Genius Innovators, Idiotic or Inspired?

Kangaroos and Milk Trucks

Rick Dobbertin was your typical hot rod show car builder until he was punched by a kangaroo in Australia. After that, he became a raving lunatic…the kind I can’t help but to admire and hope to emulate.

Rick Dobbertin got this hairbrained idea to circumanvigate the globe. While this wasn’t all that hairbrained in the late 20th century (unlike, say, the late 15th century), it was his method that was a bit whacked out. Rather than drive across continents and take ships across oceans, he would do it all with one vehicle.

The Surface Obiter began with the carcass of a Heil stainless steel trailer designed for carrying milk from dairy to processor. Working his connections, Mr. Dobbertin was able to get a 6.5L turbodiesel V8 from GM and had it built up for marine duty. A Hydramatic transmission was installed to transfer the big diesel’s power to two of the three axles. A 22-inch propeller provided the motive force on the water.

It took Dobbertin 4.5 years and over 14,000 man-hours of labor to get the vehicle ready. A route was chosen that would take the Dobbertins from their home in New York to Miami where they would launch then head down through the Panama Canal and out to the Pacific Ocean.

They never made it that far. It floated, but it was prone to failures, including internal fuel leaks, and the air conditioner didn’t work well. Hot, frustrated, arguing and being chased by the DEA and Colombian guerrillas, the Dobbertins turned north after passing through the Panama Canal and drove back home.

Shortly after their return, Karen Dobbertin filed for divorce. Neither one was unable to buy out the other’s ownership in the Surface Orbiter, so it was put up for sale in 1999 with a $200,000 asking price.

The most impressive feat of all this? Not the labor to build such a crazy vehicle. Not the fact that it actually proved to be a decent land and sea mode of transportation. Nope. It was the fact that he convinced his wife that this was a good idea.

[Ed. Special thanks to TiberiusWise for bringing this magnificent beast up during a Facebook discussion this morning. What sparked said discussion? On my way to work this morning, I decided I want to drive around the world. Maybe not in a custom-built milk tanker, but in my Jeep. Now, I just need to convince Mrs. engineerd™ that this is a Good Idea™.]

[Image Credit: Dobbertin Enterprises]

  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

    I did not want to put this on facebook because my wife uses it too, but there is a method that I use to get things that I want (which I don't want her to discover). Basically it is to set low expectations. So in this case, really a trip around the world is a great idea. Now of course you using jeeps and toyotas and flying other places is really the sane way to do it. But if you go and ask this, it's not going to happen, she'll say it's crazy, and that will be the end of it. So keep talking about crazy ways to do it like this, or a canoe, replica viking ship, dog sleds, camels. whatever. Then after about two months, start bringing-up the sane options. See now not so crazy anymore. If you can get her to help plan it, if she can get invested in it like that, you're golden! That said, my parents know a guy that sailed around the world with his now ex-wife. It seems maybe a pattern. i say go and find-out how strong you marriage is, bon voyage!

    • Alff

      THIS is why I bought my wife a vacuum for our first married Valentine's Day.

    • I drove across country on a road trip with my ex-wife and our cat. Took 3 months for her to decide that was enough.

      I kept the cat.

  • IronBallsMcG

    I remember following the build of this thing, probably in Hot Rod.
    Prior to this project Dobbertin was well known as a car builder. His influential J2000 was really one of the first "Pro Street" cars and was completely over the top.
    <img src=""&gt;
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    Images from, which has even more oddities.

    • dmilligan

      All that gold plate, you wouldn't dare run the engine. Pity, that.

      • IronBallsMcG

        IIRC no rear suspension either.

    • Alff

      In hindsight, it's a shame that he lavished so much love on such an undeserving candidate.

      • Isn't that a little harsh? She did go along with it all the way to Panama and back before giving up.

      • IronBallsMcG

        I was in my teens when it was built and confused by the idea that it was definitely not a driver. My young mind couldn't fathom such a waste. I kept looking at the articles thinking that I had missed the e.t.'s. After this thing it seemed as if every ill-conceived idea was acceptable as long as it looked cool.

    • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

      WOW! A few months ago I was in a speed shop in Pontiac IL and from the old magazine articles it seemed that they were building pro street cars way back in the '70s even. Though those went down drag strips, lots of great pictures with tire smoke 🙂

      • IronBallsMcG

        Those are the ones I could get behind.
        I always associate the Dobbertin J2000 with the beginning of a movement that shifted from performance to, well, gold plated engines.

        • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

          Yup I meant wow as in yuck but I try to stay positive 😉 You're absolutely right.

  • P161911

    Sounds more like a good way to convince Mrs. engineerd to ask you for a divorce. It worked for Dobbertin.

    Maybe start with a Point Barrow, Alaska to southern tip of Chile jaunt.

  • <img src=""&gt;

    Was Dobbertin also travelling with a jetpack and a talking chimp?

  • dmilligan

    My, that's a fine looking craft. Too bad he couldn't work out the operational kinks. If he'd done that and added a couple of laser cannons for the DEA and FARC, they could have had a nice little voyage.

  • I remember reading all about that thing in the late 90s.

    Then I vaguely remember hearing it all fell apart (lot literally, at least not completely).

    Seriously, though…how do you get that far into a build/plan/trip and then realize you're not cut out for each other?

    • I've taken every one of my potential life-mates on road trips from hell to crash the dreaded love/hate wall. Traveling has a way of ferreting out incompatibility issues like no other.

      The first one unfortunately was AFTER we got married, and after 3 months on the road she went home to mama. We both thought we were soul mates, but that road trip killed everything. This taught me a valuable lesson that I applied to every relationship since. Few are able to roll with the punches, and even fewer are able to let you live the little stupid things down when you get back home.

      Super-spouse passed with flying colors, even when our rented vehicle ran out of gas in the middle of BFE late at night. She smiled and shrugged, then the little 4'10" lady offered to help push. I married her immediately.