by Bill Vance
The Amphicar aspired to be both a car and a boat. It was the embodiment of countless futuristic stories in magazines like Popular Science or Popular Mechanics predicting ever more breathtaking breakthroughs in cars-as-boats or even cars-as-planes. The Amphicar actually brought these fantasies down to earth (sea?) in the early 1960s in the form of a production amphibious car.
The German-built Amphicar was apparently inspired by the amphibious version of the World War II Volkswagen Kubelwagen, their “Jeep,” known, appropriately enough, as the Schwimmwagen. In fact designer Hans Trippel, a pioneer in amphibious vehicles, reportedly had originally intended to use the VW drivetrain in the Amphicar, but marine regulations prohibited the use of an air-cooled engine.
After considering several alternatives, the best power-to- weight ratio compromise was found to be the British 1147 cc (70 cubic inch) overhead valve inline-four from the Triumph Herald car. It develops a modest but adequate 43 horsepower at 4750 rpm, and is mounted in the rear of the steel-bodied car-boat behind the four- seater convertible’s passenger compartment.
Industrie Werke Karlesruhe of West Berlin was formed in 1961 to manufacture Amphicars, and soon moved to Karlsruhe where most of them were built. They had to be licensed as both a car and a boat, thus, in addition to the normal road going requirements, they had to carry navigation lights, and such safety equipment as oars (fold-up types under the front seat), flares, lifejackets and a bilge pump.
There was a lot of scepticism about the Amphicar’s sea-going capability until Trippel arranged for one to cross the English Channel in 1962.
The Amphicar was introduced at the 1959 Geneva auto show, and was built from 1961 to ’68, during which some 3,800 were produced. They were largely unchanged over that period.
The performance of the Amphicar was modest, whether on land or water. Car and Driver magazine tested one in November, 1967, and recorded its road performance as a leisurely zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time of 43 seconds, and estimated the top speed at 105 km/h (65 mph) for the 1043 kg (2300 lb.) vehicle. As a boat they reported a top speed of six knots, or about 11 km/h (7 mph).
Amphicars never really caught on, either as cars or boats, but they are a wonderful novelty. One is owned by Ken McGowen, formerly of Toronto, now of Bahamas, and another by his friend George Cohon, chairman of McDonalds Restaurants of Canada. Ken’s licence plate is DRY WET, and George’s is WET DRY.
During a test drive in Ken’s car I found that on land the Amphicar rolls along with a gentle rocking motion and is somewhat prone to wandering about; its aerodynamics are certainly not in the Mercedes-Benz class.
The low gearing makes the little engine churn out lots of revs to keep up with traffic. And while it may be capable of more than 96 km/h (60 mph) it definitely feels more at home in the 65 to 72 km/h (40 to 45 mph) range.
But one always has the impression that the Amphicar would rather be a boat, when on city streets it feels a little like, dare we say, a fish out of water.
Changing the Amphicar from car to boat is surprisingly easy. After securing the specially sealed doors with the large lever at each lower rear corner, the clutch is depressed and a small lever beside the main four-speed shifter engages the twin nylon propellers. The car is driven straight into the water in first gear where the wheels keep it moving until it floats off the bottom and the propellers take over. First gear is then disengaged.
One soon adapts to the change in status from driver to sailor as the Amphicar chugs along nicely at four or five knots. In spite of seeming to sit very low in the water, there is still about 500 mm (20 in.) of freeboard. There is no rudder so steering is accomplished, vaguely, in the water the same way it is on land – with the front wheels.
First time pilots tend to flail away on the brake pedal, which of course does no good at all, except perhaps psychologically. A hand throttle is provided to relieve the strain on the right foot; cruise control in the true sense of the word. To return to terra firma one simply re-engages first gear drives out of the water. The propellers are then disengaged.
There is one warning that I feel obliged to pass on. If you are a shrinking violet, have nothing whatsoever to do with the Amphicar because it attracts phenomenal attention, including waves, smiles, and looks of disbelief, particularly when in the Amphicar-as-boat mode.
And once one is back on land, true to its offbeat character, the Amphicar emits a very unladylike stream of water out of the rear (stern?) as the bilge pump does its necessary work.