1961-1968 Amphicar

It hardly needs saying that amphibious motor vehicles like the 1961-1968 Amphicar have not exactly been common over the years. There are several reasons, including certain design compromises dictated by their dual-purpose nature and, typically, a resulting purchase price much higher than that of comparable cars or boats.

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1961-1968 Amphicar
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Amphicar's unique basic design was largely unchanged over seven years. The vee'd front suggests a boat's prow -- and it functions that way in the water. See more classic car pictures.

But the Amphicar is an exception. Introduced by inventor Hans Trippel at the 1959 Geneva Salon, it saw fairly high production -- 3,770 units -- over a fairly lengthy period, eight years. And it was successfully marketed in both Europe and the United States at a price that was surprisingly reasonable for a machine that could do almost everything but fly.

Unfortunately, that price was so reasonable that the venture could never fly very far, but it has left us with an appealingly versatile little vehicle that had come into its own as a bona fide collectible within two decades.

The Amphicar may have been the most commercially successful amphibian but it was far from the first. That honor likely goes to a 20-ton steam-powered monster built by Oliver Evans of Philadelphia way back in 1803. That same year, he drove his alarming contraption over a mile and a half of the city's streets and down to the banks of the Delaware River.

Of course, he didn't stop at the water's edge but drove right in and went to work. This work was accomplished by a dredge mounted on the wide-beamed, scow-like body.

Christened "Orukter Amphibolus," this vehicle ably fulfilled Evans' contractual assignment, which was to dredge space for a number of the Quaker City's first docks in what was to become a major harbor. Little more was heard of it after that.

More than a century later -- in 1917, to be exact -- William Mazzei of Seattle, Washington, designed an amphibious car of more normal size and put together a company to produce it. Called "Hydrometer," a name more appropriate for a measuring instrument than a car, it was powered by a conventional internal-combustion engine supplied by Continental.

Contemporary accounts describe the Hydrometer (some sources list the name as "Hydromotor") as looking more like a boat than a car, but it did have four wheels and was said to have been capable of 60 mph on land and 25 mph on water, the latter no doubt exaggerated.

That same year, George Monnot of Canton, Ohio, announced his "Hydrocar," a car/truck combination with a steering wheel at each end and a four-cylinder Hercules engine.

Monnot tried to interest the U.S. Army in his rig for all-purpose use in World War I, but it was rendered unnecessary by the end of hostilities the following year. By that time there was no money left for pursuing the civilian market.

Perhaps the most famous automotive amphibian was the one that did see action, though in a later conflict, World War II. Of course, we're talking about the four-wheel-drive Schwimmwagen derived from the land-only Kübelwagen ("bucket car"), the equivalent to the American Jeep in the army of Nazi Germany's Third Reich.

Both were designed by the renowned Dr. Ferdinand Porsche along principles he'd established with the "people's car" project so beloved by Adolf Hitler. Though neither vehicle was a "Volkswagen" in the strict sense, they're usually considered as such because they were produced at the huge new Wolfsburg factory that Hitler had erected before the war to build the little low-price car we've come to know as the Beetle.

VW thus deserves credit for the first mass-produced amphibian, and the Schwimmwagen was indeed turned out in large numbers during the war years. Some found their way into private hands once peace returned, while others were avidly studied by motor manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic.

On the next page, let's consider Hans Trippel's Amphicar, part of this long line of amphibious vehicles.

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Hans Trippel, inventor of the Amphicar, pioneered land/water vehicles long before the famous Schwimmwagen that arrived during World War II. In 1932 Trippel actually began manufacturing one under his own name at a small factory in the Saarland.

Like the Porsche design, the early Trippel employed four-wheel drive but used conventional inline engines -- an Adler four or an Opel six -- instead of a flat-opposed unit.

1962 Amphicar
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
Note the high ground clearance and the marine running light and docking fixture on the front hood of this pristine 1962 Amphicar.

When Germany occupied the Rhineland and the Molsheim region of France, it seized the factory of the famed Bugatti concern, and Trippel soon began turning out amphibians there for the German army. After the war he set up shop in Germany, where he built small land-only cars powered by 498cc engines.

About the time Trippel was working on his eventual Amphicar design, Saab in Sweden briefly considered an amphibian of its own. Interestingly, the idea popped up during the early stages of the development program for the Sonett sports car of the late Sixties.

Designer Björn Karlstrum produced a series of studies for a small doorless runabout called the Skogmatros ("Forest Sailor"), which was deemed potentially saleable to the Finnish Army for its cross-country excursions in that rugged land of lakes and forests.

Built on an 83.4-inch wheelbase, the Skogmatros echoed the Schwimmwagen in its high, pointed front, free-standing "frogeye" headlamps, and narrow track, but it looked more like the dune buggies of a later era in its pert, open bodywork featuring a rear-facing two-passenger back seat separate from the main cockpit.

How well it might have sold on the civilian market is anybody's guess, for nothing came of the idea beyond Karlstrum's studies. This left the Amphicar -- if you'll pardon the pun -- to make quite a splash at its 1959 introduction.

It took about two years to get production going, initially at Lübeck, West Germany, near the North Sea and close to the East German border. Operations were soon transferred to Karlsruhe in the Rhineland, where they continued until the last Amphicar was built in 1968. Design changes were minimal over the entire run.

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In 1962, Trippel launched the most sensational promotional ploy of his career by sending an Amphicar from France to Britain across the often-turbulent English Channel. This stunt was successful, and it naturally captured the attention of both car and boating enthusiasts all over the world.

1961-1968 Amphicar
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
The Amphicar's Triumph Herald engine drives the rear wheels on land and exhausts through an outlet positioned above the water line.

Officially designated Model 770, the Amphicar was built only as a two-door four-seat convertible with a folding cloth top. Its engine was the 1147cc (70-cid) overhead-valve inline four from the British Triumph Herald, but relocated astern to drive the rear wheels and/or a pair of propellers.

Wheelbase was a diminutive 82.67 inches, which is more than a foot shorter overall than the 170.3-inch-long Amphicar. Overall width was 60.3 inches, about the norm for a small early-Sixties European, but track dimensions were fairly narrow at 47.3/49.2 inches front/rear.

The aft engine mounting means the trunk is up front under the "hood." A compartment behind the rear seat backrest offers a small amount of additional stowage space alongside the top and its folding supports.

Amphicar's successful English Channel crossing generated a lot of interest in America, which would take nearly 80 percent of the amphibian's total production, some 3,000 units.

Though often described as "chassis-less," the Amphicar's body/hull employs a box-section steel sub-frame for added torsional strength, made up of parallel longitudinal members and five cross-members. Strong mountings are used for the fully independent suspension, and all sub-frame components and the steel body panels are arc-welded.

The owner's manual specifically warns against the use of gas welding for structural repairs because of the possible metal deformation and resulting water leaks it can cause. Considering the Amphicar's seaworthiness, it's a bit surprising Trippel didn't elect to make the body/hull in no-rust fiberglass instead of steel.

However, he did specify metal of unusually heavy gauge. Side panels are .028, wheel arches .039, and hull bottom panels are .049. Greater thoughtfulness is evident in the design of the Amphicar doors and their absolutely watertight seals. There's a seal on each door that mates with a separate one on the door frame.

1961-1968 Amphicar Doors
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
A close-up look at the Amphicar's water-tight double-seal doors. Instruments and controls are mostly conventional car. High-grade leatherette vinyl trims the small but well-built cabin.

Once a door is closed and securely latched, a second tongue-type lock compresses the seals together and prevents the door from being opened accidentally. Each door has double hinges topped with rubber plugs.

The Amphicar's up-front luggage compartment is divided into three sections. The middle one houses the spare wheel and tire, and this secluded cavity should be checked frequently for leaks. Astern is a 70-watt electric bilge pump secured to the engine firewall. It has two hose connections and a capacity of just six gallons per minute.

Frequent hull inspections at panel seams and joints are essential. Also recommended after cruising in salt or brackish water is a thorough hosing with fresh water for the entire hull and all exposed suspension and nautical propulson components.

Because of the Herald engine, any Amphicar owner would also do well to join a Triumph owners club. However, accessibility is excellent, maintenance and repairs comparatively simple, and parts are still readily available and reasonably priced.

It's a gutty little engine that made the Herald a satisfactory all-round performer and moderately quick in city driving, but 43 horsepower and 50 pounds-feet torque can't move mountains and, at almost 2,300 pounds, the Amphicar is some 526 pounds heavier at the curb.

Low-end acceleration is thus leisurely despite the four-speed manual gearbox-built by Porsche, no less-with floor-mount shifter and synchromesh on all gears except first. However, the Amphicar will climb a maximum gradient of 42 percent, so it's something of a mountain goat, too.

With its tall build (overall height is nearly five feet with the top up) and generous 11.2-inch ground clearance, the Amphicar can enter or leave the water at rather steep angles, and can even be backed into the drink if marina launching space is overly narrow.

The twin three-blade screws measure a foot in diameter. Drive is taken through a separate water transmission controlled by a simple transfer lever with forward and reverse positions, located next to the conventional gearshift on the center console.

Engine torque is carried from the crankshaft over the plate clutch to the transmission shaft, then to the main shaft and a hypoid differential. The water transmission's gears run on ball and needle bearings, versus needle bearings only for the roadgoing gearbox. Clutch adjustment, with correct free play, is particularly important because of the "dual environment" transmissions.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Amphicar has no rudder. The front wheels take care of nautical navigation, which takes a bit of familiarization.

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As for its landworthiness, the Amphicar roadability was far better than you might imagine. It does list in turns to be sure, a function of its high center of gravity and the skinny 6.40x13 tires.

However, the all-coil suspension smooths bumpy back roads remarkably well, especially when aided by the weight of four adults aboard, and the unassisted worm-and-roller steering is responsive and not too heavy.

Red Amphicar
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.
This red Amphicar once appeared in a TV public service campaign in western Washington State for car pooling. The manufacturer originally claimed 6.5 knots per hour (7.3 mph) in the water.

Hans Trippel was unable to remain afloat -- financially, that is. The reason, quite simply, is that he sold the Amphicar for too little to make a profit. The west coast port-of-entry price in 1967 was only a little more than $3,000.

That was about twice the cost of a Beetle, which might float in the water but couldn't maneuver under its own power. Still, few people really appreciated -- or needed -- the Amphicar's specialized abilities.

Though it was expensive for what was undoubtedly perceived as a small economy car, it's likely that the limited -- and noisy -- on-road performance and a marginal sales and service operation were far greater detriments than price for most buyers.

"United We Float, Divided We Sink" has been the motto of Amphicar enthusiasts for many decades now. We found the Amphicar a ball to drive and quite thrifty: a nice 32 mpg on land and about 1.5 gallons per hour over the briny deep.

We certainly wish we had one. If you do too, your chances are good. Of the some 3,000 that came to the U.S., only about 450 had been discovered as of the late 1980s. Anyone for a treasure hunt?

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The 1961-1968 Amphicar was oceans of fun. Why settle for off road when you can go off land in this perky and still reasonably priced collectible? Find specifications for the 1961-1968 Amphicar in the following chart.

1961-1968 Amphicar Major Specifications*:

ManufacturerDeutsche Industrie-Werke, Lübeck-Schlutup (1961-1962); Deutsche Waggons und Maschinenfabriken GmbH (1962-1968)
Factory Industrie-Werke Karlsruhe AG (1962-1968)
Vehicle type 4-passenger, 2-wheel drive convertible with folding cloth top; land and water propulsion systems
Construction Unit steel with steel subframe
Drivetrain layout Rear engine with separate land and water transmissions
Price (new) Approx. $3,400 port-of-entry U.S.

Dimensions and Capacities
Wheelbase (in.) 82.7
Overall length (in.) 170.3
Overall width (in.) 60.3
Overall height (in.) 59.8 (top up)
Track front/rear (in.) 47.3/49.2
Ground clearance (in.) 11.2 (unladen)/9.3 (laden)
Curb weight (lbs) 2,293
Tire size 6.40x13
Turning diameter curb-to-curb (ft) 36.5
Fuel capacity (gal) 12.4 (+2.1 reserve)
Engine oil capacity (qts) 4

Type Triumph Herald ohv inline four
Bore x Stroke (mm/in.) 69.3/2.73x76.0/2.99
Displacement (cc/cu in.) 1147/69.9
Compression ratio 8.0:1
Fuel system 1 Solex 30mm B30 PESI carburetor, AC mechanical pump
Max. horsepower (@ rpm SAE gross) 43 @ 4500
Max. torque (lbs/ft @ rpm SAE gross) 50 @ 2700
Ignition 12-volt

Land Transmission
Type 4-speed manual with floor-mount gearchange; synchromesh on II-IV only
Ratios (I-IV: 1): 4.5/2.91/1.75/1.05 (reverse: 4.13:1)
Final drive ratio (:1) 4.714
Clutch Dry plate
Fluid capacity (pts) 4.4

Water Transmission
Type 1-speed forward/1-speed reverse with dual propellers
Ratio (:1) 1.0-3.0
Oil capacity (pts) 1.75
Propeller diameter (in.) 12

*Source: Owner's Manual, Amphicar Corporation of America.
Note: some dimensions differ from those variously published.

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