Just how big is the market for amphibious cars? Hard to say. Even the major players involved in making them have wildly different thoughts on the subject.
Officials with Gibbs Technologies
have for years said that their market research suggests that people are clamoring for these things. In fact, Chairman Emeritus Alan Gibbs, the founder of the company, once said that the company may sell 100,000 of them annually.
“Our market research indicates that a line-up of high-speed amphibious vehicles similar to the Aquada could generate annual sales volumes of 100,000 or more within five years,” Gibbs told Great Cars TV in 2007.
But Gibbs has since backed off on the idea of selling 100,000 of them. Gibbs Chairman Neil Jenkins said the company’s Quadski, an amphibious all-terrain vehicle, is expected to the be the company’s highest volume product.
Leaders of the country’s two other major amphibious car companies scoff at the notion that there is anywhere close to a six-figure market for amphibians.
Fred Selby with WaterCar
, a southern California company that is getting ready to start production of two amphibious cars, the Gator and the Python, said that his company cannot envision sales of that scope.
“We don’t think the market’s that big,” Selby said.
Besides that, Selby said that many have tried in recent decades to start a new car company and all have failed.
“I don’t believe anyone has enough money to start a production car company,” Selby said.
Still, Selby said WaterCar has turned down orders, waiting for demand to warrant production of concepts it has built.
“We’ve turned down orders for years,” Selby said.
But it’s worth noting that WaterCar is interested in what Gibbs is up to, peppering this reporter with questions about Gibbs’ operations and the feel of its amphibious car.
Selby points to the Amphicar, which sold just 3,878 copies in the mid 1960s.
John Giljam, co-owner of Cool Amphibious Manufacturing International
, agrees that he doesn’t see a market for thousands of amphibious cars per year.
He said that so long as the economy is in the doldrums, he doesn’t see any sales at all for playtoys such as his Hydra-Spyder high-speed amphibian. But even when the economy does rebound, he thinks amphibian production might be limited to about 30-40 cars per year for his company.
“There is not a lot of market for amphibious cars,” Giljam said.
Still, Giljam wishes Gibbs well and hopes the company is successful.
“I don’t see us as competing with him,” Giljam said. “He has all of my support and good will.”
But Jenkins likens Gibbs’ position to what Henry Ford was facing when he first started his company. How big was the market for those new-fangled horseless carriages anyway? Bankers were wary to loan companies large sums because they didn’t see the car replacing the horse. How’s the horse doing these days as a dominant form of transportation?
But that’s the way it is with any new technology. When television was invented, most people thought it would be a passing fad. GPS devices? What’s wrong with your basic paper map?
The cars all three companies are building or plan to build have little in common with the Amphicar, which was limited to just 7 mph in water and wasn’t a very good car on land, either.
Jenkins said that developing the Aquada as a government-homologated vehicle will give the company more credibility with consumers, resulting in more sales.
“If we’re all kit car manufacturers, we’ll never be taken seriously,” Jenkins said.
WaterCar plans to avoid stringent U.S. regulations vehicles by selling one as a kit and the other as a “turn-key minus,” industry lingo for a rolling chassis without the drivetrain. C.A.M.I. has decided not to offer the Hydra-Spyder for sale in the U.S.
All of the companies have built high-speed amphibians, capable of at least 30 mph on water. Where the Amphicar was really just a novelty, WaterCar, Gibbs and C.A.M.I. all have capabilities which offer true dual-purpose utility. On land, they’ll transport you to work or the store, but on the water, they become full-fledged boats, capable of pulling water skiers or quickly taking anglers to remote fishing holes.
Gibbs has in the past mentioned a price of $85,000 for the Aquada, but in our most recent discussion, Jenkins did not offer an estimated price. At that price point, the Aquada would compete with some exotic and fast cars such as the Porsche 911, Chevrolet Corvette Z06 and BMW M5. That’s stiff competition from companies with long, well-established histories.
The Aquada would be no match for those cars on land. With the 250-horsepower V-6 Gibbs has long suggested as the engine for the Aquada, it would give up 188 horsepower to the base Corvette, more if you go for the 505-horsepower Z06, which has a base price of $73,925, still well under the $85,000 target for the Aquada. And that’s just looking at the power deficit. The Corvette, as well as other competitors at this level, have fantastic road tuning for an exquisite driving experience. Gibbs will have a hard time matching that level of sophistication.
But the Aquada, as well as the WaterCar Python and C.A.M.I. Hydra-Spyder, can do something the Porsche and Corvette cannot. It can seamlessly transition from car to boat in just seconds, and actually achieve plane a few seconds later.
Sure the novelty of showing off to your friends is fun, but that will grow old after a short time. In the end, the Aquada will sell only if it is well-built, well-designed, fun to drive and offers a unique experience. Price will be a key factor. If Gibbs can keep the price under $100,000 to start and even bring it down once volume grows, it has a chance sell in larger numbers. One hundred thousand a year? That’s doubtful unless Gibbs can get the price well below $50,000. Maybe 100,000 is possible if Gibbs offers a range of amphibious cars including a model with a back seat.
There’s little doubt that all of the amphibious vehicle makers have nailed the unique experience part. But are the designs good? Are they fun to drive? How good are they as boats? Stay tuned for the answers to those questions.