11th May 2020

The Amphicar: The Life Aquatic

It is a car, is it a boat? Well, yes, it’s actually both. Welcome to the slightly damp world of the Amphicar.

Designed and built in West Germany, yet surprisingly popular in America, the quirky car enjoyed notoriety in the early to mid-Sixties and, despite the fact that fewer than 4,000 were made, secured a place in history.

Letting owners enjoy the life aquatic without taking the plunge on a boat, it promised: ‘A sportscar that swims’. However, the term sportscar was a little optimistic as the Amphicar used the diminutive 43hp 1147cc Standard SC engine, originally designed for the Triumph Herald 1200. Fast it was not.

First appearing in late 1961, the vast majority of cars were shipped to the United States but towards the end of its life, it was also on sale in parts of Europe. In the end, however, its high price meant it was little more than a plaything for the wealthy, and production ended when it couldn’t be modified to meet a change in US safety regulations.

Its German heritage is no surprise when you realise that it’s a descendant of the Volkswagen Schwimmwagen, the amphibious four-wheel drive off-roader that was developed for the German Army during the Second World War.

The Amphicar had fans in high places and received a Presidential seal of approval, with Lyndon B. Johnson an enthusiastic owner. Used on his Texas ranch, he’s reputed to have pranked guests by driving into the property’s lake before revealing the car’s party piece.

Despite the complexity of the challenge, the Amphicar provided a simple solution. The watertight steel bodywork doubled as the hull, and was shaped underneath to ease its passage. With the engine mounted at the back, driving the rear wheels through a four-speed manual transmission, the car could muster 70mph on road. When it was time to set sail, the same engine drove a pair of propellers at the rear, with a lever selecting either forward or reverse. It was possible to drive in an out of water by selecting first gear at the same time as the propellers were engaged.

Unlike a conventional boat, the Amphicar had no rudder - its direction on both land and sea set by the front wheels. As you might imagine this meant that it wasn’t exactly responsive while on open water but with a maximum speed of just seven knots, a leisurely cruise was all that was possible anyway.

Despite its obvious limitations, the Amphicar did undertake some notable adventures in the Sixties, which included successfully navigating the Yukon River in Alaska and crossing the English Channel!

It wasn’t all plain sailing for owners, as the car required more intense maintenance than a normal vehicle, including an intensive round of greasing after each voyage. Also, the steel body was somewhat prone to rust. There was also the danger of being lost at sea – if the watertight seals on the two doors failed the crew had to hope the built-in bilge pump could cope until they reached dry land.

Do you have memories of the Amphicar, or have you seen one of the few survivors? Let us know in the comments section below.