HoveRovers and Spectras

6 March 1969

According to a 1966 Time Magazine report, futurists had great expectations for what the world would be like by the year 2000. Some things they got very right. As projected, technology has indeed enabled us to live longer, healthier lives even though bacterial and viral diseases were not eliminated as forecast. They correctly projected that advances in immunology would permit the ready transplantation of human organs though artificial did not become “commonplace.” An estimated global population of 6 billion at the turn of the millennium was also bang on. (In 2020, it stood at 7.8 billion.) Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian philosopher who coined he phrase the medium is the message, foreshadowed the world wide web, predicting that many people would be working from home using a country-wide telecommunications network.

But other things they got very wrong. We did not establish a permanent base on the Moon by the year 2000, nor did we land a human on Mars or send an astronaut past Venus. While automation has had an ongoing dramatic impact on the labour market, it was not the employment killer futurists expected. New jobs replaced jobs lost through computerization so that massive unemployment has not occurred though people continue to worry about the impact of technology—this time, artificial intelligence—on the labour market. As a consequence, work was not and is not being rationed, and moonlighting has not become as “socially unacceptable as bigamy” as some futurists feared in 1966.

Another thing many futurists, including McLuhan, got wrong was the elimination of the family car. They predicted that automobiles and highways would be obsolete by 2000, replaced by the family hovercraft which could easily skin over land, water and ice on a cushion of air. The hovercraft had been developed ten years earlier by Sir Christopher Cockerell, a British engineer.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ottawa-based firms tried to make McLuhan’s prediction a reality. For a short time, the capital became a global centre of air cushion vehicle (a.k.a. hovercraft) production before the dream foundered due to mechanical problems, stability issues, and noise concerns. A deteriorating global economy, including the imposition by the United States of a 10 per cent import tax in 1971 and high oil prices in 1973 also undercut the new industry. But for a time, two Ottawa firms stood out, Canahover Ltd and M.H.V. Industries Ltd, both of which started operations in the capital in 1968. Both companies showed off their model hovercrafts at an outdoor Dominion Day exhibition the following year, fittingly outside of the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology. Canahover, a subsidiary of Bogue Electric Company of Patterson, New Jersey, manufactured hovercrafts under licence from the Hovercraft Company of England out of facilities located on River Road. On 6 March 1969, the company publicly demonstrated for the first time its sports model, designed and built in Ottawa, on the Rideau River in front of journalists and potential dealers from across Canada and the United States. They and William Guttenberg, president of Bogue Electric, who had come up from New Jersey for the event, witnessed two hovercrafts successfully perform manoeuvres at high speed over the ice and open water of Mooney’s Bay.

Advertisement for the HoverRover, Ottawa Journal, 20 December 1969.

The two-seater vehicle, nicknamed the HoveRover was sixteen feet long, seven and a half feet wide, and just over five feet high. It was propelled by two German-built, air-cooled, rear-mounted, 25 hp engines that operated two aircraft-type propellers. A third engine mounted in the front powered two “lift” fans to provide the air cushion. Buoyancy when idle on water was provided by Styrofoam floats. The hovercraft, which was equipped with a Plexiglas canopy, was made of fibreglass over an aluminium and steel frame. It could travel at speeds 45 mph over land, 35 mph over water, and up to 55 mph over snow. The craft’s eight-gallon gas tank permitted a range of about 120 miles on one fill-up. There were two throttles, one for each of the rear engines as well as a rudder mechanism. To change directions, a driver would throttle back one of the engines as well as use the rudder. The craft’s 16-inch air cushion could clear 10-inch-high obstacles and climb at a 30-degree angle. The HoveRover, which retailed for $3,995 (equivalent to more than $28,000 in 2021 dollars), was also equipped with headlights and a safety beacon. Subsequently, the company began to manufacture a freighter model, costing $4,795, that could carry a payload of 1,000 pounds.

The company thought that its hovercraft would appeal to surveyors, hunters, and prospectors in remote areas, especially in the far north where wheeled vehicles damaged the environmentally delicate tundra. Canahover, as well as other manufacturers of small hovercraft, also hoped that the vehicle would repeat the success achieved by Bombardier’s Ski-Doo as a family sports vehicle. Indeed, many felt that the hovercraft’s versatility as a fun vehicle for all seasons and environments would supplant the snowmobile.

The first production HoveRover rolled off of the assembly line in mid-May 1969. It was immediately packed up and sent to Uplands Airport where it was loaded onto an U.S. Air Force freighter for delivery to its buyer who was none other than the Shah of Iran. The Shah must have been impressed. Iran later placed what was probably the company’s single largest order—20 freighter-type machines worth $100,000.

The company had high hopes for the future. With 25 employees in mid 1969, producing one hovercraft per day, the company intended to ramp up production to four vehicles per day and employ 100 persons at its hangar-like plant on River Road. To help boost sales, Canahover held demonstrations of the HoverRover in London on the Thames River and at the Miami Boat Show in 1970 and 1971, respectively.

At the same time, M.H.V. Industries, located initially in Gloucester and later at 1780 Queensdale Avenue in Blossom Park, began developing and testing its sports-style hovercraft called the Spectra I. Smaller than Canahover’s HoveRover, the Spectra I was just over ten feet in length and had a net weight of 450 pounds. It could travel 45 mph on land and 40 mph over water. Its advertising hype called it “the hovercraft for the fun market, comfort designed, industrially engineered, a scientific, aerodynamic, sports space craft, all terrain, all-weather, two-person-on-board capacity, straddle seat, surface-to-air, moon sled.” The Spectra I was priced at a relatively affordable $1,595-$1,095, depending on engine size. The higher price model was apparently able to achieve speeds of 50 mph on water and 70 mph on ice or snow.

The M.H.V. Spectra I in operation on the Ottawa River with the Macdonald-Cartier Bridge in the background, advertising postcard, M.H.V. Industries.

M.H.V. Industries was owned by 32 shareholders, mostly from the Ottawa area. Its president was Geoff Voyce, whose last name supplied the “V” in the company’s name. Two other major shareholders, Ted Michell and Norman Howard, furnished the other two letters.

Time Magazine described the Spectra I as looking like “a funland bump car with a big fan on the back.” Less sophisticated that the HoveRover, it was powered by twin 25 hp engines—one for propulsion and one for lift. The vehicle was also equipped with an instrument panel, a front cowl, a main body shell, and a rear fan guard. It had a 350-pound payload. Time Magazine saw the Spectra I as a potential game changer, commenting that M.H.V. had “raised the specter of a noisy hovercraft in every garage.”

Despite claims of sizeable orders, M.H.V. Industries went into voluntary receivership in 1970, owing to a variety of problems, not least of which were structural problems related to engines that needed to be sufficiently strong to power the craft but light enough to permit it “to fly.” Dealers began returning vehicles. There were other problems. It was tricky to drive. Even Voyce commented that “the first feeling you get in our craft is one of sheer panic.” On turns in water, the Spectra I tended to drift. Sudden stops could propel the operator over the bow into the water. Voyce also remarked frankly that it had “really shoddy mufflers, and its laminated wood propeller deteriorated rapidly in damp climates. Unfortunately, the firm simply didn’t have the funds to make the necessary improvements despite having a “marketable product,” at least as far as the firm’s president was concerned.

M.H.V. Industries briefly re-emerged from receivership under a new president, David Findlay, with aid from the provincial government. Work also began on a new and improved hovercraft—the Spectra II. The machine was quieter than its predecessor using a new drive unit developed in Ottawa by HPL Engineering with financial backing provided by the National Research Council and M.H.V. Industries. Two 30 hp engines powered the craft which gave it 70 per cent more thrust than had the Spectra I. It also had 50 per cent more “lift.” The Spectra II was equipped with a four-bladed propeller instead a two-bladed one. Top speed was 60 mph over ice or snow, 45 mph over water and 35 mph over grassy fields.

You too could win a Spectra I hovercraft! In the spring of 1970, M.H.V. Industries launched a marketing campaign with Harvey’s restaurants, Ottawa Citizen, 2 April 1970.

Despite the introduction of the much-improved Spectra II model, M.H.V. Industries did not last for very long. Sales were anemic. By 1974, the firm was bankrupt, its assets sold off to help pay back creditors. It was officially dissolved for good in 1980.

Canahover too did not endure. What happened to it was not reported in the press. But, like M.H.V. Industries, the firm was officially dissolved in 1980. Its parent company, Bogue Electric Company of Patterson, New Jersey, is still in business.

While hovercraft have yet to feature in every Canadian garage, small recreational air cushion vehicles are readily available today. In the United Kingdom, the home of the homecraft, the British Hovercraft Company offers for sale three recreational vehicles as well as a commercial rescue craft. Small hovercrafts are also made in Canada. Air Rider Hovercraft of Perry Sound is one such manufacturer.

The Canadian coast guard, which is based in Ottawa, currently operate four hovercrafts for search and rescue purposes. These are the CCGS Mamilossa, the CCGS Sipu Muin, the CCGS Siyay, and the CCGS Moytel.  The Mamilossa and the Moytel were built in the United Kingdom, while the Siou Muin and Siyay were constructed by Hike Metal Products of Wheatly, Ontario under licence.

For more information about early Canadian-made hovercraft, see the website of the Hovercraft Club of Canada.

Sources:

British Hovercraft Company, 2021, https://britishhovercraft.com/.

Hovercraft Club of Canada, 2009, http://www.hovercraftcanada.ca/Default.htm.

Air Rider Hovercraft, 2021. https://airriderhovercraft.com/.

Morning Call (Patterson, New Jersey), 1969. “Bogue Introducing Land-Water-Snow Craft,” 6 March.

Ottawa Citizen, 1969. “Hovercraft starts new local industry,” 7 March. 

——————, 1969. “Ottawa shaping up as A.C.V. manufacturing centre,” 1 November.

——————, 1970. “New Kanata factory to build 9,600 hovercraft this year,” 19 January.

——————, 1971. “Hovercraft, Will it outdo snowmobile?” 18 December.

——————, 1973. “Hovercraft,” 10 February.

Ottawa Journal, 1969. “Local Firm Makes First Hovercraft,” 16 May.

——————-, 1970. “Misfortunes Dog M.H.V. Industries,” 21 March.

——————-, 1971. “Industrial Now, Pleasure Next,” 23 January.

——————-, 1971. “Air Cushion Carrier Firm Gets $100,000 Contract,” 7 June.

——————-, 1974. “Offer ‘quiet thrust package,” 12 January.

Time Magazine, 1966. “The Futurists: Looking Toward A.D. 2000,” 25 February.

——————, 1970. “Modern Living: A New Life for Hovercraft,” 19 January.

Province (Vancouver), 1969. “Miniature hovercraft put to test,” 8 March.

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