Ambition is a lovely thing.
When Volkswagen launches a new GTI, for instance, they benchmark it against the competition, make things more refined, powerful, luxurious, and efficient—then release it for sale. Thing is, they're only improving the basic hatchback formula, they're not trying to sell the world on an entirely new way of getting around.
If Volkswagen or any of the other major manufacturers were to launch a vehicle with these features, however, I think we'd all be a bit skeptical that they'd be able to deliver them all as promised:
- Seating for four
- Plastic bodywork
- Mid-engine layout
- Stainless steel chassis
- Convertible top
- Top speed of 140 km/h (87 mph)
- Four-wheel drive
- Adjustable hydropneumatic suspension
- Amphibious, with a top speed on water of 5 knots
If we're wondering how a major manufacturer could design and sell such a car, imagine the shock felt by the world's automotive media when they were presented with the Hobbycar B-612-A at the 1992 Paris Motor Show, a car that promised to do all of the tricks listed above.
The vehicle is imaginatively named after the real-life asteroid 46610 Besixdouze. If that doesn't ring a bell, you may know it by its title when written in hexadecimal notation: B-612. The car's designers were inspired by asteroid B-612's place in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's famous children's book, Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), and as a result the car is also—sort of—a small world all by itself.
Capable of covering nearly any terrain thanks to its high ground clearance and, well, the floaty/boat stuff, B-612 was conceived by ex-Renault Formula 1 engineer Francois Wardevoir and his well-funded partner, Serge Desmarais. But before they could have the car, they needed a facility: the still-standing property that housed offices, a factory, a test track, and, of course, a pond.
The grounds are said to have cost $25 million Usd. in 1990 (more than $41 million today), a not-inconsiderable sum to spend on an unproven vehicle.
To me, the most remarkable aspect of the Hobbycar B-612-A (and the larger, military and heavy industry-focused Hobbycar Cortex model) is that the company delivered on just about every promise. A sandwich-style chassis housed all of the mechanical components and chassis, while the bodywork (and passengers) sort of sat on top. Traditional amphibious vehicles are difficult to get in and out of while in the water, but with its low sills the Hobbycar sat lower and more boat-like in water.
On land, tall sides and no doors would be a problem, but the Citroën-sourced hydropneumatic suspension could lower the entire vehicle to aid ingress and egress. Like the RMA Amphi-Ranger, the Hobbycar was designed from the outset as an amphibious vehicle, and it shows. (In the water, the B-612-A's jet drive was controlled by joysticks!)
On land, all four wheels were powered by a Peugeot-sourced 1.9-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel with 92 horsepower. Believe it or not, the whole vehicle weighed just 950 kg (2,095 lbs), and so fuel economy was measured at an average of about 7 L/100km (33 US MPG).
Off-road, Hobbycar said the B-612-A could climb a 100 per cent grade, thanks to up to 30 cm (12 inches) of ground clearance. Clearly inspired by Formula 1, each seat was folded when not in use, but when opened the "module" (backrest) included a seatbelt and integrated roll bar.
At this point, you're probably thinking to yourself that the only thing that would turn you off from the B-612-A is its price…and you'd be right: to take one home in the '90s, you'd need to cut a cheque for about $50,000 Usd.*
Instead of doing that—and if you can't afford to find and buy one of the few made—a ticket to see it at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, Tennessee runs just $9. If you visit, you'll also see Hobbycar's 1994 prototype for their next car, the road-going Passport MPV—just picture an enclosed B-612-A with two sliding doors on each side (and no pillar between them!)
I guess makes them suicide sliding doors. I wonder what Hobbycar would be dreaming up in 2015…
* This figure was originally quoted as $250,000 based on inflation, but I'm still searching for the original list price. Many say it was closer to $50,000, so I've used that number.