Ahoy, Drivers!

Off-roading takes on new meaning with vintage amphibious cars.
Jacquelyne Froeber

A bright blue convertible accelerates from the sand into the frothy surf. Instead of sinking, the car maneuvers out to sea with a soft swoosh of water lapping against its passenger door.

“Is that James Bond?” one beachgoer asks as driver John Edelstein waves back to the shore. The Southern California beach is packed with people entranced by the unusual spectacle. Some shriek with delight. Others snap photos with their camera phones. After all, it’s not every day you see a car that swims.

The Amphicar, built in the early 1960s, is half car, half boat. A two-part transmission allows the front wheels to act as rudders, while twin nylon propellers move the car. The steel hull and welded seams keep water from seeping into the retro interiors. Amphicar advertisements boasted that the economical cars got 30 mpg on land and saved owners on trailer costs and mooring fees. Though innovative, the Amphicar had limited success because of its steep price tag, and manufacturing was halted in 1968. Today, fewer than 600 of these cars still exist, according to the International Amphicar Owners Club. John, a former club president, says the organization helps people find cars, parts, mechanics, and fellow enthusiasts. From coast to coast, owners hold “swim-ins”―annual afternoon events to show off, share lunch, and offer bystanders a chance to take the plunge. “The Amphicar community is really tight,” John says. “Once you own one, you never look at water the same way.”

“It’s all about having fun,” says Steve Reich as he offers a young family a ride in his red Amphicar. Steve and wife Connie own two: one for freshwater and another for the ocean. “Salt water is not ideal for the steel hull,” he explains. Rust from the salt can be an issue, so it’s no surprise that many Amphicar fans reside around the Great Lakes.

Still, owners such as Ed and Nan Myers have no problem taking their Amphicar into the ocean. “We’ve had many adventures,” Nan says. “We love the Pacific.” At today’s swim-in, the drivers rev their engines and heads turn. Cheers erupt from the crowd gathered on Fiesta Island.

“I don’t know what it is―but everyone gives me the thumbs-up,” says Amphicar owner Ed Howard. When first introduced in the United States at the 1961 New York International Auto Show, Amphicars were known as 770 models, because they performed at 7 knots in water and 70 mph on land. “I think it’s more like the 660 now,” Ed says, laughing.

A sleek, new breed of amphibious car is predicted to hit the U.S. auto market as early as 2009. The Aquada, from Gibbs Technologies, claims to be the world’s first high-speed, fresh- and saltwater amphibious vehicle. It can reach more than 30 mph (about 26 knots) in water and 110 mph on land. Amphicar owners wonder how this model, with an estimated cost of $85,000, will fit into the auto industry today. But as the sticker on John’s dashboard proclaims, “Only those who attempt the absurd achieve the impossible.”

For more information, visit amphicar.com.

Originally published in July/August 2008