Comically combining the shortcomings of the car with the drawbacks of the boat, amphibious vehicles are almost universally dreadful.
Few are effective on the road, and even fewer are competent in the drink – it’s hard to deny however, the underlying proposition is biblically enticing. Just as Jesus walked on water to the dismay of his disciples, the amphibious car promises to conquer the elusive divide between that which is dry and that which is wet.
It is generally agreed that the 1805 Oruktor Amphibolos – designed and built by Newport-born inventor Oliver Evans – was the first in a long line of heroic and noble amphibious embarrassments.
The 17-tonne steam-powered monstrosity – which, incredibly, predated both the train and the car – was commissioned by the Philadelphia Board of Health to dredge the city’s polluted waterways.
Evans reportedly decided to add driven wheels to his cumbersome steam-thing in order to transport it from his workshop to the Schuylkill River several miles away, and thus the amphibious vehicle was born.
By almost all accounts, however, the Oruktor was completely ineffective in all capacities, and, in 1808, it was scrapped for parts.
While several notable attempts came in the following years, it wasn’t until WWII that the amphibious revolution really began to pick up momentum (and take on water).
The year 1942 saw the introduction of Volkswagen’s Schwimmwagen, which was used extensively by German forces on the Eastern Front.
The vehicle’s four-cylinder boxer engine produced just 18kW, and this was sent to the ground via a four-speed manual transmission. On flat roads, top speed was estimated at 80km/h, and, when encountering a Russian river with inconveniently burnt bridges, a rear-mounted screw propeller could be lowered to achieve aquatic propulsion at speeds of up to 10km/h.
Approximately 15,600 examples of Schwimmwagen were ultimately built, making it the most numerous amphibious car in history.
The Ford GPA – which was effectively a floating variant of the Willys MB Jeep – was also developed during the conflict, and, in the 1950s, Australian mining engineer Ben Carlin circumnavigated the globe in a modified example.
The infamous Amphicar of the 1960s was the brainchild of West German designer Hans Trippel (perhaps best known as the inventor of the Mercedes-Benz Gullwing door), who, inspired by the Schwimmwagen, set about designing the ultimate conqueror of the land and seas.
The result, unfortunately, was anything but – the car was infamously slow, unstable, unreliable, unsafe, and, critically, un-watertight. Time magazine’s Dan Neil called it "[the] vehicle that promised to revolutionise drowning".
The Amphicar was powered by a 1.2-litre straight-four engine lifted from the already-woefully unreliable Triumph Herald. This unit produced a meagre 32kW, which was sent to the road via a four-speed manual transmission.
When venturing into the ocean, a secondary gearbox could be engaged to reroute power to two small rear-mounted propellers, while steering for the oddity was achieved (or, according to many reviews from the time, not achieved) by using the front wheels as rudders.
The 770 nameplate supposedly referenced its ability to reach 7mph (11km/h) on the water and 70mph (112km/h) on land, however even these thoroughly unimpressive figures were disputed.
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson famously owned an example and, ever the prankster, was known to convince his passengers the brake lines had been cut before driving “accidentally” into a lake.
The Amphicar was in production between 1961 and 1965, with just 3878 examples built before the project sunk.
In 2003, New Zealander Alan Gibbs designed a "high performance water-car" from ground up, known as the Gibbs Aquada.
Powered by a 2.5-litre Rover V6 engine, the bespoke vehicle was capable of reaching speeds of up to 160km/h on land and 50km/h in the water.
The following year eccentric English billionaire Richard Branson used a privately-held example to cross the British Channel in a record time (for an amphibious craft) of 1 hour and 40 minutes. But, despite the publicity blitz, the vehicle never took off due to its high price tag. Production ended within months.
The most recent – and perhaps promising – amphibious project is that of the US-based WaterCar company, which currently sells a Jeep-inspired model known as the Panther.
Deriving power, from a rear-mounted Honda Acura 3.7-litre engine, the Panther is capable of 130km/h on land and 72km/h on the water. By almost all accounts it's reliable, safe, and, at least relatively speaking, practical.
The vehicle doesn't come cheap however, priced from US$135,000 (AU$175,000) plus on-road and on-water costs. In 2015 the Crown Prince of Dubai was reportedly so impressed after driving an example, he splashed upwards of US$800,000 (AU$1.03 million) to secure his own private custom fleet.
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