Amphibious cars throughout history
By Lea Edgar, Librarian & Archivist, Vancouver Maritime Museum
Sitting in long ferry lineups steers the imagination in fanciful directions. What if one could just drive into the water and sail across? While this idea is impractical for many reasons, that didn’t stop many inventors from trying to sell consumers on that very thing.
Amphibious vehicles may bring to mind mid-century secret agents or perhaps even inventor Caractacus Pott and his miracle car, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but these contraptions had their start in very practical pursuits. The earliest design on record was the Amphibious Digger (Orukter Amphiboles). Built by Oliver Evans in 1805, the vehicle was constructed as a dredge to deepen a dock on the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania. It was essentially a barge with wheels to get it from the workshop to the river. Nevertheless, it still counts as the first amphibious vehicle. The next design on record was a sail-powered wagon invented by Gail Borden in 1849. Although this vehicle worked well on land, it capsized on water due to a lack of ballast to counteract the wind. By the 1870s, the first useable amphibious designs were built.
Logging companies relied heavily on rivers to transport their goods. However, slow-moving streams could cause log jams that made getting the product downstream difficult. Thus, the steam-powered alligator tug was invented. By using a winch and an anchor, it could haul itself out of the water and over to the next river where it was needed. It was not very efficient at moving over land, however, it was very good at moving logs and was consequently used in North America into the 1930s.
The next major development in amphibious vehicles came with the rise of the gas-powered automobile. At this time, inventors were experimenting with oversized wheels. These designs never truly took off and it wasn’t until the Second World War that amphibious vehicles were used in earnest. Both the Germans and the Allies created new vehicles to transport troops and equipment over land and water. The Germans developed the Landwasserschlepper (LWS) which was essentially an amphibious tractor. It was ordered in 1935 to act as a lightweight river tug to help with bridge building and crossing rivers. This model was used until the end of the war, most successfully in North Africa and Russia.
At the same time, the British and Americans were developing their own amphibious vehicles, called Landing Vehicles, Tracked (or LVTs). These followed the tractor design of the LWS. However in 1942, the more notable six-wheeled DUKW (or duck) was developed in the United States. It had a hollow yet airtight body and a single propeller. It was so successful, the American military produced 20,000 units during the war. It was used to ferry troops, supplies, weapons and equipment to the beaches of Normandy in 1944. Sadly, due to overloading and rough seas, some of the ducks sank, killing the soldiers they carried. After the war, many were sold as surplus to tourism companies. One such duck was used as a ferry for the then 25 property owners on Piers Island in the 1960s. The “ferry” was named Piers Island Princess. Today, this service is carried out by a more reliable private water taxi.
Another amphibious vehicle that gained some popularity with civilians was the Amphicar. This car was manufactured in Germany between 1961 and 1967. Designed by Hans Trippel, approximately 4,000 were built and the majority (approximately 3,700) went to America. Today it is estimated that there are 500 still in regular use. The Amphicar remains the only non-military amphibious vehicle commercially produced (more than 100 were made). As manufacturing was exceedingly expensive, the vehicle never really took off. Today, however, there are numerous enthusiasts who cherish and restore these cars. These little boat-cars have surprisingly made some serious sea crossings: from Africa to Spain, San Diego to Catalina Island, and even across the English Channel three times! This little car has even been taken across the Strait of Georgia. In 1963, Henry Smood of Alberni drove his Amphicar from the Tsawwassen ferry terminal all the way to Crofton on Vancouver Island. The car was in the water for a total of four hours and, for six miles, it had to tow another Amphicar behind it. The cars encountered rough water in Active Pass and landed at Galiano Island where they had a brief stop before carrying on to Salt Spring Island. From there, they went over land until the final stretch over water to Crofton.
One more local story regarding the Amphicar is that of the 1967 Yukon River Flotilla. A 10-day, 460-mile trip from Whitehorse down river to Dawson City was planned as a joint Alaska-Yukon Centennial project. Fifty-four craft were used, of those, four were Amphicars. The owners of the Amphicars were all Americans from Alaska. On August 16, the flotilla, including the Amphicars, made it to Dawson City where Discovery Day celebrations were in full swing. If these little cars can make this kind of trip, it is not surprising that they are such popular collector’s items today.
From dredges to troop transports to novelties, amphibious cars appear here to stay. Modern designs include the Panther-built WaterCar, the Gibbs Aquada, and the Terra Wind Amphibious RV. Designs for these vehicles keep coming, proving that our desire to drive from land to water and back again never ceases.
Lea Edgar started her position as Librarian and Archivist for the Vancouver Maritime Museum in 2013. She can be contacted at [email protected]