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The fastest thing on four wheels ... that swims

With a top speed of 80kph in the surf, the Hydra Spyder is the only way to beat the traffic


This undated promotional photo, provided by Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International LLC, shows the company's Hydra Spyder amphibious car in action.


It is not terribly easy to parallel park an automobile on a lake. John Giljam knows this to be as true as the highway is long, and for good reason: He has tried to park his car on a lake -- and on rivers, ponds, even the Intracoastal Waterway.

Giljam, in fact, has practiced not only parking on water; he has become quite adept at turning sharply on it -- he no longer gets drenched in a curtain of spume when cornering, he will have you know.

It helps, of course, to learn these aquatic feats behind the wheel of his latest creation, the "Hydra Spyder," an amphibious car that cruises the surf as easily as it does on blacktop.

With its snazzy snout, convertible top, Corvette V8 engine and jet "impeller" -- the stainless-steel cone protruding from the rear that propels it through water -- the Hydra Spyder is poised to become the first, mass-produced amphibious automobile in the US.

"It's incredibly nimble in the water. The Spyder turns smoothly, docks easily," the 46-year-old inventor boasts.

It has one shortcoming, he concedes. On the water, "the parallel parking really sucks."

"I honestly feel I've been born with a gift, and it was for creating mechanical things," he says. "It's what keeps me up at night."

Ten years ago, Giljam operated a jet ski rental company on Hilton Head Island. Business was brisk, he recalls, but one day two customers crashed into each other. Though they were not hurt seriously, he shut the business down, he says.

"I would not be able to function if something I owned and operated hurt somebody," he says.

Which then got him to thinking: Could an aquatic vehicle be designed to be fast and safe?

By 39, he had invented -- and patented -- the world's first unsinkable bus and the world's first aquatic, luxury RV. Producing amphibious cars on a grand scale would be, as he sees it, a "logical" new endeavor.

His Hydra Spyder is not the first of its kind to crawl ashore. Civilian, amphibious vehicles have been around for more than a century, and European manufacturers have long dominated the trade.

Yet, while some models have been able to raise dust on a highway, nearly all have been agonizingly slow in the wet, where wheels create drag.

One well-known washout was the "Amphicar," which was mass-produced in Germany from 1961 to 1968. On roadways, the Amphicar got up to 113kph but disappointed in the water, mustering a dash speed of just 11.3kph.

In the mid-1990s, Alan Gibbs, a New Zealand inventor-cum-entrepreneur, founded Gibbs Technologies in the UK with the aim of developing the first high-speed amphibious car.

In 2003 Gibbs launched "Aquada," an amphibious sports car, a la 007, with retractable wheels and a jet drive that propelled it along water at a maximum speed of 52kph.

To the acclaim of the British media, it made its test-run at London's Docklands, scene of a high-speed boat chase in the James Bond film The World Is Not Enough.

At the time, Giljam's company, Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International LLC, which he founded with his wife, Julie, in 1999, was turning out amphibious buses, a dozen or so a year, at a factory in Rochester, New York.

The Aquada's big splash threw Giljam into creative overdrive.

"I suppose," he told a reporter once, "we just wanted to answer the Brits."

And so, he took to the drawing board. Today, the factory doesn't look like much from Interstate 95: a sand-colored, corrugated-roof structure on an 5 hectare wedge of property covered in knee-high weeds and hemmed in by overgrown live oaks.

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