The 1960s Amphicar 770 was neither a decent car nor an accomplished motorboat – RN
A 1966 Amphicar 770 like this one is now worth over $100,000 and is a rare sight in Australia. (Getty: James D. Morgan)
In the 1960s, nearly 4,000 people decided that buying a car that could double as a boat was a brilliant idea. Even today’s SUVs can’t do that.
The Amphicar 770 was a perky little thing with a steel body and folding roof, remarkable only by the peculiar way the front end abruptly cut away at the bottom.
And if you looked closely, you’d find a pair of propellers slung below the rear engine, tucked behind the bumper.
It meant that you could, if you had the urge, drive straight off the road and across a lake.
It was named the 770 because it was able to reach seven miles an hour on the water, and 70 miles an hour on land. And it worked.
‘Like being in a bathtub’
Although there are very few Amphicars in Australia, they’re prized by vintage car collectors and now valued at more than $100,000, says Jason Fischer, operations manager at Gosford Classic Cars.
He drove a bright yellow 1966 model down a ramp into Sydney Harbour and happily motored around ferries and cruise ships, despite the choppy waters.
“I loved it – I’m a car enthusiast I suppose, but I had a ball in that car – I was like a little kid grinning from ear to ear,” he said.
“It’s obviously a fairly small car so in the water amongst all those other bigger boats, and the sheer size of that place, driving it in Sydney Harbour was a bit like being in a bathtub.”
In 1965 a pair of them crossed the English Channel without sinking, even though the water came dangerously close to lapping over the doors. Waterproof upholstery helped.
An Amphicar on Sydney Harbour at the start of the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race in 1971. (Supplied: State Library of NSW)
When sold in America, US Coastguard regulations meant each had to be fitted with navigation lights and a flag. An anchor was an option, as was a paddle.
The car-cum-boat was the brainchild of a German engineer called Hans Trippel whose imagination veered towards the eccentric.
He came up with the upward-folding car door, for instance, which Mercedes-Benz nabbed to use in their 300SL gullwing coupe, one of the most sought-after cars of the 1950s.
Trippel had tinkered with the idea of an amphibious car since the 1930s when he slung an outboard motor on the back of his own car.
The reasoning wasn’t altogether daft and a rather bathtub-like vehicle was used during WW2 for carrying troops over marshy terrain.
Hitler liked the idea, and a simpler and more successful version was made by Volkswagen, called the Schwimmwagen, or swimming car.
‘The sportscar that swims’
Twin propellers mounted at the rear helped it reach speeds of seven nautical miles an hour. (Getty: Helmut Corneli)
It was Trippel’s misfortune to slightly miss the mark. After the war, he sold his idea of a plastic-bodied car to Norway where it was marketed as the Troll. Five were sold.
By that measure, sales of the Amphicar 770 were stupendous when launched in 1960.
Adverts proclaimed it as ‘the sportscar that swims’, although the allusion to sport was a touch optimistic.
It functions for practical purposes in the same way as a boat, with tough seals making it watertight and a bilge pump to drain excess water out the back, Jason Fischer says.
“The underneath of the car looks and is shaped a bit like a boat, so underneath is sealed off,” he says.
“The doors have double door seals on them and when you lock the door in place, there’s actually another handle on the inside that you have to lock around to pull it tight.”
After an initial burst of activity, the reality of a vehicle that was neither decent car nor accomplished motorboat kicked in and production in Germany stopped in 1965.
A larger version called the AmphiRanger raised its head in 1985, though, aimed at the police or oil companies inspecting marshy terrain – but less than a hundred sold.
A local legend
On the NSW Central Coast, the Amphicar is part of local legend because of the practical way it was used by pharmacist Rod Radford to help the community on the Woy Woy peninsula.
Living at Ettalong in the 1960s, Mr Radford used his Amphicar to help his customers who lived around the water’s edge in parts unconnected by the road that now exists over the Rip Bridge.
Pharmacist Rod Radford owned two Amphicar’s that he used for work on the Woy Woy peninsula in NSW. (Supplied: Geoff Melville)
After work he would drive down the ramp at Ettalong and motor across the water to deliver medicines to Wagstaffe, Pretty Beach, Killcare and Empire Bay.
“He would drive around and deliver prescriptions to people that normally wouldn’t be able to be accessed,” Jason Fischer says.
“Back in the late 60s and early 70s some of those bridges that join places [on the Central Coast] weren’t around, so it was quite a novel way to drop off prescriptions.
“Instead of going all the way around and spending five hours driving he could spend 20 minutes.”
Design always seeks to find an answer to a problem.
In this instance, the problem was that it answered a question that nobody had asked.
But the Amphicars that survive today still do what they always did, and that’s make you look and raise a laugh. And clearly prove the adage that just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.