22 April 2016

Sink or Swim: A Beach Car Tries a Comeback

While flying cars remain mostly grounded, seemingly always “in testing,” the world’s first – and only, so far – mass-produced amphibious passenger car celebrates its 55th birthday this year. Alas, the German-built Amphicar only survived briefly, sinking from the market after roughly 3,900 were sold from 1961 through ‘68, nearly 80 percent in North America.

“It’s the ultimate beach car, because you can drive it into the water,” said Mike Clark, president of the International Amphicar Owner’s Club. Clark has owned an Amphicar since 1993.

The surf-and-turf Amphicar sprang from the mind of Hans Trippel, who built a small amphibious vehicle for the German military during World War II, though in far smaller numbers than Volkswagen’s Type 166 Schwimmwagen amphibian. In 1961, IWKA, part of the Quandt industrial conglomerate that rescued BMW in the 1950s, began producing the Amphicar 770. With its convertible top, tailfins and bright color combinations, the jaunty Amphicar was aimed primarily at the North American market. The company optimistically planned on building 20,000 per year.

A specially sealed body made the Amphicar buoyant, and an onboard bilge pump ejected any water that splashed in. The rear-mounted 1.2-liter in-line four-cylinder engine from Triumph of Britain produced 43 horsepower. The four-speed manual transmission used a power takeoff to turn dual rear props, in forward or reverse. In the water, the front wheels acted as rudders. The 770 model name indicated the vehicle’s top speed of 7 mph on water and 70 on the road.

“Trippel intended it as an everyday car,” Clark said. “Ads pitched it to women or showed families on picnics by the river. But it’s dreadfully uncomfortable.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson owned an Amphicar, but that endorsement didn’t seem to help sales. Price was an obstacle. And the Amphicar’s rose from $2,800 to $3,200 by the time sales ended – nearly double a Volkswagen Beetle’s.

There’s some irony in an Amphicar’s Achilles’ heel: A steel body that rusts. Even so, Clark guesses that there could be 500 Amphicars left, and they have been hot items on the auction circuit. Remarkably, getting parts is not a problem. Gordon Imports in California bought up parts stocks decades ago and also developed improved replacement parts, Clark explained.

The Amphicar club hosts numerous “swim-ins” around the country, the largest taking place in July in Ohio.

Inspired by the Amphicar but underwhelmed by its performance in water, Dave March and Fred Selby began designing a high-speed amphibian in 1999. Their WaterCar Panther, built in Fountain Valley, Calif., finally debuted in 2013, and so far they’ve built “more than 50,” according to Selby.

The WaterCar's body is fiberglass. And while it weighs about 3,000 pounds, a rear-mounted Honda 3.7-liter V-6 powers a jet drive that propels the Panther up to 46 mph on water! It’s sold as a kit car – with the engine for $155,000 or without for $126,000 – the latter choice a necessity for registration in some states.

“This is a recreational vehicle, not a daily driver,” Selby said.

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