Gibbs Quadski

Edging toward the shoreline atop what seemed to be an oversized all-terrain vehicle, the instructions issued by those standing aside were simple enough: Drive into the water.
I tried. My brain disobeyed.

Deploying some innate self-preservation device, my fingers refused to grip the throttle. There's something deeply unnatural about driving a vehicle from the land into the water. Perhaps that's one reason why it's taken the most intrepid of innovators decades to hone amphibious technology.

Finally, with the onlookers watching me idle, I inched ahead with a few spastic squeezes of the two-spring throttle. The Gibbs Quadski left the beach and entered a nameless lake next to a quarry east of Oxford, Michigan.

Sufficiently offshore in about three feet of water, I press a toggle switch below the handlebars and the wheels retract into the fiberglass composite hull. Five seconds later, the ATV completes its transition into a jet ski, and we're skipping across the water.

The Quadski is neither the world's most daunting off-road vehicle nor the most agile of personal watercraft--but it's the first to be enthrallingly adept at both.

Previous attempts to make a useful amphibian inevitably delivered on one surface and failed on the other. In the 1960s, Germans produced the Amphicar, which puttered about the water at about 8 miles an hour.

The Quadski is different. Surprisingly stable on both land and water, it is the first high-speed sports amphibian capable of reaching 45 miles per hour on both land and sea.

Executives with Auburn Hills, Mich.-based Gibbs Sports Amphibians introduced the Quadski to media members Monday. After spending some 20 years and $200 million in development, the single-passenger vehicles are slated to begin production at a nearby facility in mid-November.

Gibbs plans to produce 1,000 units in the first year of production before expanding for a global customer base. The Quadski will likely retail at approximately $40,000.

"With 1,000 units, we want to be careful, and not run before we can walk," said company founder Alan Gibbs.

Or in his case, float.



Gibbs first began experimenting with amphibious vehicles around 1994 in his native New Zealand, where he became frustrated that his boat would often get caught in the forceful tidal fluctuations on Kaipara Harbour.

His first big splash into the amphibious market came a decade later, when his company launched the Aquada, a three-person amphibian that looks like a conventional convertible.

Sir Richard Branson made headlines with the Aquada in 2004, when the Virgin magnate drove across the English Channel in 1 hour, 40 minutes, breaking the old amphibian record across the route by more than four hours. But a key supplier closed, and the Aquada never reached production.

About the same time, the company shifted its focus toward both the Quadski and larger 30-foot transports that hold promise for military and first-responder applications.

In building the Quadski, engineers knew exactly what, at least in theory, was needed to make the vehicle work. The problem, as with the Aquada, was finding compatible parts. They often had to be developed from scratch.

Neil Jenkins, the chairman of Gibbs, said he traveled the globe speaking with aerospace companies about building a jet propulsion system. He said they either told him it couldn't be done or that it required substantial changes.

"I needed it to be one-third the length and half the weight," Jenkins said, comparing it to the conventional marine jets suppliers offered him. Gibbs instead built its own, and the result is enough power and thrust to get the Quadski to planing speed in a matter of seconds--a key hurdle that Jenkins said other amphibious carmakers could not overcome.

Its engine is also lightweight. Gibbs equipped the Quadski with a 175-horsepower, 1.3-liter, four-cylinder engine purchased from BMW, the same one found on the K1300 motorcycle. It is mated to a five-speed transmission with an automated clutch.

In the water, the 1,300-pound craft behaves like a traditional wave runner, and riders can plow through the wake of others' with gleeful abandon. The difference with the Quadski is that its stability is more comparable to a small boat--it's far less likely to capsize.

Promotional materials released by Gibbs show riders taking a break from riding and diving off the side of the Quadski. It never rocks. Considering it was a blustery gray day with temperatures in the 40s, I opted to skip the swim.

On land, the Quadski is a powerful beast. It delivers more power and torque than is necessary, and we charged around the gravel trails on the company's testing grounds. Drivers shift gears with a toggle switch on the left handlebar and automatically downshifts when the brakes are applied.

It's an all-around fun ride on both land and sea, and there's equal exhilaration in circumventing the tedious boat-ramp process.

The entire process feels like something that belongs in the new James Bond movie that hit theaters last week. But mention this to Jenkins, and he replies there's a key difference. The gadgets made famous by 007 are mostly the stuff of science fiction.

The Quadski, on the other hand, is here.

Gibbs Quadski