Since the automobile was born, ambitious inventors tried to make them swim as well. There were many unsuccessful attempts that ended in deep water. Only one non-military amphibious vehicle was ever put into production on a commercial base: the German Amphicar. I cruised in one on the Rhine.
‘Nein, nein’. The two anglers are visibly agitated. Dropping their fishing rods and gesticulating wildly. Mario just laughs, waves to them and continues accelerating his small white convertible sportscar down a concrete boat ramp towards the water. Finally diving into the River Rhine with a huge splash.
What at first sight looks like a suizide attempt or action stunt is actually quite normal for an Amphicar. Owner Mario pushes the clutch pedal, shifts the land transmission into neutral, as there is no point of spinning the wheels in water, and engages the two nylon propellors in the back, with a second gear stick. The transmission drives the rear wheels through a unique two-part land/water gearbox, Mario explains enthusiastically – and continues. It was built by Hermes, who also manufactured the 356 Porsche gearboxes. It allows the wheels and propellors to be operated either independently or simultaneously. The land-transmission is a four-speed plus reverse unit, quite similiar to the ones used in old Volkswagen beetles. The water transmission is a two-speed single forward and reverse gears. I am impressed that everything still works so perfectly, after all, the car was build half a century ago. ‘Watch now, the front wheels act as rudders’, and Mario turns the steering wheel.
The car seems to be watertight as well. The two doors have rubber seals around their edges, says Mario, like a fridge. And a second door handle to pull it really tight. The fun-loving guy organizes unusual, amphibian trips on and along the Rhine for guests and knows everything about the iconic vehicle, he loves so much.
Before we took to the water, Mario did a visual check of all the vital parts on land. The most important thing to remember is making sure, that the hood and bilge plug are secured. Without them the car will flood immediately and turn into the most aerodynamic anchor ever.
It was once voted by Time magazine as one of the 50 worst cars of all time. Despite having been described as slow in water and on the road, as a combination of a lousy boat and a lousy car, or as the peacetime descendant of the Nazi Schwimmwagen, the Amphicar is today a very sought-after collector’s item and classic car.
Of the 3878 units produced (less than 100 of them in RHD), approximately 2000 survived, about 600 of them in driving and swimming condition. Almost all of them – 3700 cars – were exported to the States. But the Amphicar was either too expensive or ahead of its time, but instead of the predicted 40 000, the company could only sell less than 10%. The later models were even cheaper than the older ones. Initial prices ranged from 2800 to 3300 US-$, depending on the year, the last ones were literally given away for 900 US-$! Today, an Amphicar in good condition will set you back at least 80 000 US-$.
On the banks of the Rhine, some pedestrians are almost loosing their sausage dogs, while gasping open-mouthed at the little white car in the middle of the river. After standing in a traffic jam for an hour on the way to the water, we’ve got space here. ‘Water calms you, doesn’t it?” ‘Yes, Mario, indeed’. Until one of those gigantic motor barges approaches, causing tidal waves, washing over the bonnet and splashing water into the car.
I am actually at the wheel right now and instinctively hit the brake pedal, causing Mario to laugh his head off. ‘Hey, man, we’re in the water, it’s a boat now, you’ll have to throw the props in reverse’.
Unlike other Amphicar owners, who transport their swimming treasures on trailers to amphibious and other gatherings, Mario and his girlfriend drive. Even across the Alps. Once, on the top of the old Gotthard pass, Mario tells me, there was this beautiful glacier lake, in the middle of a Swiss nature reserve, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. He handed the camera to his girlfriend and said, sorry, I can’t resist. If he wouldn’t have made it out again in time, he would most probably still rot in a Swiss prison today. Now the poster-size photograph is decorating his living room wall.
I am really starting to like the vehicle. I love quirky classic cars, that’s why I am driving an Original New York Checker taxi myself. One of those Amphicars would go so nicely with it. And back in Cape Town, I am already fantasizing about cruising around Chappies from Hout Bay to Noordhoek – in the water. Or doing the Robben Island trip in my own car.
Amphicar facts – what are you sinking about?
• The car was made by Amphicar and assembled in plants in Lübeck (the Lübeck city gate is on the steering wheel knob) and later Berlin, by Industrie-Werke Karlsruhe AG (IWK), a subsidary of Deutsche Waggon und Maschinenfabriken GmbH (DWM), the same firm that produced Luger pistols in the Second World War.
• Amphicars originally came with white-knob Blaupunkt Frankfurt radios, which are very sought after by Porsche 356 owners and various other classic German car enthusiasts, therefore prices are quite high.
• Optional Amphicar spare parts included: anchors, flares, paddles, fire extinguishers, AM/FM short wave/marine band radios and even a shower, that connected to the bilge pump.
• The cars came in four colour options:
– regatta red with white/charcoal interieur & white top
– lagoon blue with yellow/white interieur & white top
– beach sand white with red/white interieur & black top
– fjord green with apricot/white interieur & white top
There was also at least one black car and some emerald green ones for the Berlin police.
• Design costs amounted to about 5 Mio. US-$ in the late 1950s.
• The body was totally watertight, but made of steel. So rust was and is a problem.
• The water-cooled (don’t laugh) 1.2-litre engine (28kW/39hp) came from a Triumph Herald, many body parts were sourced from Borgward, braking system and suspension is Mercedes, transmission internals and fuel system from a Porsche 356. Lucas 12 Volt electrical system, horn, lighting and switches were supplied by Hella & Bosch.
• In the States the Amphicar was refered to as the 770, because it reached 7 mph on water and 70 mph on land.
• In 1967 Amphicar was owned by the Quandt group, who today still owns a controlling share of BMW.
• The Amphicar has the highest rear fins of all production cars. Yes, even higher than those of a 1959 Cadillac.
• The car has tremendous traction and ability, combined with a very high ground clearance it was brilliant on snow.
• The car left the factory with complete maritime equipment, like water navigation lights and an electric bilge pump, to expel any water that splashed or leaked on board.
• Top speed was 124 km/h on land and 12 km/h on water – not enough to pull a water-skier; acceleration 0-100 km/h 27,3 seconds, weight 1050 kg, ground clearance 245 mm, length 433 cm, consumption 9,3 litres/100 km (land), 3,5 to 12 litres per hour (water).
• When the company went under in 1967, an American, Hugh Gordon, bought all the available Amphicar spare parts and inventory. He is up until today the best parts source for Amphicar owners and restorers worldwide (http://gordonimports.com).
• Be careful, when buying a ‘rough’ Amphicar, a new transmission alone will set you back a staggering 15 140 US-$, plus shipping from the States.
History of amphibious cars – like a duck takes to water
The history of amphibious vehicles can be traced back to the automobile roots. As soon as the first cars were driving on land, people tried to make them swim. Hanns Trippel (1908-2001) is widely regarded as the father of the Schwimmwagen (swimming car). He was an industrial designer and started his career as a race driver. He wasn’t that successful at going fast, but had this idea, that a streamlined racing car shape should work in water as well. So he added a propellor to the rear of his sportscar and made it watertight. His first water demonstration was in September 1934 – and the car didn’t sink.
In December 1935 his second amphibious prototype was shown to Adolf Hitler. After meeting the Führer with the tiny moustache, the ambitious amphibian inventor was sponsored by the German Wehrmacht (army). Several prototypes, culminating in the Trippel SG6 (schwimmfähiger Geländewagen = floatable 4×4, 6th car). It was first produced in the German town of Homburg/Saar, then in the Bugatti factory in Molsheim, France after Ettore fled the invading Nazis. Trippel employed about 3000 people and his volume of sales was about 25 Mio. Marks.
During the war the army needed more torpedos, which were then produced at the Bugatti factory instead of amphibious vehicles. The army also favoured another car manufacturer, that went amphibious as well. Porsche not only invented the beetle, but also the VW Schwimmwagen, with four-wheel drive. It was smaller than the Trippel and more agile. And based on the mass-produced, simple beetle, spares were not a problem. Altogether 15 000 VW-Schwimmwagen were made during the war, compared to about 800 Trippels. The American army responded with an amphibious answer to the Schwimmwagen, in the shape of the Jeep-based Ford GPA.
For the post-war German army Porsche designed the four-wheel drive 597 Jagdwagen, of which the first prototypes could swim, but had no water propulsion. Only a couple of dozen were ever build, as the DKW Munga was chosen as the new German Bundeswehr vehicle.
After the war Hanns Trippel was imprisoned by the French for supporting the Nazi regime. He was released after three years and immediately went back to the drawing board. But the Allies didn’t share his life-long passion for amphibious vehicles. When they threatened him with more years behind bars, he switched back to land-based car designs. Developing a tiny non-floatable sports coupé with gullwing doors! Yes, Trippel is the inventor of the Gullwing doors. His had in fact two joints, so that, when the doors opened, they were folding up above the car roof, not spreading out like wings. He subsequently sold his wing door concept to Mercedes for the ridiculous amount of 5000 Marks.
When the allies relaxed their attitude towards Schwimmwagen, Trippel thought, come hell or high water and started new amphibious projects. The Alligator in 1957 was the beginning of the Amphicar story. Trippel will always be remembered for the iconic Amphicar, his most successful and attractive amphibious vehicle.
Amphicar production started in 1962 and ended in 1967. Despite being the only non-military amphibious vehicle ever put into production on a commercial base (more than 50 produced), it wasn’t a commercial success. By penetrating the American market the expected sales figures lay in the region of 40 000 units. But only 3878 were ever made. The car was ahead of its time and it was simply too expensive.
Hanns Trippel spent a huge family fortune in an effort to realize his dreams. Up until his death he was developing amphibious prototypes, though non as successful as the Amphicar.
The aluminium-bodied Amphiranger, resembling a Mercedes G model, shown at the Geneva motor show in 1983, was also a Trippel idea and attracted a lot of attention. At the time regular 4x4s were costing around 30 000 to 35 000 Marks and the Amphiranger, despite its stunning abilities, couldn’t compete with its price tag of 95 000 Marks.
The latest in amphibious vehicle news came a couple of years ago, when in 2004 an enthusiastic Richard Branson crossed the English Channel in the high-speed amphibian Gibbs Aquada vehicle, with retractable wheels and a powerful engine. Breaking the amphibious car Channel crossing record of 6 hours, held by an Amphicar, which did the trip in the 1960s, in a time of 1 hour, 40 minutes and 6 seconds. The Aquada, which resembles older Mazda MX-5s, can reach 160 km/h on land and 50 km/h on water. For years there were speculations of whether it will finally go into production or not. But instead of buying a new, door-less Aquada for $200 000, I would rather get a nice car and a boat with a trailer. Or a beautifully restored Amphicar. It might be slower, but at least it has character.
World Wide Wet
www.kultauto.de Here, you can book your Rhine river Amphicar cruise with Marco Schuh from Cologne.
www.schwimmauto.de The most complete list of all swimming cars ever built.
www.amphicar.com & www.amphicars.com Two great sites dedicated to the iconic Amphicar.
www.amphicars.com/schwimmauto/englisch/trippel.htm Complete list with photographs of all the Trippel cars and prototypes ever made.
www.gibbsamphibians.com Infos on the high-speed amphibian car Aquada.
http://fastamphibians.com Dedicated to swift amphibious vehicles.
Where to stay in Germany
I can recommend three really nice places:
V8 HOTEL in der Motorworld Stuttgart, Graf Zeppelin Platz, 71034 Böblingen, phone: +49 7031 306988-0, Fax: +49 7031 306988-888, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.v8hotel.de
An absolute must for petrol-heads, situated in Germany’s oldest airport, with car-themed rooms. Surrounded by automobile shops, from vintage car dealers to Ferrari, Bentley and Lamborghini dealerships.
Art Fabrik Hotel Wuppertal, Bockmühle 16-24, 42289 Wuppertal, phone: +49 202 2837-0, Fax: +49 202 2837-100, email@example.com, www.art-fabrik-hotel.de
An old brick-faced factory building was converted into a quirky art hotel, where all rooms are designed and decorated by a different artist. Very cool.
Hotel Rebstock, Neubaustr. 7, 97070 Würzburg, phone: +49 0931-30930, Fax: +49 0931-3093-100, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rebstock.com.
The oldest hotel in one of Germany’s prettiest town. The rooms are very modern though and all major sights are in walking distance.