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The Fastest Boat On The Road And Other Amphibians

Along with flying cars, amphibious vehicles would have to make the list of highly desirable vehicles from sci-fi movies, books and graphic novels. We are still waiting for the flying car but progress has been made in the amphibious vehicle department.

In fact, a lot of progress towards amphibious vehicles was made back in the World War 2 and Cold War era, with the two most successful being the Schwimmwagen and the Amphicar, being produced during WW2 and in the early 1960s respectively. Both were made in Germany.

SchwimmwagenThe Schwimmwagen was based on a Volkwagen  (in fact, the Volkswagen and Porsche  factories were responsible for making them). As they were made for the army, they still hold the record for being the most widely produced amphibious car, with around 14,000 originally turned out. However, less than 200 remain today, although the few that are in existence are highly prized collectors’ items that only occasionally risk going onto the water. What happened to the rest of them is uncertain. Possibly some of them sank. Or they may have been bombed to smithereens.

On land, the Schwimmwagen was a very rough and ready 4×4 with a four-speed manual gearbox and a 25-hp 4-cylinder 1.1-L engine. Four-wheel-drive was only available in reverse and in first gear. When the Schwimmwagen trundled down into the water, the driver lowered the three-blade propeller at the back, which engaged with the driveshaft and got the vehicle moving through the water. Ground clearance was a pretty decent 11 inches and it seated about three people.  Creature comforts were next to nothing, this being a military vehicle, although it did have run-flat tyres and a spare wheel mounted on the front bonnet – or should you call it the bow? An American intelligence report described it as looking like “a small civilian sports car”, which suggests that 1940s sports cars must have been rather rough and ready.

The Amphicar was a peacetime vehicle and it was intended for mass production. Sadly, only 4000 were produced; again, these are now highly prized collectors’ items.  The Amphicar was a two-door cabriolet with a Triumph Herald engine under the bonnet/bow. This engine was a 1.2-L 32-kW affair that was harnessed to a 4-speed manual transmission. The Amphicar was capable of getting up to a respectable 70 mph on the land and 7 knots on the water, which caused the designers to call it the Model 770. It wasn’t a speedster but, as one owner described it, it was still “the fastest boat on the road”. You can’t have everything, after all. In spite of one review saying that it was a vehicle that “revolutionized drowning”, it was reasonably good on the water, and has been able to cross the English Channel and cross the Yukon River. Well maintained Amphicars are still taken for little jaunts across water quite safely (or at least as safely as any other boat) by enthusiast clubs.

Amphicar Eagle High Res Image

The most famous owner of the Amphicar by far was former US President Lyndon B. Johnson. When not dealing with hassles to do with the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and trying to beat the Soviets in the space race, LBJ liked to drive his Amphicar downhill into a lake in front of unsuspecting people while yelling that his brakes had failed for the fun of watching his victims panic.

Other amphibious vehicles, past and present can be found on the road, in car museums and occasionally on the water, such as the American military DUKW (inevitably called the Duck) and the more recent Gibbs amphibious vehicles (Aquada, Quadski and Humdinga/Amphitruck). They certainly look like a lot of fun, although they’re not in the same league as James Bond’s aquatic Lotus Esprit. Nevertheless, I think that you and I will probably be tying the kayak onto the roof rails or hitching up the boat trailer for some time to come.

Safe and happy driving (or boating),


One comment

  1. Bob says:

    The Bond machine wasn’t a real car like the others, only a movie prop. The unit seen in the water was just a shell with black window grills to hide the empty interior and diver inside. It was actually a rough bit of kit in the flesh.

    November 26th, 2015 at 9:43 am