For car builder and designer Dave March, getting a 14-foot (4.3-meter) car safely up to 52 miles per hour (45.2 knots) on the water was physically impossible -- at least with the model he started with. The V-hull needed too much power to push through the waves. It was a matter of displacement and the original car design which just didn't perform like he wanted. He wanted speed and performance.
Yes, you read correctly. March, who cut his teeth in the California car business in the mid-1970s, experimented with the oft-laughed-at amphibious car, and has recently taken it to a new level. In the WaterCar Python, March's latest creation, he's taken a convertible roadster of uncertain pedigree, designed in a few tweaks and can now take it up on plane and clock more than 60 miles per hour (52 knots) over the waves. And that's after scorching the roads to the lake shore at a top speed of more than 125 miles per hour (201.2 kilometers per hour), a 12-second quarter-mile time, and 0 to 60 in less than five seconds.
"His idea is if he sees something, he wants to take it to the next level," said WaterCar company spokesman Fred Selby. "He's always been attracted to challenges."
The Python is no Amphicar, that steady-but-slow typical vintage entrant in July 4th lake parades across the country. And with a General Motors LS1 to LS9 engine under the hood, it just may give Virgin Atlantic CEO Richard Branson's 2004 record-setting run across the English Channel in an English Gibbs Aquada a run for its money. That is, if it takes to foreign shores as well as domestic. And while the economy may have a say in whether the Python will be a lakeside fixture -- the rolling chassis (sans engine and transmission) sells for about $170,000 -- the allure of this unique vehicle already has people talking.
While still in the evolutionary phases with design tweaks and improvements yet to be made, the Python could raise the amphibious car status from a curiosity to a capable machine.
Keep reading to find out what makes the WaterCar Python a good amphibious vehicle.
What's Under the Hood (Or in the Hull)
To understand the Python you have to understand the first offering by WaterCar, the Gator. The Gator uses a combination of a Volkswagen Beetle chassis and an amalgamation of Jeep CJ parts and accessories to create what could be the ultimate fishing experience.
"The idea was to make a vehicle where you could drive to a lake, drive in and go to your favorite fishing spot," Selby said.
The heart, and base, of the Gator is a floating body and integrated mechanics shell crafted from fiberglass and flotation foam. Plunk the base on a VW pan chassis, add in the company's specialized gear box allowing conversion from car to boat and a driver is on his or her way to becoming a fisherman with the shift of a lever.
Dave March and WaterCar then took the idea of the integrated hull and mechanics package and expanded on it. Rather than utility he pushed performance and looks -- something a little sexy and grandiose that would turn heads at the lake.
"March looked at other amphibious cars and said, 'I want it to go faster,'" Selby said. The early prototypes used a Camaro-esque set-up, which didn't yield an acceptable level of performance.
Successive returns to the drawing board and testing lab yielded a slow progression of designs that looked like a Corvette from the back and a boxy convertible sedan from the front. For the mariners out there, well, the car didn't look like any other boat on the market. Yet it did work like a boat, despite its appearance. The company had achieved its goal and that was the ultimate appeal of the Python -- speed and performance on land and on water, a juggling act few companies are willing to learn, let alone perfect.
"When you develop something like this you kind of develop a split personality," Selby said. "Is it a car, or is it a boat? You solve a problem with one part, then you solve a problem with the other."
Up next, find out how WaterCar handled the myriad of challenges facing a company building a car and a boat in one package -- including how to steer on land and water.
Where the Rubber Meets the Water
Selby said the early models of the WaterCar Python were aimed at producing power and creating the best design to shove a 3,800-pound (1,724-kilogram) boat through the water, though the weight at that time was actually closer to 5,000 pounds (2,268 kilograms). Car-side issues were mostly solved, as were strict boat issues. Where it all came together was getting the two disparate machines to mesh, especially on a performance level.
"Some of the early engines we tried didn't work out," Selby said. This included a Subaru engine that would burn out after only a few runs. They eventually settled on the General Motors LS series, an aluminum, V-8, crate engine that came in a range of power levels and was the workhorse behind the popular Corvette Z-series.
The engine currently used in the Python produces about 450-horsepower. Selby said the company is experimenting with a 650-horsepower model. The LS crate engines are mounted in the Python's rear and drive both the rear wheels and the propulsion engine through a proprietary Mindiola gearbox system.
Selby said the LS engines have been more than reliable, with no break-downs to date, and the price is right, too -- about $8,000 for the 450-horsepower engine. However, a new Python owner stepping up to the 650-horsepower version would shell out about $26,000 for the engine alone.
Stepping in tandem with engine development was the car's hull design. The Gator used a V-hull, or displacement hull, that limited its speed in the water no matter how much shove an owner could push from the engine. The Python, however, uses a planing hull. Once the vehicle reaches planing speed it essentially rides on top of the water, rather than pushing through it. This is the same type of hull found on racing boats. "Your speed is essentially unlimited with a planing hull," Selby said. "We've been out there on the water at 60 (miles per hour), and that's plenty fast enough for me."
With the technicalities out of the way, the company began fine tuning the look and function of the Python. On the next page, we'll cover some of the specifics of what happens when a car turns into a boat, and some of the unique challenges faced by a Python owner.
WaterCar Python Design
Making the switch from land to water is always a challenge with amphibious cars and the Python holds true to that rule. Yet changes in marine technology have made the transition a bit smoother than in earlier models.
Selby said one of the advantages of the Python was its use of a water jet propulsion system, so there's no propeller hanging off the back. The LS engine and Mindiola gearbox work together to provide power and torque to the propulsion unit. This propulsion unit -- the company is testing out a few commercial models before settling on one -- essentially sucks water in using an impeller and the resulting powerful water-stream pushes the craft forward. Directing the stream through a movable nozzle allows steering.
Since no propeller is necessary and the small unit can be tucked away in the back of the vehicle, Selby said the Python is steered the same on water as it is on land -- via steering wheel.
"You turn the steering wheel left, and you go left," he said. "We did that for safety reasons. We didn't want a system where it used different steering mechanisms for water and land. If you keep it simple it's safer."
So as the Python moves through the water observer will see the wheels turn, but the wheels have nothing to do with acting like rudders -- it's actually the water propulsion nozzle below the waterline directing the stream.
Observers will also notice the wheels are tucked up into the body of the car. This was another innovation for the Python. The suspension system uses opposing air shocks to lift and lower the wheels when the Python is in the water or on the road. The air system also cushions bumps while driving on land.
But one of the biggest challenges for the company was finding a way to cool the engine. The propulsion unit is cooled by water, but the engine itself is the standard air- and liquid-cooled system. In other words, when the Python is on the water, the engine would be unable to cool itself as it does on the road.
The company's eventual solution was to separate the engine cooling system and mount it so it could still work on the water by ducting cool air from the front of the car to the back engine compartment. This system was then integrated into the overall Python design so nothing looks out of place.
And it's really that James Bond-like ideal of a boat that looks almost exactly like a car running on the water that appeals to many buyers. Yet the company does bow a little to design because for the somewhat hefty price tag and the custom-built nature of the car, a customer can have it any way they want it.
Keep reading to learn about Python options and some of the unique details required to drive this one-of-a-kind vehicle.
WaterCar Python Development and Evolution
When the lessons learned with the Gator met with Dave March's ambition for a new design and amphibious car level in 2006, Selby said they had little idea what direction they would head in. "We knew we wanted to build the best amphibious vehicle we could," he said. "We just had to figure out how."
Rather than building from the ground up the company carried through the idea behind the Gator -- namely to use as much existing technology as they could (the Gator uses many components from the Jeep CJ series) and adapt it to what they wanted, which was a good strategy for a car company with limited resources. "We used a lot of other makes and models to inspire us," Selby said.
But that inspiration sometimes took an odd turn. Take for instance the wrap-around rear bench seat reminiscent of a cruiser -- more specifically a lake cruiser -- and the front seats are captain's chairs. "That's something we just toyed with," Selby said. "Right now the Python is going through an evolution and we don't know exactly what will work and what won't. We can give the customer whatever they want and whatever they find comfortable, so that's where it is for now."
When a buyer purchases a Python rolling chassis and selects the engine and transmission, he or she can choose to either have the components assembled at the factory, or assemble it at home as a do-it-yourself project. The car will then need to be issued a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) by the state it's registered in.
Next, the owner will need to register the Python as a car and as a boat, and obtain license plates and watercraft license decals as required by the state. Lights required for car and boat modes are already equipped on the Python. Insurance companies can offer two separate plans (one for each mode), and some insurance companies can even offer specialty amphibious car insurance.
WaterCar suggests having a trained hot rod mechanic (one with marine experience) work on the Python. Maintenance is generally the same as you would find with a boat or car, but combined in one vehicle. Taking the Python on the ocean means even more maintenance, similar to any other saltwater craft.
From Selby's perspective maintenance is simply part and parcel of the package. A unique vehicle calls for out-of-the-ordinary measures to maintain. And if a customer buys a Python they will likely be fine with the unique needs of the car, and the costs associated with those needs, too.
Selby said interest in the Python is growing and WaterCar has received inquiries from Turkey, the Middle East and China as well as other regions of the globe. WaterCar is close to its not-released number of orders which will allows it to step up production efforts from building one-offs to a speedier assembly line production system -- and maybe even a cost reduction. Until then, the company plans to move ahead with development and evolution of the Python.
For more information about cars, boats, amphibious vehicles and other related topics, follow the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Amphicoach. (June 24, 2010)http://www.amphicoach.net
- Amphijeep. (June 24, 2010)http://www.amphijeep.biz/
- BBC News. "Branson sets cross-Channel record." June 14, 2004. (June 24, 2010)http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/coventry_warwickshire/3805275.stm
- Boat U.S. Foundation. "Boat Types and Uses." (June 24, 2010)http://www.boatus.org/onlinecourse/ReviewPages/BoatUSF/Project/info1b.htm
- Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International, LLC. (June 24, 2010)http://www.camillc.com
- Gibbs Technologies. (June 24, 2010)http://www.gibbstech.com
- Land, Air and Sea - Museum of Strange and Wonderful Vehicles. (June 24, 2010)http://www.landairandsea.com/
- Midwest Amphicar. (June 24, 2010)http://www.midwestamphicar.com/
- Schwimmwagen. (June 24, 2010)http://www.amphicars.com/schwimmauto/index.html
- Selby, Fred. Company Spokesman for WaterCar. Personal Interview. Conducted on Jan. 20, 2010.
- The International Amphicar Owner's Club. (June 24, 2010)http://www.amphicar.com
- WaterCar. (June 24, 2010)http://www.watercar.com