After Romping in the Mud, You Can Take It for a Bath

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OXFORD, Mich.

RIDING high on the saddle of the Gibbs Quadski -- a machine easily mistaken for an all-terrain vehicle but built to go places A.T.V.'s won't -- I easily powered through the patch of soft sand. After a few minutes of tentatively feathering the throttle, I started to get a feel for the controls, gaining confidence in the Quadski's crisp responses and off-road prowess over the bumps and boulders of an unpaved trail.

Hustling up a rocky embankment here at the testing grounds of the Quadski's maker, I cranked the handlebars left, downshifted to first gear and cautiously fed some gas with my right thumb while repeatedly poking the upshift button with my left. The speedometer swept past 40 m.p.h. as a cloud of dust rose behind me from the gravel road.

So far, no major surprises from the Quadski, a new off-roader set to be introduced Monday by Gibbs Sports Amphibians. The Quadski is equipped with engineering delights like retractable wheels and a BMW motorcycle engine.

What separates the Quadski from similar-looking machines lay just ahead: a small lake, where several Gibbs employees were waiting for me to arrive. Applying the disc brakes with a squeeze of the lever on the left handlebar, I rolled to a halt. The Gibbs crew swapped out my helmet for a flotation device and made sure I understood the vehicle's simple controls.

After getting a thumbs-up from Gibbs's chairman, Neil G. Jenkins, I accelerated to walking speed and drove into the lake. A few moments later, I felt the wheels lose contact; the Quadski drifted lazily.

With a push of a dashboard switch the wheels retracted, and I opened the throttle wide. The Quadski rose up, most of its body out of the water -- planing, as boaters would say -- and quickly eclipsed that 40 m.p.h. mark again. Rushing toward the opposite shore, I turned the handlebars and the craft leaned predictably into a sweeping turn as a curtain of water played accompaniment.

The Quadski is produced by Gibbs , a privately held company devoted solely to the development of vehicles that can travel on land and water. In an interview at the company's headquarters in Auburn Hills, Mich., Mr. Jenkins said the Quadski was the first sports amphibian capable of being driven at high speed whether on its wheels or as a watercraft.

The Quadski concept was developed in 2003, but the company's involvement in amphibious vehicles dates to its 1996 founding by a New Zealand entrepreneur, Alan Gibbs. Mr. Jenkins, a fifth-generation engineer with a broad résumé that includes experience at British Aerospace and Leyland Vehicles, joined the company as a partner in 1998.

The first Quadski prototype was built in 2005, and assembly-line production is scheduled to begin this month. Production estimates for the first year are projected at 1,000 vehicles, with models scheduled to arrive at retailers in November. The price will be around $40,000, the company says.

Producing vehicles capable of traveling on water as well as land has been the goal of many companies -- including military contractors -- and some highly specialized vehicles are currently available. But the best known are the German-built Amphicars of the 1960s, of which fewer than 4,000 were made. Although capable of reaching highway speeds, they could chug along in the water at just 8 miles per hour or so.

According to Mr. Jenkins, the Quadski takes a different approach.

"With modern technology, it was possible to create a vehicle that could do well on land and break free of the plane in water," Mr. Jenkins said. "The key is to get it out of displacement mode, where it's plowing through water, and up on the plane."

To achieve that, the Quadski employs a lightweight hull of fiberglass composite. The components of the double-wishbone suspension mount on the outside of the hull, and the wheels are raised for marine duty by electric motors.

The Quadski is powered by a 175-horsepower 1.3-liter 4-cylinder that Gibbs buys from BMW. It's nearly identical to the engine in the BMW K1300S HP motorcycle and is backed by a 6-speed transmission.

On the motorcycle, the engine is equipped with a manual clutch; here, an automatic clutch releases when necessary. Upshifts are made with the push of a button. Manual downshifts can be achieved similarly, but if the rider neglects to downshift, an electronic control unit will do it when speed drops below a preset limit. Power is directed to a limited-slip differential that drives the rear wheels by means of conventional axles.

In the water, the vehicle is propelled by a water-pump thrust system like that of a Jet Ski watercraft, but, according to Mr. Jenkins, this one is lighter and more compact. Although the water jet provides motive power only in water, it is always operating.

When the Quadski is driven on land, the engine's output is restricted to limit top speed to 45 m.p.h. In water, the engine's full power is available.

At the helm of the Quadski, I found that once a spurt of acceleration pulled the hull out of the water it would continue to ride that way even after backing off the throttle. Cruising at a leisurely pace was pleasant and relaxing. Ripping over the water at full throttle didn't seem to require any special skills, and the sensation of speed -- magnified by the proximity of the water and the blast of water-cooled air -- was thrilling.

To return to dry land, the driver lowers the wheels where the water is at least two feet deep. The driving wheels turn and the jet unit adds propulsion, enabling the craft to climb briskly onto shore.

According to Mr. Jenkins, Gibbs has been working on amphibious vehicles for 15 years and has produced eight platforms, including the carlike Aquada of 2003, which was shelved after the loss of an engine supplier, and several large amphibious vehicles meant for military and first-responder use. Mr. Jenkins said the company's investment in amphibious vehicles amounts to about two million man-hours and $200 million.

Much of that financing came from Mr. Gibbs, the company's chief strategy officer. He helped to develop the technology for the amphibians, Mr. Jenkins said.

Mr. Gibbs is still actively managing the company's projects and travels regularly to offices in New Zealand, London and Michigan. According to a Gibbs spokesman, Graham Jenkins, Mr. Gibbs and Neil Jenkins are the company's only stakeholders.

The company has about 100 employees. When I visited the Michigan headquarters last month, many of them were busy transporting assembly-line equipment and parts from an engineering facility in Lake Orion, Mich., to the plant in Auburn Hills where the Quadskis will be assembled.

"We are finally committing ourselves to the discipline of the market," Mr. Jenkins said. "Have we developed something the market wants?"

The answer should come soon.

autonews

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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