I’m about to propose something here, and I’m pretty sure most of you are going to assume that I’m joking around, or not being serious. Well, that’s not the case. I’m as serious as a bankruptcy’s heart attack about this. This idea, however unconventional, I feel is absolutely a solid idea, and some automaker should leap on it. The idea? It’s time for a major automaker to build and sell a mass-produced amphibious minivan.
Yes, that’s right. A minivan that you can drive right into a lake. There’s multiple reasons why this makes sense: first, boating is a wildly popular activity in America, with 142 million Americans—36 percent of the population—having done some sort of recreational watercraftery in 2016.
That’s a huge number. Of course, only a small percentage of those people actually have their own boats, because boats are expensive pains in the ass. Owning a boat means you need a pretty good-sized chunk of your property to store the boat, along with its associated trailer. It means you need a vehicle capable of towing the boat, a vehicle that may not really be an ideal vehicle for other uses in your life.
Pulling a boat on a trailer is often difficult and stressful. Getting a boat into the water is a pain, getting it out is a pain, maintaining it is a pain, storing it is a pain—so much of boat ownership is an expensive ass-pain, and all for what? Dicking around on some lake for an afternoon?
Yes, exactly. Dicking around on the water for an afternoon is a wonderful thing, and is most of what we require from leisure boats. Most people who want to spend an afternoon on a lake aren’t looking to break any water-speed records, they’re looking for the pleasant sensation of floating around while enjoying a beer or something. You’ve seen those pontoon boat things that are basically floating patios, right? That’s the sort of boat these amphibious minivans will be closest to.
By combining a minivan with a simple, usable boat, you dramatically increase the actual, measurable enjoyment people will get from their vehicles, far beyond what each vehicle individually can provide.
The reason this vehicle should be a minivan is because a minivan form provides the most ability to be both useful and an effective leisure watercraft. Previous and current amphibious vehicles tend to be small, two-or-four seat, open-topped vehicles, like the legendary Amphicar or a Gibbs Aquada. This severely limits what the vehicle can be used for, in and out of the water.
But a minivan offers so many more possibilities! You could have your general-purpose family car, one that can hold seven people if need be or haul lumber from the hardware store or a whole flat-packed Ikea room. That same vehicle, when driven into a lake, provides a private interior area for changing into and out of swimsuits, beverage and snack storage, a refuge from the sun, and, even better, a minivan’s large roof area can be used as the deck of a boat.
Most minivans already have roof racks for cargo storage, so why not expand on that, stick some no-skid strips on the roof, have a ladder and some flip-up railings and boom, you’ve got a deck for your boat.
Since most modern vehicles are drive-by-wire anyway, it would be trivial to add a small flying bridge unit that would let the vanboat be steered and controlled from the upper deck/roof.
Technically, I think most existing minivans could be adapted into watercraft with the addition of something like boat-pants: a fiberglass lower hull that seals the lower portion of the minivan, adds buoyancy, and incorporates an electric water-propulsion motor at the rear.
With an electric motor, relying on the minivan’s engine for power, there would be no need for complicated power transfer shafts and seals and all that sort of thing: just wires for power and control. We’ve seen that electric motors are certainly able to safely operate in aquatic environments when properly designed, so I’m confident this will be possible.
There would be some other changes as well: use of water-friendly materials inside for seat upholstery and floor coverings, side windows that could open to provide access to the roof or easy exit and entry from the van while in the water; systems to seal and secure conventional doors while submerged, port and starboard lighting, tie-downs, and so on.
The old saying about amphibious vehicles is that they tend to be lousy cars and lousy boats—in this case, I think all that’s really needed is we have a pretty good car and, at best, a good enough boat.
On land, our amphibious minivan needs to be as safe and usable as its conventional counterpart, with some losses in fuel economy and/or performance being acceptable. On the water, it really just needs to be safe and mobile enough to get around.
Sure, engineering an essentially bolt-on hull that provides enough buoyancy and interferes the least with the on-land operation of the car won’t be the easiest thing in the world, but what the hell are these companies paying their engineers for, anyway? They can figure this out.
Nearly every major automaker independently came up with absurdly complicated hardtop convertible retraction systems that worked, remember—this is just another engineering challenge to overcome, and I have complete confidence it can be done.
For this to really work, it needs to be part of the in-dealership product offerings of a major manufacturer. It can’t be some third-party, aftermarket adaptation—it needs to be an option anyone could just choose at a dealership, and get the full warranty and all of the security that comes with buying something boring and normal.
Think of it sort of like how Volkswagen sold its campervans for decades—while, sure, you could buy almost any van and take it to be converted into a camper, Volkswagen would sell you, say a Vanagon Westy with a kitchen and pop-top right there in the dealership, just like if you were buying a normal 7-passenger Vanagon.
This made it much, much easier and introduced to many people the very concept that they could even have a camper at all, if they wanted, and getting one was no harder than getting an ordinary van.
That’s how this should be. If Honda were to sell a version of the Odyssey called the Odyssey Galley (Odysseus’ ship in Homer’s Odyssey didn’t have a name, it’s just called a Homeric Galley) that was amphibious, I’m sure it would absolutely find takers, even if it commanded a substantial premium over the base Odyssey.
Let’s say the amphibious option was a non-trivial $10,000 more; the average price for a pontoon boat—remember, one of those floating leisure decks, basically—is $35,000. You could find smaller boats for around $20,000 or less, but you still have to factor in trailer, storage, tow vehicle, mooring costs, and on and on.
Considering that an amphibious minivan could do about 90 percent or more of what a pontoon boat is likely to do or be used for, an amphibious minivan starts to sound like a great deal.
There’s no major minivan manufacturer that wouldn’t benefit from this idea: the Chrysler Pacifica is by far the most relevant vehicle under the Chrysler badge, and the name even fits with the theme; it’s already a great minivan, and an amphibious version would make Chrysler a real innovator again.
Honda’s Odyssey is one of the bestselling minivans, and an amphibious variant would turn a vehicle that people feel like they’re forced into getting into an actual object of desire. For Toyota with their Sienna minivan or Nissan with the Quest, and amphibious variant would finally give people a reason to even think about those vehicles at all—they really have nothing to lose.
When was the last time anyone displayed anything like excitement or even real interest in a Nissan Quest? An amphibious Quest would change all that.
Same goes for an amphibious Kia Sedona or Ford Transit: instantly, the most stigmatized but useful vehicles sold would become must-have vehicles for high-profile celebrities, trendsetters, and, most importantly, any family that just wanted to make their lives a bit more enjoyable.
Vast numbers of Americans live near bodies of water that can be enjoyed with watercraft, but the barriers to entry have always been substantial. An amphibious minivan would absolutely demolish most of the truly difficult parts about boat ownership, and allow families to decide, on a whim, that, hey, let’s go down to the lake this afternoon.
Imagine how great it would be if the vehicle that you used to pick up groceries that morning could be packed full of you and your friends, and you could just drive right into a lake. You’d motor out to the serene middle, climb on the roof with your pals, eat, drink, swim, and watch a sunset from the roof of your minivan.
When everyone was ready, you just climb back in, putter over to the ramp, drive on out, and head back home, where you can park your boat-van right in your driveway, like any normal car.
The result gives so much freedom, so much potential for use and enjoyment, far more so than each vehicle can provide individually. Amphibious minivans should be the next major automotive trend, if we have any remaining semblance of the joys that automobile ownership can provide.