Tuesday August 14, 2018
In Time magazine of last year Dan Neil very rudely referred to the Amphicar Model 770 as a ‘vehicle that promised to revolutionize drowning’ and went on to argue that ‘Its single greatest demerit — and this is a big one — was that it wasn’t particularly watertight. Its flotation was entirely dependent on whether the bilge pump could keep up with the leakage’. Enthusiasts of this fascinating vehicle would entirely disagree with Mr. Neil’s views, for when the first British market examples went on sale in 1964 they had no rival.
The Amphicar was developed by Hans Trippel who had been devising amphibious vehicles since 1929. The front wheels double as rudders and the Hermes transmission was capable of operating the rear wheels and the propellers and wheels simultaneously or separately - See Video Below. Power was from a Triumph Herald 1,147cc engine - US regulations dictated that a water-borne craft could not have an air-cooled engine which ruled out using a VW plant - while the “770” badge derives from the Amphicar’s 70 mph top speed on the road and seven knots while afloat. The advertising slogan ‘The Sports Car That Swims’ was always a partial exaggeration.
The Geneva Motor Show of 1959 saw the debut of the Amphicar’s ancestor, the “Eurocar” with an Austin A35 engine. Official imports to the USA commenced in 1961 when the Amphicar starred at the New York Motor Show. ‘Anyone who can drive an automobile can operate an Amphicar either as a car or a boat’ claimed the adverts, and it certainly looked different to any Buick or Chrysler. There was a choice of four jaunty colours – “Fjord Green”, “Regatta Red”, “ Beach White” and “Lagoon Blue” - and the brochures depicted the Amphicar as perfect for hunting, fishing or merely posing on the banks of Lake Tahoe. Indeed, the great motoring writer Tom McCahill stated in Mechanix Illustrated that ‘the guy who owns one of these at any of our thousands of lakes this summer will be the hit of the season’.
One very high-profile owner was President Lyndon B Johnson, and you can imagine Don Draper driving one on his days off from the Sterling Cooper Advertising Agency. By the mid-1960s a price of $2,695 put a 770 on a par with a new Mustang, although the Ford did lack the Amphicar’s navigation lights. Nor were distress flares and an anchor found in the official extras’ list of your average Pony Car -
On the other side of the Atlantic an Amphicar cost £995 for ‘a sensation on land and water’, so why not telephone BELgravia 3721 to arrange a test drive? There were high-profile cameo appearances in films – Rotten to the Core and The Sandwich Man – and on television in The Avengers. On 16th September 1965 Captains Michael Bailey of REME and Peter Tappenden of the RAOC in the company of Sgt. Joe Minto of the RCT, and Timothy Dill-Russell, a London-based escapologist and croupier used two Amphicars to make the Dover to Calais crossing. Tappendden subsequently wrote about their adventures in Autocar, and his account marks the mid-way point between the fascinating and the downright terrifying:
“It was found better to motor up the wave with the accelerator full down, and when the top of the wave was reached to slacken off and gently motor down the other side. This was not always possible, because currents at times tended to come from the side; the only way to combat this was to put the foot down hard and motor through the top of the wave, clinging grimly to the steering wheel and watching the compass for direction.”
The Dill-Russell Amphicar broke down in mid-Channel, due to a blocked bilge pump, and had to be towed to France although Tappenden noted that although the sea was constantly running over the bonnet, ‘the blast of air driven out of the engine compartment through the bonnet louvres is quite sufficient to keep all water out of the engine compartment’. Fortunately, the intrepid chaps safely reached Calais at 0430hrs in the morning.
Sales to the USA ceased in 1967 and elsewhere in 1968, and the Amphicar remains one of the boldest and ambitious vehicles of its generation -
This footage encapsulates the appeal of the 770. Going for a trip along the Thames while wearing your Sunday best suit and accompanied by way-out incidental music – now that is summer motoring!