Look at all the things man has achieved since we climbed down from the trees. Putting a man on the moon. Penicillin. The jet engine. Splitting the atom. Celebrity Big Brother. The scientific, engineering and inventive prowess of Homo sapiens seems boundless. Yet there is only one man who has made a proper car that can take to the water. His name is Tim Dutton.
Dutton is one of the better-known figures on the fringes of British car-making, having been in the business one way or another since 1969 and having helped to design cars in India and Guadeloupe, as well as making about 8,000 kit cars. However, since 1995 he has been responsible for the Amphijeep, and is close to making his 100th example of this amazing machine.
True, there have been amphibious vehicles before. Some military ones, such as the Alvis Stalwart, worked quite well but the public couldn't have those. Then there was the Amphicar, a German machine based on the Triumph Herald. But it had a very short production life and, being made from mild steel, wasn't really fit for purpose.
There's the more recent Gibbs Aquada, but it doesn't seem to be made any more. Only Dutton has created an amphibious car business that has stood the test of time as well as the elements. He's made 95 of them so far, and the model shows every sign of enduring.
The key to the success of the Amphijeep is its simplicity. It's "agricultural", according to Dutton. Dropping into his works in Littlehampton Marina, Sussex, you can see how straightforward it is. The mechanical bits come from the Suzuki line: from a new Jimny if you want Dutton to make it for you, or from an old SJ if you want to buy the kit and build it yourself.
The car's rugged engine and four-wheel-drive system are retained and fitted into a glass-fibre tub. There's an extra drive for the little jet that propels the car/boat and a depth meter, compass, bilge tank/pump and a few other nautical accessories. Then you're ready for your new land/ water-based lifestyle. It'll cost you about £29,000 to become amphibious with brand new Suzuki parts.
I took it for a swim. You clamber in over a very high sill, open a half door and drop into the seat (one of four). Driving it on land is the usual Suzuki jeep affair, with power steering these days and normal gears and brakes. Then you get down the slipway (easy, care of four-wheel drive), pull some levers and enter the water. Engage the right drive again to get the jet operating, and you're ready for the open sea. I didn't tackle anything more challenging than the river Arun on a quiet day, but Dutton has taken his creation across the Channel.
Six years ago, he drove to Folkestone, slipped into the water and "drove" 27 miles to the coast off Boulogne in a Force 4 wind. The only modification was an extra fuel tank. Imagine staging your very own Normandy landings in an Amphijeep! Talk about a boy's toy....
Anyway, that cross-channel journey testifies to the Amphijeep's abilities, although it has its limitations. It is very slow, doing only around six knots. Nice and gentle for a trip to the pub, but it might make your commute a bit frustrating.
It's quite easy to get used to the basics of piloting the Amphijeep on water. The steering is, as you might say, unresponsive. It's a hoot using the same steering wheel on land or sea, but in water the steering response is somewhat delayed, and unless you're careful you can easily provoke an alarming degree of overcompensation. The engine doesn't have to work very hard to move the Amphijeep along, but because of the car's brick-like shape, it wouldn't matter much even if it were twice as powerful and revving three times as fast.
It is noisy. Lots of sound reverberates around the open cabin (weather protection is optional) and this compromises its otherwise relaxed character.
I enjoyed it. I didn't get wet, I didn't collide with any boats - and all those negative ions did me some good. Whatever floats your boat....