x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

It made waves in the car world

The Amphicar was a German-built hydro-hybrid that looked a cross between a kitsch Victorian pram and something parked in Noddy's driveway.

The German-made Amphicar on a family outing.
The German-made Amphicar on a family outing.

Over the last 50 years, technological advances have left motoring enthusiasts marvelling at such innovations as self-parking systems and plasma screens in head restraints. But cars that float seem a science fiction concept, the work of Q, the gadgetry genius of the James Bond novels. However, more than a decade before the quintessential British hero surprised sunbathers by cooly emerging from the surf in his Lotus Esprit - albeit in a scene that relied on animation rather than reality - a mass-produced amphibious car was available to the British public.

The Amphicar was a German-built hydro-hybrid that looked a cross between a kitsch Victorian pram and something parked in Noddy's driveway. Indeed, on the road its awkward styling and sluggish performance were hardly likely to turn heads, unless they were turned in jest and sniggering amusement. But then, if you buy a car that can drive on water, why would you drive more than a few miles on tarmac?

It boasted ability, if not agility, in water and one owner wryly sought to mask its failings by claiming it was "the fastest car on the water and the fastest boat on land". A reviewer from The Times was less than impressed with its durability and sea legs and called it "a vehicle that promised to revolutionise drowning" and observed that for all its technology "flotation was entirely dependent on whether the bilge pump could keep up with the leakage".

However, owners of the Amphicar, of which there were just less than 4,000 produced in a four-year production run between 1961 and 1965, were keen to demonstrate that this was more than just a bath toy that could bob up and down in the water. In 1965, two Amphicars successfully crossed the English channel withstanding gale-force winds and six-metre waves. In the US, where the majority of the cars were sold, one navigated the entire course of the Yukon river.

The Amphicar has its origins in an intriguing vessel created by the Nazis called the Schwimmwagen. It was an off-road, amphibious car used extensively by the SS during the later stages of the Second World War. It was based on Volkswagen Beetle mechanics and 15,000 were produced. The Amphicar was its civilian cousin and therefore adopted the styling trends of the day, such as tail fins and lurid paintwork. Advertising shots of glamorous ladies and smug, hirsute men pootling down the river merrily waving to canoeists and fishermen are some of the most arresting images in the canon of automotive photography.

Unsurprisingly, given their unique ability and novelty value, Amphicar owners are a proud and passionate breed and, with about a thousand cars still in use, there are owners clubs, online forums and even a map showing Amphicar-friendly lakes and rivers. Newspapers found themselves with a quirky story of heroism in the floods that swept over England in 2007 when an Amphicar owner delivered groceries to some stranded schoolboys.

It seems churlish therefore for Dan Neil of the Los Angeles Times to include the Amphicar in his 50 worst cars of all times. His argument is possibly as water-tight as the car he decried, for while it could only muster 11kph on water and suffered from the occasional leak, how many car owners can take awe-struck nephews for a spin and make a detour to race the ducks across a local watercourse? tbrooks@thenational.ae