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The WaterCar Panther is the Latest Take on Amphibious Vehicles

Posted in Features on June 8, 2015
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Amphibious vehicles have existed pretty much since the 1800s and in seemingly every country (although mostly in Europe) and in every format: family sedan, bus, sports car, SUV, RV, military, personal watercraft, resort ride, and WTF-is-that. They’ve been called everything from Amphicar and Aquada to Duck and Hydra Spyder. But probably the only one you ever really cared about was the Ford GPW Jeep, or what the people like to call the Seep (sea Jeep).

Given that water vehicles continue to be built for civilian use but never truly seem to catch on, you’d think the industry would have died a watery death by now—not so. A new player has emerged: the WaterCar. Actually, the company isn’t that new. It started in 1999 and in 2010 saw a Guinness amphibious speed record set with its Python car. And now it’s bringing to the market the Panther, available as a rolling chassis ($75,000), turnkey minus ($106,000), and total custom ($135,000).

Chassis
The company tried various suspensions over the years before ultimately focusing on the elevated off-road style, since getting geometry right was going to be tricky to get the tires high enough out of the water so they wouldn’t drag and the vehicle could go fast. It toyed with hydraulics, air suspension, and airbags. The company also needed the parts to be readily available over the counter and to ensure the vehicle would maintain drivability as it transitioned from water to road. The design became essentially an A-arm setup. The front suspension is fairly light weight, featuring Radflo shocks, although King or any other major manufacturer’s product could be swapped in.

Another requirement had to do with the steering: The tires still had to turn while they were up and driving through the water. And they do; they turn along with the jet to avoid a disconnect between them and steering wheel. Conversely, while driving down the road, the steering on the jet turns with the tires too. And another challenge had to do with how there are typically 21⁄2 to 3 turns lock-to-lock on land, but on water you need instantly reactive steering with about 11⁄4 turns. They pulled it off and actually have a patent for the technology. Steering components are Flaming River.

Drivetrain
A Honda 3.7L V-6 has become the engine of choice for this amphibious drivetrain—and we’re talking junkyard with about 30,000 miles—after years of experimenting with Subaru mills (getting the intercooler to work in the water and not enough bottom-end torque were the main issues). Even LS1s and LS7s were attempted, which were just too powerful. The Honda V-6 ended up being the right choice because cubic inches and torque made more sense than horsepower. These engines like the 5,000-6,000 rpm range and are well suited to the weight of the vehicle (close to 3,000 pounds) and the transfer case/propulsion unit (a Panther Jet production).

Early performance numbers seem to be around 280 ponies and 305 lb-ft of torque. It has a 26-gallon gas tank, although they haven’t actually measured fuel economy. Seat of the wallet estimates are around 22-24 mpg on land. On water, it depends on how you drive it, but it’s likely more economical than most boats, which can often see 1 mpg. The company is estimating the WaterCar at about 21⁄2-plus mpg on water. The engine is hooked to a four-speed manual Volkswagen bus transmission. No automatic transmission is planned for future WaterCars—they’re just too heavy and not geared in a way that would complement the vehicle.

The desire to use parts any owner could find locally came into play here as well. Wilwood brake components, for example, were installed, although to prevent any future rust issues, some things were changed to stainless. To that point, the chassis and tubes are chromoly but also treated for corrosion resistance and set in fiberglass to further prevent rust issues.

A big problem in the early engineering days had to do with the driveshaft—one after another would grenade because of high angles. But that’s all been sorted out. The driveshafts and half-shafts are also waterproofed so bearings can’t rust.

Let’s discuss another problem: cooling an amphibious vehicle on land. On water, it can suck in seawater, and this one seems to run steady at 160 degrees. But because there can’t be a radiator up front with airflow coming through it since it’s all enclosed, a system of side air ducts/fans had to be created. Another problem has to do with exhaust: there’s no catalytic converter. Let’s just say hopefully it won’t be an issue that has to be dealt with down the road based on state laws.

And did we mention there’s also a bilge pump?

Body and Interior
It’s not a CJ-8. Most people assume that’s what it started as, but it’s not. You might also assume Jeep from the grille. However, there are six slots, not seven. Well, let’s just say on future production WaterCars, expect a grille redesign that’s less Jeep-litigation worthy. That’s doesn’t mean those true CJ doors are taboo. And as long as you don’t open them while in the water, the PRP Suspension seats stay dry. The 30-inch Yokohama tires and Weld wheels make up the rolling stock.

Right now, there are a lot of buttons and switches to do the various water-related tasks, such as sending the tires up and down, but as the R&D and driving processes concludes, those will be simplified.

The Panther’s hull design had to be creative to support this kind of weight in water—even naval architects participated in the brainstorming—because it had to be able to get up on a plane but also turn and do so without dragging the wheelwells. It also had able to handle rough chop. Mission accomplished.

Good, Bad, and What It’s For
The WaterCar Panther isn’t a conversion like some amphibious vehicles. It’s a unique rear-engine, two-wheel drive. It’s a street machine that transforms into a boat, with a little light-duty off-road terrain (such as traversing sand for launch) thrown in. Got an RV? This is a perfect rig to bring along for exploring at stops. While it drives and performs like any regular vehicle on the street, know that it does lack creature comforts, such as a radio, A/C, heater, top, etc. Having said that, you buy it as a recreational vehicle, not a daily driver. You don’t buy this because you need a vehicle and you need a boat. You buy it because you want a vehicle that’s also a boat or a boat that’s also a vehicle, and because you have six figures to burn. But if you’ve got that kind of spare change, you’ll end up with a Jeep-like vehicle that performs quite comfortably and potently on the street and is just as much fun to drive off-road, which, in this case, is way off-road.

Hard Facts
Vehicle: WaterCar Panther
Engine: Honda V-Tech 3.5L V-6
Transmission: Volkswagen bus four-speed manual
Transfer Case: Panther Jet
Suspension: A-arm setup
Wheels: 15x7 Weld Rodlite
Tires: 30x9.50R15 Yokohama
Built For: Making you the center of attention. No, wait. For cruising through town, then boating, then cruising back, without ever having to unbuckle your seatbelt.

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