Dead-End Technologies: Amphicar

Amphibious Cars

Although its technology first came about during World War II, the Amphicar drove poorly on both pavement and water.

Sometimes there will be an automotive concept or technology which fails to evolve at first but later gains widespread use. The turbochargers found on select models of the Chevy Corvair make a good example of this, one which we previously devoted a whole series to. This series will examine some of these as well as a few which completely failed to take off at all. The Amphicar would be one of the latter, an obviously absurd idea which wouldn’t have been great even if it worked.

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The Amphicar has its roots in the Second World War. Wartime conditions have a way of speeding up vehicle development, especially when it comes to experimental vehicle types. During this conflict, British engineering efforts successfully made a flotation system for the American M4 Sherman tank, as a means of dealing with the unique conditions of the Normandy landings. But the far more important amphibious vehicle to come out of the conflict was the Volkswagen Type 166, the most-produced amphibious vehicle of all time. This was based on the Kubelwagen military vehicle, which in civilian form would eventually earn the nickname "The Thing".

The Type 166 was named the "Schwimmwagen", proof that though German might not be prettiest of languages, it can still be awesome. The Amphicar was largely the work of two men who clearly believed the VW Schwimmwagen was a pretty neat idea. One was Harald Quandt, the stepson of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The other was Hans Trippel, at one time a fanatical Nazi and all-around terrible human being who nonetheless was responsible for the design of the gullwing doors on the legendary Mercedes-Benz 300SL.

In their zeal for producing a civilian amphibious vehicle, the pair rather overlooked some of the more important factors which had made the Type 166 so successful. Chief among these was actually being watertight. The VW design had no doors, and it had a very boat-like body, both of which aided it in staying afloat. But the Amphicar was always much more of a car than a boat, and as such, a bilge pump needed to be constantly running in order to keep it above water. This did, technically, work, although the electrical system was a positive ground system made by Lucas, so the occasional failure was inevitable.

An article in Time magazine once described it as "a vehicle that promised to revolutionize drowning". Production got underway in 1961, and made use the then-new Triumph Herald 1200’s engine. This produced 43 horsepower and was good for a 70mph top speed on land and a water speed of 7 knots. For those unfamiliar with nautical speeds, this is about as fast as a rowboat being propelled by a reasonably (but by no means exceptionally) physically fit person. The Amphicar wasn’t an especially good boat, and was only marginally better as a car, but just barely.

It is therefore absolutely no surprise that this technology never evolved any further, and that the Amphicar was the only mass-produced civilian-use amphibious car ever made. Former US President Lyndon B. Johnson owned an Amphicar, and would enjoy driving guests to his property around in it. His favorite part of this was to drive the car down a hill into a lake on the property while pretending to panic and yelling that the brakes had gone out. This prank, all by itself, would make the cost of the car worth it, but it is still a very limited application, and the Amphicar was never very popular.

Quant, the company that produced the Amphicar, had original forecasted an absurd 20,000 annual sales, but in the end sold fewer than 4,000. Production had significantly geared down by as early as 1963, but new safety regulations introduced in the US in 1968 meant that 1967 was the last year it was imported to the US. Since this had been by far the biggest market, the factory shut down in 1968. Thus ends the story of one of the most unnecessary vehicles ever made.