CONCORD, N.C. (Aug. 21, 2001) – When Arnold Hite parks his car at Lowe’s Motor Speedway’s Food Lion AutoFair, Sept. 13-16, he won’t have to worry about everyday road hazards like door dings, parking lot scrapes, alligators or snakes.
You see, Hite will be making the 200-mile trip from his Charleston, S.C., home in a German-built Amphicar — the only hybrid car/boat ever mass-produced. To prevent those nasty door dings and toothy reptiles, Hite’s car will be displayed floating safely in the middle of a 24-foot Polytech above-ground swimming pool supplied by Recreational Specialties of Cornelius.
His parking space will be this 24-foot swimming pool provided by Recreational Specialties of Cornelius, N.C.
Automotive history’s 20/20 hindsight suggests an amphibious passenger car was the answer to a question no one ever asked, but with 15 years worth of research and development behind him, German designer and inventor Hans Trippel charged into full-scale Amphicar production in 1961.
Amphibious vehicles were nothing new, of course. Dozens of different models had been produced and used by various military groups around the world since World War I, but Trippel’s design was revolutionary in that the Amphicar’s driver would not have to deal with the complexity, weight and expense of a troop-carrying Duck or Otter.
Trippel wisely chose a tried-and-true Triumph Herald four-cylinder engine to power his Amphicar. The British-made 1.2-liter powerplant produced 43 horsepower, which motivated the 2,300-pound vehicle at a leisurely pace to its claimed top speed of 75 miles per hour on land and eight knots in the water.
Factory literature from the ’60s claims the car was capable of 32 miles per gallon on the road and 1.5 gallons per hour in the water.
Because the Amphicar was designed to be driven by all members of the family, each of the four Porsche-style Hermes transaxle gears was equipped with synchromesh for smoother shifting. For aquatic use, twin propellers were activated by a separate transmission containing only two gears: forward and reverse.
Like the contemporary Volkswagen, the Amphicar has its engine and transaxle located behind the passenger compartment; a setup that makes for great rear-wheel traction in the snow or on wet boat ramps. Unfortunately, putting 62 percent of the Amphicar’s weight over the rear wheels, combined with the rather high center of gravity and skinny tires, makes it a little tipsy while cornering. Mercedes supplied some of the Amphicar’s suspension, steering and brake components.
The Amphicar’s front storage compartment contains a spare tire, a 13-gallon fuel tank and enough luggage space for a family of four (assuming the trip is overnight and travelers pack the barest minimum). Interior space is sizeable by compact car standards of today, and the back seat can accommodate two adults comfortably on short drives.
Despite the car’s very ambitious purpose in life, its styling is in step with other European and American manufacturers of the time. The Amphicar’s front is necessarily free of clutter so as to present a smooth, boat-like surface to the water, wearing only a set of headlights, parking lamps and a thin, chromed bumper. Substantial rub strips protect the slab sides of the car from the occasional encounter with a dock or other watercraft. The Amphicar’s rear houses regulation taillamps, turn signals, a single exhaust pipe and a tiny outlet for the bilge pump. Navigation lights and other Coast Guard requirements were standard equipment.
Because the Amphicar was to be heavily promoted and marketed in the United States, it is no surprise the car has American-style tailfins — though a couple of years after the fad peaked with the ’59 Cadillac.
The entire package measures just a catfish whisker more than 14 feet from stem to stern and five feet in width — about the same length as a new Ford Focus two-door, but half a foot narrower. The Amphicar stands almost exactly five feet tall with the standard canvas top snapped into place. Ground clearance measures a long-legged 10 inches — about the same as a modern pickup truck.
Buyers could choose from a short list of color options that included Fjord Green, Beach Sand White, Classic Regatta Red and Lagoon Blue.
Introduced to the American public on April Fools Day in 1961, the rugged Amphicars were put to the test by every car and boat enthusiast magazine, with mixed results. Mechanix Illustrated, a publication known for its love of innovative products, predicted any Amphicar owner “will be the hit of the season” at area lakes, while speed-oriented Car and Driver declared it “behaves too much like a boat” and that the ride “is characterized by an uncertain, billowy, wobbling motion.”
Attention-getting stunts made the world aware of the strange vehicle’s dual nature, including trips from Africa to Spain and San Diego to Catalina Island. Four men in two Amphicars crossed the English Channel in 1965, enduring storms and in-transit refueling before landing on a soft French beach. (Their England-to-France by water time of seven hours, 20 minutes by Amphicar will likely never be broken.)
Now for the bad news: at a time when Americans evaluated their cars by sheer weight and size, the diminutive Amphicar cost a whopping $3,400! In 1961 that same amount could buy a new Chevrolet Corvair Monza ($2,238), plus an aluminum fishing boat, Evinrude outboard motor, trailer and a week’s worth of bait. For $3,000, the performance enthusiast could drive home Chevrolet’s new ground-pounding Impala Super Sport hardtop.
Another downside to Amphicar ownership came when buyers discovered the little car/boats were prone to rust, especially when exposed to salt water. At the time, fiberglass was not in widespread use with automotive or nautical manufacturers, so the Amphicar hull was made of thick-gauge steel.
Different sources report anywhere from 800 to 4,500 units being built between 1961 and ’67, with 90 percent going to homes in the U.S. Ironically, it was this reliance on the American market that finally ended Amphicar production. When the federal government put into effect its list of safety and emissions equipment with the 1968 model year, the world’s only amphibious passenger car could not meet requirements without expensive modifications.
The Berlin, Germany, Amphicar plant ceased production in ’68, closing one of the most unusual chapters in automobile history.
In 1996, Hite, who is the dean of the School of Business at Charleston Southern University, located an Amphicar for sale just a few hours from home. Hite and his wife, Sharon, were intimidated at first by the car’s condition but decided to tackle a full restoration. Since their first somewhat shaky test drive, the Hites have cleaned, refurbished or replaced every system on the car and now enjoy showing off their Lagoon Blue oddity.
“I didn’t anticipate the reaction the car would get,” says Hite. “People call out to me at stoplights. Construction workers stop what they are doing when I pass by. Kids at gas stations squeal with excitement. Twice I’ve had people pull over into the emergency lane of the Interstate and wait for me to pass so they can get another look.”
On the other hand, sometimes too much attention is a bad thing.
“In the water, boaters will slow down as they go by,” says Hite, “and we have to roll up the windows to keep from getting hit by their wake. They get too close sometimes because they want a better look.”
Waves won’t be a problem when Hite parks his Amphicar at the Food Lion AutoFair, as it will be floating in an above-ground 24-foot swimming pool. Eva Harris, president of Recreational Specialties of Cornelius, admits she’s never heard of anyone building a pool for a car.
“I liked the idea when I heard it,” she remembers, “then I had to figure out how we’re going to do it. We’re still not sure of all the details, but it’s too good of a challenge to pass it up.”
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $8 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information on the four-day event, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit the website at www.lowesmotorspeedway.com.