It's a car, it's a boat -- it's the Hydra Spyder

Published Monday, August 11, 2008

  • Photo: John Giljam, co-owner of Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International, takes a Hydra Spyder for a spin Wednesday on a private lake in Hardeeville. The Hydra Spyder, which can travel on land and in water, has an aluminum lower hull and a fiberglass upper structure.
    Kristin Goode/The Island Packet
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Whether you're Popeye the sailor or Bobby Rahal the auto racer, a Ridgeland company has the right car for you.
The Hydra Spyder, the creation of Cool Amphibious Manufacturers International, is just as comfortable on a black ribbon of road as it is on the high seas.
The Ridgeland-based company delivered its fifth amphibious car to an anonymous, ultra-rich customer last week.

"It handles like a Jet Ski," said Jerry Cirino, who was in the Lowcountry to pick up the car for his employer. "It's definitely fun."
Cirino, who manages the owner's summer home in upstate New York, will drive the Hydra Spyder there. It will then be shipped to Europe.

Such a Hollywood-esque car doesn't come cheap. The Spyders start at $175,000 and, other than the engine, are handcrafted and assembled in Ridgeland.
The identity of the owner is a secret, but the car will be aboard the mega-yacht Samar, which allegedly is owned by a wealthy Kuwait-based businessman.
That kind of customer is normal for John and Julie Giljam, who own Cool Amphibious Manufacturers. About two years ago the company created the prototype Hydra Spyder, which combined a high-performance sports car with a speedy, maneuverable water craft.
They didn't want to sell the prototype, but a wealthy Californian made an offer that was too good to pass up, John Giljam said. "It was enough money to build the plant."
At a private lake in Hardeeville last week, the Giljams, Cirino and other company employees put the latest Spyder -- this one in white to match the owner's yacht -- through its paces.
The company uses a private lake because its products tend to draw crowds when taken out in public. When the Giljams took their unique Terra Wind motorhome/yacht out at All Joy Landing in Bluffton a few years back, people thought someone had had a heart attack and drove their RV into the water, said Craig James, a fabricator with the Ridgeland company.
That led to police and rescue vehicles showing up, he said.
As much fun and as famous as the Terra Wind is -- it has appeared on "Good Morning America" -- the Spyder is John Giljam's favorite.
It features a Chevrolet Corvette LS3 engine. It offers comfort and power on asphalt or water. It can reach speeds of
125 mph on land and, with a flip of a switch, retract its wheels and cruise up to 50 mph on the water.
"I'm a James Bond fan and a motor head," Giljam said when asked about the inspiration for the Spyder. In "The Spy Who Loved Me," James Bond pilots a Lotus Esprit that converts into a submarine.
Cool Amphibious Manufacturers also has a plant near Rochester, N.Y., that primarily makes the company's biggest seller, the Hydra-Terra, a commercial amphibious tour vehicle. About 46 Hydra-Terras are in service around the world.
The company has about 30 employees between the two locations.
The Giljams started in the area by offering aquatic tours in a retooled military amphibious vehicle in 1998 under the name Cool Stuff Tours Inc.
But that 1963 Lighter Amphibious Resupply Cargo vehicle was "cantankerous and big" and needed repairs almost daily, said Julie Giljam.
John Giljam figured he could design something lighter and more efficient, and the first Hydra-Terra was born.
The Hydra-Terra was supposed to be for Cool Stuff. But John Giljam spoke about his invention at a December 1999 meeting called by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration after the deadly Miss Majestic sinking in Hot Springs, Ark., Julie Giljam said. That presentation prompted a Boston-based operator running tours in Philadelphia to buy the first two completed Hydra-Terras, which were built in 2000.
As the orders kept mounting, the Giljams eventually gave up on the tour company and focused on manufacturing, Julie Giljam said.
The orders keep rolling in.
Four more Hydra Spyders are waiting to be assembled and the company still gets queries from potential buyers. There is a one-year wait for the vehicle. The Giljams don't even have one for themselves, although both want one.
There's one consideration that Spyder buyers, unlike regular drivers, never take into account -- gas mileage.
Giljam said he doesn't know how many miles to the gallon it gets.
And he adds, "No client has ever asked."