The focus of attention was a car. No, a boat. No, a car. Well, whatever. According to designer Tim Dutton, it's both.
As we motor down a slipway into the Thames, I just have to hope that he's right. There's a sickening splash as we enter the water... and then, relief! We're floating!
The pounds 19,000 "amphibious vehicle" is the only one of its kind. "No one else in England has seen it yet," claims Dutton, as we zigzag along the Thames at a leisurely speed. I'm at the wheel - or should I call it the helm? - and despite not having driven a car for over a year, after having had three accidents in a week, we don't do too badly. Dutton however seems slightly nervous, and takes over at one point. I suspect that my earlier reference to "that pipe thing", which is apparently called the exhaust, may not have filled him with confidence.
Speedboats slow down to inspect the fibreglass body and an elderly woman mouths: "Fascinating." A group of lads raise their pint glasses and tourists get their cameras out. Cars grind to a halt, and a traffic warden yells out: "You're nicked!", looking as happy as if she'd found a row of illegally parked Mercs. "Everybody stares at it," says Dutton. "I mean, in my youth, when I was quite well off, I had a Rolls Royce and a Lamborghini, and people used to stare at those, but nothing like as much. As you drive past, you can hear people say, what's that? It's a car, no a boat, no a car, then you're off before they've made their mind up. There aren't many people on the planet who have actually seen an amphibious car."
Rather alarmingly, attempts in the 1960s failed when the cars simply fell apart, corroding in the water. However Dutton - who is now the world's only manufacturer of amphibious vehicles for non-military purposes - is confident this won't happen today. "My incentive is to make these things float, because I can't swim," he says. "It does concentrate the mind."
As we potter along, a dinghy overtakes us. Dutton explains that if he made the bonnet more pointed, we'd be faster in the water. Just one drawback: "You'd end up skewering pedestrians." It is powered by a jet propeller, which is covered by a grille, to protect it from "plastic bags or sheep or whatever" (rivers in Sussex are apparently littered with sheep).
Dutton calls the new car "The Commander" and it is based on a Mark 4 Fiesta. Just in case you're interested, it has port and starboard lights, bilge pumps, safety equipment, and reaches up to 90 mph on the road and six knots on the water. In the back, there's room for your kids/shopping/glamorous assistant, and you can buy a range of extras, including a soft top, and a sticker which states: "my other car's a boat."
This is all well and good. But can you pull in it? "Well, it's a good line: `Hi, would you like to come out in my amphibious car?'" says Dutton, who is single. Has it worked? "Er, a couple of times."
He has already sold 40 amphibious vehicles based on an older Ford Fiesta. Customers include a lap-dancing magnate, the owner of Fortnum & Mason, and Arab royalty. "The Arabs can go yomping over the desert in the morning, and put it in the water in the afternoon," he says. The car I'm driving is a "puke green" colour, but that's not compulsory. One of his cars is currently terrorising the Thames with sharks' teeth painted on the front.
Dutton says the vehicle suits "anyone who's got a bit of surplus cash and likes pootling along on the river". Maybe you live near a riverside pub and there's never any space in the car-park. Perhaps you live on your own island. Maybe you need one to ferry fashionable friends out to your yacht. Dutton suggests that it's the only way to nip across for Cowes Week, as it takes just an hour to get to the Isle of Wight from the mainland. Do people on the ferry see you? "Oh yes, people come quite close to us and photograph us. Some people even throw us beers, which is quite nice."
He has also crossed the Channel. Well, almost. First problem: "We got stuck in a Force 4 in the middle, which was a bit choppy." Second problem: "After seven hours, we got within three miles of Boulogne, and a wire came off one of the engine fans, so we couldn't make it. We had to be towed back to Portsmouth".
That was four years ago. "It won't happen again," says Dutton firmly. "We found out afterwards we would have been arrested, anyway, because the French say it's illegal to cross the Channel in an `unorthodox vehicle'. I think they really had in mind people going across in baths or oil barrels."
Could you pop over to the States for a shopping trip? "Er, I don't know. It gets pretty rough in the middle of the Atlantic. If you had enough fuel, maybe you could, but the Channel's probably enough." On the ill- fated trip to France, Dutton was followed by a chase-boat. Today, we have a paddle in the glove compartment. Perhaps it's time to return to land. A crowd has gathered along the banks of the Thames. I glide majestically up the slipway... and then to everyone's acute embarrassment, stall the thing. Three times. "You want to learn how to go up and down a hill first before you attack the slipway," advises Dutton, slipping down lower into his seat.
As we clamber out of the car, we find ourselves surrounded by kids. Ronnie Liles, 13, from Barnes, gasps: "It's a boat and it's a car."
"It's bad!" exclaims Louis Robinson, 12, from Putney. His mate, Craig Wheaton, 14, from Barnes, is delighted: "If you were in a police chase, you could get away, and let the police eat fish."
Ian Watson, 30, captain of the London Rowing Club, is also impressed: "It's fantastic! I'd buy one just for fun and for the Henley Royal Regatta." Chris Ray, 27, from the Docklands, is more dubious: "It's very slow, and it's a horrible colour." And Stuart Rea, 31, a banker from Putney, shakes his head sadly: "It wouldn't pull chicks."
With that, the green machine zooms away. It might not be as fast as a Ferrari. It may not be as speedy as a speedboat. But it's the only car in London with seaweed on its bonnet.
Additional reporting: Nathalie Curry
`The Commander' will be officially unveiled at the London on Water show at the Docklands, which runs from 26-30 August. Tel: 0870 241 0363. Contact Dutton Marine on 01903 721036
Transports of Delight
Pedicabs (also known as rickshaws) are currently the hippest way to hop from one bar to
another in Soho. The London Pedicab Project offers environmentally friendly transport, from pounds 2 per person. Pedal power is the way forward for
customers including Ewan
McGregor, Alexis Sayle, Jo Guest, Jimmy Tarbuck, Glenda Jackson and Jeffrey Archer. You'll also find rickshaws in Dublin and Glasgow.
Warning: Don't expect a smooth ride, as they are pretty difficult to steer. Cars in India often have metal bars to protect them against collisions with rickshaws.
You can pick up a pedicab
outside the Old Compton Street Cafe, 34 Old Compton St, W1
The Smart Car
Quick! Snap up a Smart Car! Leave it any longer, and the tiny car could be scrapped. Microcompact Car Company have to sell 80,000
vehicles by the end of the year - or the car will be axed. Launched in October 1998, the Smart car was designed as a fuel efficient two seater that could
handle heavy traffic. Parking is easy: it's just 2.5 m long.
However, in the first quarter of 1999, only 10,000 left the showroom, and one shareholder described it as "the biggest nonsense in modern car-making history".
Ah, then there's the safety issue. Swiss car magazine, Automobil Revue, reported: "On snow and ice, the Smart is dangerous". Still, it's extremely cute, and importer Mark Jalaei, general manager of KSB Motor Group, insists: "It's the safest small car you'll find on the market". His customers include "celebrities and aristocracy". Cars cost from pounds 5,995 and can reach up to 85 mph. Hipsters go for the yellow or orange models.
Contact KSB Motor Group on 0181-995 3837. www.ksb.co.uk
City boys love them, and the engine powered skateboard has become the way to arrive at the office. A recent import, they can reach speeds of up to 20mph. They cost around pounds 499 and you can fill up the tank with pounds 2 worth of petrol and then fold them away to fit under your desk. Watch out, though, you could become a target for bored
policemen. "Technically, it's not legal to use them on the roads, and we certainly wouldn't
advise it," says
Jeremy Crook, from
distributors, Line One.
"But we are selling a lot in London, and people must be using them
"We advise people using them to contact their local police
station to verify whether they're happy for you to use them on the road."
Contact Line One on 01285 713888. www.goped.co.uk