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Car Tales: Amphicar, Gone Fishing!

‘I had never associated a wicked sense of humor with President Lyndon Baines Johnson, but I was wrong. 
“As the owner of one of the legendary Amphicars, he would certainly keep his friends on their toes. Driving his companions at his Johnson City, Texas, ranch in his 1961 model, the first year of production, the President would feign that the Amphicar’s brakes had failed as his vehicle approached the waterfront, only to gently ease the floating car safely into the water.
‘Into which it chugged happily along at its regulation 7 knots. Ho-ho-ho! You can’t help thinking of James Bond films when you consider the Amphicar, a car we love to see at Beverly Hills Car Club – especially during the summer!

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‘In fact, the closest to movie stardom for the Amphicar was The President’s Analyst, a 1967 Bond-spoof movie starring the inimitable James Coburn. Nowhere similar in content-matter is Factotum, a 2007 film starring the also great Matt Dillon as Charles Bukowski, the legendarily inebriated Los Angeles poet. Then there’s 1994’s Pontiac Moon, starring Ted Danson of Cheers fame; and the Boulting Brothers’ 1965 crime-caper Rotten to the Core. And not to mention a cameo in Inspector Clouseau, the third Pink Panther film; and an episode of The Simpsons in which an antique filmstrip illustrates Springfield’s famous ‘aqua-car’ factory.
‘The reality of the provenance of President Johnson’s Amphicar could itself have made a fascinating film. Between 1961 and 1965, almost 4,000 examples of the Amphicar Model 770, which had the capability of transitioning seamlessly from land to sea, were manufactured in West Germany – they continued to be marketed until 1968.
‘Designed by Hans Trippel, the amphibious vehicle was manufactured at Lübeck and in Berlin, with a total of 3,878 manufactured.
‘The Amphicar was a descendant of the Volkswagen Schwimmwagen, which literally means ‘swimming car’. The Schwimmwagen was a four-wheel drive amphibious vehicle employed extensively by German troops during World War 2, the most mass-produced amphibious car in history: in total 15,584 Schwimmwagens were manufactured. Only 189 are known by the Schwimmwagen Registry to remain today, and only 13 have survived without restoration work.
‘When the Amphicar first appeared in 1961 it offered only modest performance compared to most contemporary boats or cars, featured navigation lights and flag as mandated by the US Coast Guard — and after operation in water, required greasing at 13 points, one of which required removal of the rear seat.
‘The Amphicar was assembled with quality pieces. The rear-mounted 1147cc engine came from a Triumph Herald; Mercedes-Benz supplied the suspension and brake components; and the transmission internals were Porsche pieces. It was the Quandt Group who manufactured the Amphicar; the conglomerate of businesses headed by Herbert Quandt owned significant stakes in Mercedes and BMW.
‘Why was the the Amphicar given its 770 model designation? Simple: it referred to its top speeds of 7 knots in the water and 70 mph on land. The Triumph engine drove the rear wheels through a four-speed transmission. Heading into the water the driver would simply throw a lever that engages the twin nylon props under the rear of the vehicle. The car would then motor off into the waves.
‘Presumably as a marketing gimmick, the Amphicar was put through a number of impressive watery adventures. In 1965 a pair of Amphicars navigated Alaska’s Yukon River.
‘And in September that year another pair crossed the English Channel; and there was a further crossing of the Straits of Gibraltar from Spain to Morocco.
‘But what is the Amphicar like on the road? After all, this is where it will spend most of its time. And the answer is that it is really not bad at all, not very different from many a European car of its age. Despite being a very heavy car, there is no vagueness with its controls; although the brakes can be a little soft, as can be the handling, Amphicars are terrific fun to drive.
‘And if you are thinking of invading a small nation state by driving up its beach, I can think of no better choice.
‘Being the peaceful type, however, I’m simply popping out to lunch in one, over to Catalina Island.
-Alex Manos, Owner

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