Theme : Hybrids – The Swiss Army Knife Syndrome

What happens when just being a car isn’t enough?

Kar-A-Sutra 1

I had a Swiss Army Knife once, but I never used it and I don’t know where it is now. I’m willing to concede that it is probably a useful thing to have about your person and, were I marooned on an iceberg with polar bears ready to attack, I’m sure I’d curse the fact that I hadn’t hung on to that knife. Generally, though, I find the idea of multi-function devices problematic. First, all your eggs are in the one basket so, when one thing goes wrong, everything else is compromised. Second, instead of doing one thing adequately, they often do two, or more, things badly.

Is it the child in us, or the miser, that makes us attracted to devices that also do something else? The child remains, to some degree, in most of us, but some to a far greater degree than others. The device that miraculously converts to another function is a staple of escapist films but some people have actually gone to the effort of making such devices and, in some cases, marketing them.

The Car That’s A Boat

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There have been various amphibious military vehicles from different nations, but the first really successful amphibious vehicle that could be thought of as a car was the Second World War military Schwimmwagen, based on VW mechanicals. The boat technology was quite crude – the propeller dropped down and the front wheels acted as an imprecise rudder. But it worked, and over 15,000 were produced.

Whilst Herbert Quandt kept troubled BMW afloat, allowing its renaissance with the Neue Klasse models, his younger half-brother Harald was an enthusiast for the Amphicar. Designed by the man who also designed the Mercedes 300SL’s gullwing doors, an impressive 400 were built by Quandt Group. First released in 1961, its pointed rear wings, which served a practical service repelling water, soon became unfashionable, but they combined with the chiseled front view to produce something quite jaunty, that was convincingly both a boat and a car.

Steered by its wheels like the Schwimmwagen, its behaviour was said to be like a car in the water and a boat on land, and for something that would come in contact with seawater, although thicker than normal grade steel was used, rustproofing was no better than the average car of the time, but it remains an endearing vehicle with a loyal and active owner’s base.

After this came various vehicles that were actually designed as practical solutions to specific commercial problems such as the Amphi-Ranger. Again a German design, it was built in limited numbers over 10 years from the mid 80s for the pipelaying industry, with a body designed to see off the ravages of salt water. It had a handful of private buyers.

Apart from giving jaded editors the chance to trot out the old “Amphibious Car Makes A Splash” headline, the Gibbs Aquada gained quite a lot of publicity 10 years or so ago when Richard Branson crossed the English Channel in record time – for a car. Quite sleek by amphibious standards, this didn’t go into production and Gibbs currently produce more straightforward floating quad bikes.

If you really are in the market, your best bet at present would be the V6 Honda powered WaterCar Panther from California at $155,000. Unashamedly selling itself on ‘fun’ rather than purpose, this jeep like device has sold in limited quantities since 2013

Relatively cheaper, the Suzuki Based Dutton Surf has just been superceded by the Fiesta based Reef. Known for his various kit cars, Tim Dutton has been making amphibious cars for over 25 years.

Of course, fiction finds those tiresome practical considerations easier to overcome so, years before Q Branch gave us the invisible car, it had already come up with James Bond’s Lotus Esprit submarine.  Over 30 years after the film of The Spy Who Loved Me, the Rinspeed sQuba showcar surfaced.  Based on the Lotus Elise, they don’t seem to have made any more, and this is one case where fact is no more credible than fiction.

The Car That’s A Plane

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This was possibly viewed as a less impractical concept on the other side of the Atlantic, where there is more space, so that’s why most the proposals seem to come from there. My opinion is that flying is an unnatural enough thing for humans to do, so the kit we achieve it with should be purpose-designed, certainly not compromised by the need to fulfill another function.

Henry Ford was a great industrialist, but an ignorant man. As such his prediction that we would have been flying around in aerocars many decades ago was, unsurprisingly inaccurate. Despite superficial similarities, cars and planes have little common ground in the way their sum parts function. Therefore taking a sprawling, be-winged plane and turning it into something that can drive down a 2 metre wide lane is a complex task, and possibly a futile one. This still hasn’t stopped various people, most probably nicer than Henry Ford, from trying to achieve this.

The Curtiss Autoplane of 1917 was possibly the first attempt, though it never really flew.

The 1946 Fulton Airphibian is described as a roadable aircraft, where the flying bit is normally left at the side of the road whilst you drive into town.

Morgan Taylor built 6 Aerocars between 1949 and the late Sixties. They vary in specification but, in essence, the wings folded and were towed along behind the car as a long trailer.

The AVE Mizar from the early 80s, was a mating of a Cessna Skymaster with a Ford Pinto. This again assumed you’d leave the wings and bits somewhere whilst you went driving. Unlike the previous two projects, this one ended tragically with the death of the designer and an associate in a crash.

The 2 seater Terrafugia Transition has been in development since 2006. Unlike the others, it actually folds up into an almost credible size at 5.7m long, and 2.3 m wide. Deliveries are being promised for 2016/17.

The Car That’s A Room

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I actually own a motorhome and if you keep your belongings to a minimum, you begin to wonder why we bother with the trappings of ludicrously costly home ownership. But there are lots of people in the world who’ve lived out of a vehicle by necessity or at least a choice brought on by lack of acceptable alternatives. Ex concert pianist Anne Naysmith lived in a Ford Consul in Chiswick for many years and, if you can put yourself in the right frame of mind, it could become a snug place, I suppose.

On a more formal basis, though most motorhomes are van-based, some are based on small estates, such as the Citroen Berlingo, or even cars. The 2013 Mini Countryman ALL4 Camp (aren’t they all rather?) and the Mini Clubvan Camper (even more so?) were a couple of those concepts that you know will never see the light of day, but have a certain attraction.

Mario Bellini’s punny Kar-a-Sutra is possibly more a manifesto from the early Seventies than a practical commercial proposition. But let’s try considering it as the latter. When I cast aside my Coulrophobia, I rather like it. It is the Mini Moke and the Citroen Mehari taken to extreme for the dope-smoking, water-bed generation. Seat belt legislation forgotten, it might be a useful thing to transport Glastonbury Royalty around in.

Which brings us to the stretch-limo, an abhorrent device to my eyes, but the formal successor to the Passion Wagon, which was more prosaically usually a clapped-out van with an old mattress and a half finished bottle of Southern Comfort rolling around in the back. A 12 metre long White Hummer is probably the most dreadful of these, but then I’ve only looked at the outside, and I’ll admit that, as long as the windows are heavily tinted, the idea of sitting in one just once is rather tempting – to my inner pimp, at least.

The Car That’s An Artwork

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There are those who say that a Ferrari GTO is a work of art in its own right. Speaking as a car person, I might plagiarise Bill Shankly and say ….no, it’s more important than that, but my actual opinion is that good automotive design is very certainly not sculpture, because it has a purpose. And that’s what’s wrong with much contemporary design, it is bad and superficial sculpture carried out by wannabe artists that both compromises, and is compromised by, the primary function. But that’s an argument for another time.

However, artists from Salvador Dali to Ichwan Noor have used cars as artworks. Dali’s Cadillac that rains on you when you get in from the dry outside and Noor’s sculptural shapes made from the already curved sections of VW Beetles have an appeal. There are also BMW’s much flaunted art cars, some which were just used as convenient canvasses, others which showed how the artist had understood the car’s function or structure.

There is also Gabriel Orozco’s La DS, a Citroen sliced radically down the centre, making it very narrow, impractical yet still recognisable the DS. Does it make an interesting point on space and perception, and what would the DS’s designer, Bertoni, a sculptor himself, have thought? I think I prefer Andy Saunder’s own take on the Citroen Picasso, even if searching for a picture lands me up on the website of that predictable scourge of the highbrow and pretentious, The Daily Mail.

Much as I admire much US customising work, I’d not normally call it art since it makes no more underlying statement than embellishing the underlying car, unless you consider that a naked girl wrapped in the Confederate flag has some deeper message. However, others have tried to give their vehicles something more than car-ness. Rhinestone Tailor, Nudie Cohn built 18 Nudiemobiles embellished with cowhides and guns – no-one said that art had to be good … or tasteful. Especially Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth, creator of the Munstermobile among others.

The Car … That’s A Car

I’ve never had need of a main course that is also a desert, a bed that is also a fridge or a pen that’s also a whisky dispenser.  Many inventors and entrepreneurs have felt otherwise and the above survey is by no means comprehensive. I’m very happy that all these people have produced all these devices over the years but, like the person who drove their Amphicar down the slipway without closing the doors properly, I don’t feel they’re really going anywhere.

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