In the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me, James Bond drove a car that could convert into a submarine—a feature that came in handy when Bond was making his escape from a pursuing helicopter. The modified Lotus Esprit used in the film was, in fact, an actual working submersible. In the days before CGI, a film prop had to be able to realistically do some of the work. While the cutaway scenes show Bond and his passenger in a dry, cozy compartment, the real thing was built as a “wet submersible.” The stuntman driver had to wear scuba gear because the technical hurdles for sealing the cabin were too great.
Now, you would think that with all the technological advances since then, there would be a whole raft (pardon the pun) of submarine cars today competing for our recreation dollars. And you’d think that at least some of them would offer dry cabins so we wouldn’t have to get wet or have to breathe through scuba gear. But, no! There are only two existing updates to Bond’s famous Lotus Esprit—neither of them available to the general car buying public.
In 2012, the BBC automotive program Top Gear took a Lotus Excel and modified it to look like the Bond original. They bested the movie prop by actually creating a dry cabin environment through the technique of releasing pressurized air into the passenger space. The air pushed out through the spaces around the windows and doors, and (mostly) kept the water out. Somehow, the steering column wasn’t as cooperative, and little streams of water kept spurting in. Still, it did work—for a while.
A more serious version of the submarine car is the sQuba, a sporty little two-seater made by Rinspeed in Switzerland. It’s all electric, utilizing rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. It can do 75 miles per hour on land, 3.7 miles per hour on the surface of the water, and 1.9 miles per hour underwater.
But Rinspeed decided to keep things wet. The sQuba has an open cab, which may seem weird for a submersible, but turns out to be for safety reasons. If anything goes wrong the “crew” can easily escape. Driver and passenger breathe air through built in scuba type diving regulators. Only the prototype exists right now, and it cost a mere $1.5 million to build.
Rinspeed hopes to have production models come in at below “Rolls-Royce prices.”
Should we hold our collective breath?
The challenge with these vehicles is not the floating part. Getting cars to float is something we’ve been doing for a long time. World War II and the needs of the military saw the first boom in the amphibious vehicle business. In Germany, Porsche created the widely deployed “Schwimmwagen,” and in the USA, Ford responded with the “Seep,” short for Sea Jeep. (Hope it didn’t live up to its name!) Amphibious vehicle production continued and expanded after the war. Today there are hundreds of amphibious vehicles, from military vehicles, to trucks, cars, and even bicycles.
But building a car that can dive, maneuver, and resurface has been a lot trickier. That’s why most submersibles are basically submarines with no land travel capabilities. For example, the sleek little Scubster, designed a few years ago in France, looked like a tiny underwater airplane and was driven like a bicycle. However, the pedaling only turned propellers—there were no wheels.