The Dobbertin HydroCar is an exotic sports car capable of traveling on water, and it will make its first-ever public appearance at the April 8-11 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Inventors and engineers have tried since World War I to design a vehicle equally capable on land and in the sea, the most notable of which was the German-built Amphicar. Produced from 1961-67 and sold primarily in the United States, the small Amphicar was decently seaworthy and reasonably roadworthy, but a primitive drivetrain, rust-prone steel hull and quirky styling limited its market success.

In the early 1990s, custom car builder Rick Dobbertin, of Cazenovia, N.Y., converted a stainless steel milk tanker into the go-anywhere Surface Orbiter. Dobbertin and his wife traveled to 28 countries in their amphibious motorhome, logging 33,000 miles on land and 3,000 in the open ocean. Shortly after displaying the Surface Orbiter at Charlotte Motor Speedway's Food Lion AutoFair in 1995, he sold the craft and began brainstorming a more advanced form of land-sea transportation.

Construction of the new "HydroCar" began in 2002 and took more than 20,000 man-hours to complete - 17,500 of which Dobbertin logged himself. Dobbertin engineered and built every part of the unique vehicle from raw materials, including its tube-frame chassis, marine-spec aluminum hull, aviation-grade electrical system and Stealth fighter-like canopy. Seemingly minor details, such as the design of the single windshield wiper, pop-up headlights and countless rubber seals, required months of trial-and-error experimentation.

The engine, mounted behind the driver and passenger for perfect weight balance, is an all-aluminum 572-cubic-inch Merlin V-8 that produces more than 750 horsepower. On land, it sends that power to the front wheels through a custom-built automatic transmission and high-tech aluminum differential. In the water, a heavy-duty transfer case behind the transmission spins the Swiss-built outboard propeller. For maximum maneuverability at low speeds on the road, all four wheels steer.

Dobbertin touts his HydroCar as being the first amphibious vehicle with a fully articulated body, which means the conversion from car to boat takes place automatically through the movement of major components. Sleek side-mounted pontoons drop several inches into the water, and their buoyancy raises the central hull. In addition to preparing the HydroCar for water duty, the six onboard pneumatic systems also raise the winged rear deck/engine cover; enclose the wheel compartments to minimize drag; and maintain the craft's hot rod-style airbag suspension.

Painted an eye-catching Corvette Yellow, the HydroCar is 23 feet long and measures 10'4" in the beam (or width) when wearing removable auxiliary pontoons, which puts it in the size range of a large ski or deck boat. Owing to its amphibious nature and high-performance automobile drivetrain, the HydroCar weighs 8,000 pounds, substantially more than the family's weekend pleasure craft.

Over a custom car-building career that spans 30-plus years, Dobbertin has gained a reputation for his attention to detail and eye for beautiful design. Hot Rod named one of his early creations Street Machine of the Year in 1982; in 1986, another was declared Hot Rod of the Year and later won a spot on that magazine's list of Top 100 Hot Rods that Changed the World.

"I never intended for the HydroCar to consume as much time and money as it has," Dobbertin said. "Popular Mechanics ran it on their January 2004 cover as an artist's rendering; back then, I thought it would be ready to hit the water within two years.

"I just knew I wanted to do something different - not another custom car. After its debut, I hope to get it into some commercials or maybe an action movie, then sell it to some crazy rich guy who owns an island and wants to drive to town straight from his mansion's driveway."

After eight years of work and more than $300,000 in materials, the HydroCar is expected to set a new standard for amphibious vehicles at the April 8-11 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $10 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit the Auto Fair event web site.