scale. Since then, the company has spent US$200 million (NZ$244.6m), built nine prototypes and amassed more than 300 patents.
"It seems so simple, but it's really difficult," Gibbs said.
The Quadski isn't the Gibbs' first vehicle. That honour belongs to the three-seat Aquada, which debuted in 2003 and goes 160 kmh on land and 50 kmh in the water. Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson used an Aquada in 2004 when he set an amphibious vehicle speed record crossing the English Channel.
But the Aquada never went on sale. First its engine supplier, Rover, went out of business. Then US safety regulators wouldn't approve it for street use because of several safety issues. The government insisted on air bags, for example, even though Gibbs argued that they might deploy every time the Aquada hit a large wave.
Gibbs Sports Amphibians hopes to turn things around with the Quadski, which has fewer safety requirements because it's an ATV. The company's target customers are outdoor sportsmen as well as first responders. The Quadski will come in five colours and will be available at power sports dealers, concentrated in Florida, Texas, the New York to Boston corridor and the Great Lakes region.
Ryan Brown, a salesman at Carter Powersports in Las Vegas, has never heard of another vehicle like the Quadski and thinks it's a great concept. But he's not sure customers will pay US$40,000 for one when a standard ATV costs between US$4400 (NZ$5382) and US$10,000 (NZ$12,200).
"These are toys people don't have a lot of extra money for right now," he said. "People are having a hard enough time getting financed on a US$5000 motorcycle."
The Quadski will be made at the company's Auburn Hills, Michigan, factory, a former Daewoo Group parts plant. Gibbs Chairman and CEO Neil Jenkins said the company now has 100 employees at the plant. It plans to produce 20 Quadskis per day with 150 employees when the plant is in full operation. The company expects to sell around 1000 Quadskis in the first year, but Gibbs says he won't be disappointed if the company doesn't meet its sales targets.
"We'll respond to how the market develops," he said. "We wouldn't be doing it without being very confident people will love them."
Gibbs said the company may return to the Aquada someday and try to make it street legal for US buyers. In the meantime it's planning eight personal sports vehicles based on the Quadski, including some with more seating and SUV-like proportions.
The company is also preparing to introduce the Phibian, a 10-metre-long, 6.5-ton model, and the Humdinga, a 7m-long, 3.5-ton model, which are both intended for the military and first responders, Gibbs said. The company is looking for partners to produce those vehicles.
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