As far as automotive ideas go, the Amphicar never really held water, even if it could float on it. However, this unusual amphibian somehow made it into production and actually managed to attract a small knot of nautically minded buyers.
These hardy souls thought nothing of venturing off terra firma in search of oddball adventure, even though the going was slow and not without some peril. Above all, though, the Amphicar made people smile.
The vehicle was the brainchild of Hans Trippel, a German engineer who helped build amphibious landing craft during the Second World War. Following the war, Trippel spent much of his time developing prototypes of a civilian automobile that could also double as a boat.
By the late 1950s, the erstwhile inventor had hooked up with Harold Quandt, whose family controlled part of BMW.
Quandt put up the money to get the Amphicar project underway, helped secure factory space in West Germany, negotiated the purchase of necessary parts from other manufacturers and helped establish a distribution network for the finished product.
Both men agreed that North America offered the greatest sales potential for a leisure-oriented product such as the Amphicar and most of the production was aimed at prospective buyers on the left-hand side of the Atlantic Ocean.
For motivation, an English Triumph-Herald-built 43-horsepower 1.2 litre engine was installed behind the back wheels. It was connected to the rear axle via a special Porsche 356-based two-part transmission that provided four forward gears (plus reverse) on land and a two-speed (forward and reverse) gearbox that turned a pair of propellers during the flotation phase.
Top land speed was in the 65 – 70 mph range while around seven knots (about 8 mph) was all you could expect in the water.
Most of the suspension pieces were supplied by Mercedes-Benz while an Italian company provided the moulds used for the stamped-steel body panels.
The 14-foot-long Amphicar was built tall enough and given 10-inches of ground clearance so it could go up and down a steep boat launch ramp as well as maintain buoyancy without being swamped. It also required the necessary marine-approved running lights and safety equipment (such as oars and an electric bilge pump equipped with a blower to remove gasoline fumes from the engine bay).
Special door seals and latches were also necessary to reduce – if not entirely eliminate – water leaks. A folding canvas top was standard on every Amphicar.
Front and rear bench seats provided space for up to four riders/mariners plus room for a small amount of gear stuffed inside the bonnet/hood at the front.
The Amphicar drove pretty much like a regular car on dry land, although its high centre of gravity and rear-biased weight distribution demanded slow cornering speeds.
Getting wet was the easy part. Captains would simply drive into the water, shift the transmission into neutral and engage the props using the separate two-speed shifter. The front wheels acted as rudders, but first-timers had to note that stabbing the brake pedal was useless in the water.
The Amphicar was launched – literally – in 1961 at both the New York Auto Show and the Miami Boat Show, attracting much curiosity but few serious buyers at either event. Priced in the vicinity of $3,000 (similar to a Chevrolet Impala or a decent outboard ski boat) the Amphicar’s part-car, part-dinghy novelty status generated only limited appeal.
Other than its quirky nature and considerable maintenance requirements, the Amphicar’s all-steel body was corrosion-prone, particularly in the US North-Eastern rust-belt states and especially when driven into saltwater.
Although reports vary, it seems that fewer than 4,000 Amphicars were produced, with 3,500 of those reaching North America.
What ultimately spelt the Amphicar’s doom were the same safety and emissions regulations that forced other car importers out of North America by the late 1960s.
The accidental death of Harold Quandt in 1967 also ended Hans Trippel’s key financial backing, further hastening the vehicle’s demise.
Today, a small but loyal group of Amphicar owners around the world continues to keep in touch, holding rallies (or swim meets, as some are called), sharing restoration tips and swapping stories about the fun times they’ve had with their motorised personal flotation devices.