Ken Chambers

How can you have the most fun from a Sunday afternoon drive? Why, when you’re driving an Amphicar, of course. Amphicar—the car that swims.

Conceived in Germany in the early 1960s, Amphicar Corporation sought to fulfill a burgeoning recreation market, primarily in the United States. Amphicars were manufactured beginning in 1961 and sold in the U.S. until 1967. Of the approximately 4000 vehicles built there are estimated to be about 900 remaining today, many of which are “parts” cars helping to keep the rest of the fleet running and floating. Only about a hundred are thought to be road and water worthy.

With financial backing from the same organization that controlled BMW, the Amphicar was designed with standard and specialty automotive parts from Germany, Italy, Holland, Great Britain and other European countries. This gives Amphicar the distinction of being one of the first “world” cars.

A relatively high sticker price of about $3400 (by comparison, the VW beetle sold for about $1200 at the time), high maintenance cost and poor sales promotion resulted in lackluster sales. With relatively high manufacturing costs and an annual production of only about 500 vehicles, Amphicar Corporation could not afford to meet the ever increasing motor vehicle and boating standards imposed by the Department of Transportation and the U.S. Coast Guard. Amphicar Corporation ceased production in 1968.
Despite several other attempts to produce amphibious vehicles, Amphicar remains the best and only production amphibious private passenger vehicle in existence.

I became interested in the Amphicar about fifteen years ago when I attended a seaplane fly-in convention and saw a pair of them motoring about nearby. When I found my attention fixed more on those little cars in the water than on the seaplanes, I knew then that I needed to have one. Several years later, I attempted to locate an Amphicar. The local library provided me with a phone number of the Amphicar Club of America located in New York. They, in turn, referred me to a gentleman in Los Angeles who sold new Amphicars in the 1960s and still handles parts for them. He sent me a sellers list. 

I found an Amphicar in southern California whose owner had begun restoration but who had lost interest in the project. After getting the car and various parts home, I set out to finish the restoration. Much of the work has been completed, but more needs to be done. Faced with still a few more years until completion, I recently happened upon another complete and water-ready Amphicar. Besides getting to enjoy the working car, it’s a great help in the restoration process to see how everything is supposed to go together.

Amphicar is truly a vehicle only an enthusiast can love. Due largely to the compromises of being both a car and a boat, critics in those glossy collector car magazines have been known to remark that the Amphicar handles more like a boat on land and a car in the water. On the other hand, it does what no other vehicle can do. You might say it’s both the fastest boat on the road as well as the fastest car in the water. Whatever your persuasion, Amphicar does require a great deal of tender loving care and constant maintenance to keep it driving and floating as intended. Water gets everywhere and plays havoc with the electrical system, interior, brakes, seals and other things as well as causing rust. Remember that the Amphicar was designed and built without the improvements of modern materials that stand up today much better to the elements. It’s fair to say that for every hour of driving, and especially floating, an hour or more is required for maintenance.

Putting aside all the inconveniences, the Amphicar is downright fun and never fails to attract attention. Interesting looks and questions from people are always good for a laugh. Many wonder why that car has boat registration numbers on it. Some ask how did you get that car to float and do those propellers really work? Mouths are frequently agape and fingers point when witnessing a car driving down the boat ramp and into the water, only to see it motor off out of sight. Others are downright fearful that someone is attempting to drive a car into the water. I heard one story about emergency rescuers being called in because it was reported a car had driven into the lake. 

Probably the most gratifying experience is giving rides to kids at the lake who are bubbling over with excitement. Some experience initial trepidation and hold on tight knowing they are in a car about to drive into the water. Moments after discovering it really does float, their fears quickly turn into utter exhilaration and delight.

If you see me at the lakes be sure to stop by and take a look at an interesting part of automotive history. Hop in, the water’s fine.


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