Driving from shore to shore

Monday, October 23, 2006
The Hydra Spyder runs on land and water. On land, the vehicle gets 16 to 18 miles per gallon of premium gas. (Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International)

The Hydra Spyder is poised to become the first mass-produced amphibious automobile in America.

RIDGELAND, S.C. -- It's not terribly easy to parallel park an automobile on a lake.

Now, John Giljam knows this to be as true as the highway is long, and for good reason: He's tried to park his car on a lake -- and on rivers, ponds, even the Intracoastal Waterway.

Giljam, in fact, has practiced not only parking on water; he's become quite adept at turning sharply on it. (He no longer gets drenched in a curtain of spume when cornering, he'll have you know.) And he's mastered the art of steering clear of critters -- geese, mostly, though gators have a habit of surfacing at inopportune moments.

It helps, of course, to learn these aquatic feats behind the wheel of his latest creation, the "Hydra Spyder," an amphibious car that cruises on water as easily as it does on blacktop.

With its snazzy snout, convertible top, Corvette V-8 engine and jet "impeller" -- the stainless-steel cone protruding from the rear that propels it through water -- the Hydra Spyder is poised to become the first mass-produced amphibious automobile in America.

"It's incredibly nimble in the water. The Spyder turns smoothly, docks easily," the 46-year-old inventor boasts.

It has one shortcoming, he concedes. On the water, "the parallel parking really sucks."

Giljam tingles at the idea of anglers taking their cars out on lakes for a day of fishing; of rush-hour commuters bypassing congestion by taking a river as an alternate route; of water-skiers bouncing along in the wake of a speedboat with four wheels.

"I honestly feel I've been born with a gift, and it was for creating mechanical things," he says. "It's what keeps me up at night."

Ten years ago, Giljam operated a Jet Ski rental company on Hilton Head Island. Business was brisk, he recalls, but one day two customers crashed into each other. Though they weren't hurt seriously, he shut the business down, he says. "I would not be able to function if something I owned and operated hurt somebody."

Which then got him to thinking: Could an aquatic vehicle be designed to be fast and safe?

By 39, he had invented -- and patented -- the world's first unsinkable bus and the world's first aquatic, luxury RV. Producing amphibious cars on a grand scale would be, as he sees it, a "logical" new endeavor.

His Hydra Spyder is not the first of its kind to crawl ashore. Civilian amphibious vehicles have been around for more than a century, and European manufacturers have long dominated the trade.

Yet, while some models have been able to raise dust on a highway, nearly all have been agonizingly slow in the wet, where wheels create drag. One well-known washout was the "Amphicar," which was mass-produced in Germany from 1961 to 1968. On roadways, the Amphicar got up to 70 mph but disappointed in the water, mustering a dash speed of just 7 mph.

In the mid-1990s, Alan Gibbs, a New Zealand inventor-entrepreneur, founded Gibbs Technologies, of Nuneaton, England, with the aim of developing the first high-speed amphibious car. (Gibbs had a 194-foot yacht, which he enjoyed outfitting with aquatic "toys" -- meaning anything from a Jet Ski to a submarine.)

In 2003, after seven years of work with 70 British engineers and designers, Gibbs launched "Aquada," an amphibious sports car, a la 007, with retractable wheels and a jet drive that propelled it along water at a maximum speed of 32.8 mph.

At the time, Giljam's company, Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International LLC, which he founded with his wife, Julie, in 1999, was turning out amphibious buses, a dozen or so a year, at a factory in Rochester, N.Y. (Tour operators are the Giljams' main clients; eight "Hydra Terras" are currently in operation in New York City.)

The Aquada's big splash threw Giljam into creative overdrive. "I suppose," he told a reporter once, "we just wanted to answer the Brits." The amphibian he envisioned would have to be faster, tougher, and more economical than the Aquada, which retailed for $300,000.

And unsinkable. "Safety," says Giljam, a 12-year veteran of a rescue squad in his native Lakeville, N.Y., "means everything to me."

And so, he took to the drawing board.

Today, the factory doesn't look like much from Interstate 95: a sand-colored, corrugated-roof structure on an 11-acre wedge of property covered in knee-high weeds and hemmed in by overgrown live oaks.

On the floor of this 20,000-square-foot building, though, amphibian history is in the making.

Near the far corner, the lemon-yellow, fiberglass body agleam, sits a Hydra Spyder -- the prototype, actually. It sold last November -- for $175,000. "This gentleman was insistent," says Julie, "and we needed the cash for the new plant."

A nondisclosure agreement protects the identity of the buyer, one of the wealthiest men in America -- a "Forbes Top-50 kinda guy," Giljam says -- and from the West Coast, who took delivery before the Giljams could test it at a motor speedway.

They did test the prototype in the water.

One afternoon, moments after rolling the Hydra Spyder smoothly off a dock in Bluffton, S.C., John Giljam remembers how "a lady came running pell-mell down the dock, screaming: 'Don't worry! We've called 911! The fire department is on its way!"'

John and Julie tried to explain what an amphibious vehicle was, even took the woman for a spin around the lake. Still, her expression seemed clouded as she walked away from the dock, muttering.

The Hydra Spyder "has that effect sometimes," Giljam shrugs.

On this day, the mystery tycoon's Hydra Spyder is back in the shop for adjustments: a new, 502 CID Chevy Race Engine that will boost horsepower from 400 to 500 -- one step below dragstrip capability -- and new, heavy-duty mufflers to subdue the motor's roar.

"Apparently," Giljam explains, "it was hard to hold a conversation with the engine running."

In an adjacent pod, welders and mechanics are handcrafting the marine-grade, aluminum hull of Hydra Spyder No. 2, which will have a racing transmission, "super chargers," and other high-performance features.

These help provide what Giljam calls "oooomph" -- which is something aquatic racers most desire after plowing their cars into a body of water.

To switch the Hydra Spyder into "marine mode," the driver simply presses a button, which drops the clutch, disengages the road drive, shifts the transmission into aquatic duty, and retracts the wheels. The jet-drive kicks in then, allowing the Hydra Spyder to plane across water like a speedboat at greater than 50 mph.

Oooomph does come at a cost: Base price is $155,000 -- to which can be added all kinds of extras, including heated seats ($1,000), a custom entertainment system for in-Spyder cinema ($5,000), Lamborghini door systems ($2,000), and teak interior trim ($1,500).

And though not intended for use on open seas, this amphibian can be fitted with a fishfinder.

So, even as Detroit automakers struggle to survive, the future looks bright for Cool Amphibious Manufacturers. The Giljams have 6 orders for Hydra Spyders. Within five years, they hope to expand their new factory and produce 75 Hydra Spyders a year.

Their top competitor, Gibbs Technologies, for the time being at least, has withdrawn from the amphibian automobile market. Steve Bailey, a Gibbs spokesman, says the company made 50 Aquadas, then stopped in 2005 because the engines used were discontinued when their maker went bankrupt.

"We are looking for an alternative engine to bring the Aquada back to market again," Bailey says. Still, he says, Gibbs Technologies doesn't plan to get in a dogfight with the Giljams.

"We'll be looking to license the technology out this time to other companies that might be interested in producing their own vehicles," he says. "We are a technology development company."

Which means the Giljams can focus on improvements to performance and safety.

As it is now, all cavities in the Hydra Spyder's "hull" are packed with flotation foam, approved by the U.S. Coast Guard. "You could flood the motor, knock a 12-inch hole in the Spyder's bottom, and still it would float."

And, for the record, how good is it on gas?

On land, somewhere around 16 to 18 miles per gallon of premium gas. (This amphibian can also run on an ethanol mix without modifications.) Not too shabby, Giljam says, for a 3,400-pound vehicle that is 18.6 feet long and a foot wider than the average landlocked car.

He adds: "When you put it in the water, you burn a lot more fuel and the odometer doesn't move. Tires don't rotate in the water, you know."

Which, perhaps, is why Julie Giljam always reminds customers: "Before you go into the water, fill her up."

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