The time I drove across the English Channel in an amphibious car and caught fire
Colin Goodwin has been a motoring journalist for over 30 years, starting out at Car Magazine where he used to have lunch most days with a bloke called James May. He has written in most of the UK’s magazines and newspapers. He likes anything with a spark plug and isn’t keen on electric cars – and don’t even mention ones that drive themselves.
When they started digging the tunnel under the English Channel I assumed that we’d be driving our cars through it. How good would that sound? Smoking along in an AC Cobra on open pipes, 20-something miles of aural delight.
But no, I assumed wrongly. It turned out that we’d have to drive our cars onto trains and then sit in them for half an hour while the train took us under the sea to France.
I was so disappointed that I couldn’t simply drive to France I decided to do it anyway and set about finding a suitable amphibious car.
After much searching, and a French company that made a suitable machine turning out not to have the balls for it, I found an Englishman made of sterner stuff. His name was Tim Dutton, famous for producing eponymous kit cars in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Dutton had just built an amphibious kit car using a Ford Fiesta as a donor vehicle. As mad as a fish but not able to swim like one, he was well up for the challenge.
We were prepared for failure…
Which is how we found ourselves early one summer morning in 1995 setting out from Folkestone in a Dutton Mariner. Not being complete lunatics we had hired the services of a Kent fisherman who knew about things like tides, knew in which direction France lay and, most important of all, owned a very seaworthy fishing boat.
The Mariner’s aquatic propulsion system was the Fiesta engine driving via hydraulic pump and motor, a jet-drive unit. For road driving it simply drove its front wheels through the standard Ford gearbox.
We had already discovered that the Mariner was not a particularly good car; we were about to find out that it was a worse boat. The tide was against us for most of the morning and we only made about three knots. The channel tunnel was looking sensible.
Later the tide turned and we started to make progress towards Boulogne.
The crossing attempt heats up
The authorities can’t really stop you doing silly things like driving across the channel in a boat made out of a family hatchback but they don’t like it.
We were buzzed by a coastguard aeroplane. He was probably worried that we were dawdling around in the busy shipping lanes.
We were concerned also because we knew that the Mariner was now on fire. The cooling fan in the engine bay had conked out and the heat from the exhaust had set fire to something.
Fortunately Tim had a fire extinguisher.
We were only about five miles from the French coast but our fisherman escort was worried about us being hit by a supertanker and insisted that he tow us home. We had failed, but it had been a valiant effort. I’d only been seasick once.
With further refinements and development the Dutton Mariner became a success and eventually managed the crossing.
It’s still in production and is even available with four-wheel drive. I’ve never been a fan of the channel tunnel but I use the ferry. It’s a bit quicker than an amphibious Fiesta.