The DSO was an amphibious vehicle that started out as a milk tanker and, believe it or not, that’s the least impressive thing about it. It was also built inside a home garage and the basement, was quite impressive in terms of performance, and was able to cover some 33,000 miles (53,108 km) of what should have been its record-breaking global circumnavigation, 30,000 miles (48,280 km) of them on land and 3,000 miles (4,828 km) on water.
The DSO also brought financial ruin onto its builder and, perhaps ironically considering he built it so it would bring back the spark in his marriage, led to a bitter divorce. Traces of it have gone cold since 2004, when it sold at a private auction to a Chicago-based collector for an undisclosed amount, so all we’re left with today is this very inspiring and bittersweet story about how it became a legend.
That is to say, Rick Dobbertin was no beginner when he set out to do something else – something that would write history and, at the same time, double as the most romantic expedition vehicle ever built. As he would tell Extra TV in 1999 (see the video at the bottom of the page), though he and Karen had only been married briefly when the idea for the DSO took roots, he wanted something to bring back the spark.
The DSO was designed to be able to circumnavigate the globe without any outside assistance. It was a land-and-water vehicle shaped like a torpedo because it still retained the shape of the 1959 stainless steel Heil milk tanker on which it was based, but with a custom nose that housed the tech-packed cockpit. The project was completed in four and a half years and some 14,000 man hours, ate up the couple’s budget, and forced them to build an extension to the garage because it would no longer fit.
The DSO sat on a chassis Dobbertin had built himself, and was more than 32 feet (9.7 meters) long, 8 feet (2.4 meters) high, and over 7 feet (2.1 meters) wide. Total weight was of almost 1 ton, and it carried a huge fuel tank with a 1,287-liter (340-gallon) capacity.
Power came from a 6.5-liter GM turbodiesel engine converted for marine use, mated to a four-speed automatic transmission and a 4x4 transfer case and Dana axles for road use, and a single 22-inch propeller for propulsion on water. Inside the cockpit were dual controls, with the steering wheel on the left meant for land operation, and the one on the right for water controls. Top speeds vary depending on which source you believe, but on land, it seems that the DSO could hit 65-70 mph (105-113 kph) easily, and up to 10 knots (11.5 mph / 18.5 kph) on water.
On December 19, 1993, after major delays and more financial trouble, the DSO left from Syracuse, New York on its way to Miami, where it would be launched to water on a planned one-year journey that would see Rick and Karen travel around the globe. Project Earth-Trek is what they called it. That would turn out to be a pipe dream, because the vehicle wouldn’t make it that far, though it stayed on the road far longer than planned.
Crossing the border, the DSO run into serious trouble right away. It had to be rescued by the Coast Guard after nearly capsizing while docked in Puerto Rico, got pulled over by the DEA and the FBI, was briefly captured by guerrillas in Columbia, and had several major malfunctions. As Rick and Karen soldiered on, the money ran out, and tensions between the two built up. After more than a year, they decided to return to the U.S. to seek additional funding, and would travel the country selling autographs, photos and interviews.
They never got the chance to leave the country again and, by June 1996, financially broke and quite fed up with each other, they gave up – both on the DSO and their marriage. In 1999, the home-built vehicle was offered at auction for an asking price of $200,000.
The Dobbertin Surface Orbiter, once a very bold dream turned into an equally bold machine, has its own page in the history of custom, home-built vehicles. Though it never came close to its stated goal, including that of rekindling the spark between Rick and Karen, it traveled to 28 countries and 38 states, and landed the record of being the first car to pass through the Panama Canal. It also proved that, where Rick was concerned, if he could dream it, he could build it.