Dude, where is my amphibious car?


Texas Hill Country is a region of serenity. The rustle of live oaks and the winding sidewalk of Herefordshire fur cattle crossing the road break the windy silence. But that was not always true. When Lyndon Baines Johnson, a native of Stonewall, Texas, was still alive, the former president was always ready to disrupt the peace, especially when he was driving his blue convertible.

Johnson reportedly drove the car down the Pedernales River to the Pedernales River, shouting to the passengers that the brakes were gone – the car could not stop. It was only when they touched the water, the hearts in the mouth, that his guests learned the truth: Johnson's little boat was built for rubble and waves.

Between 1961 and 1968, Berlin mechanics built 3 878 Amphicars, which were swallowed up by American aquaphilicists, including LBJ. Although the draw was limited (2,472 pickup truck sales per day on average for Ford), it remains the largest production of amphibious cars to date. Since its heyday in the postwar era, the fantasy of floating cars in all wharves and alleys has faded, diminished by engineering problems and other practical problems. But experts say this all-terrain vehicle could soon see better days.

The first amphibious cars were built by the Nazis. Volkswagen produced 14,265 Schwimmwagens between 1942 and 1944. They have never seen much action, but their existence is enough to inspire hybridization campaigns in other countries. The United States, for example, has started production of the six-wheeled DUKW. These big machines, called "the ducks", then went to military surplus sales. Some were bought by Mel Flath of Wisconsin, who filled them with tourists and then took his "duck tour" company all over the country.

In the 1960s, the first amphibious car for civilians left the lot. The Amphicar, with a capital A, was a sleek and efficient vehicle, according to Scott Brunner, president of Gordon Imports, a leading supplier of Amphicar parts. "There is a lever on the ground for the transmission of the propeller. So you have to move it forward, release the clutch and you're done, "he says. As long as he would hold the bilge cap at the bottom of the hull and tighten the extra latch on each door, Johnson could take off his little joke and stay tight. "When you come back outside, you can re-engage the four-speed lever and let the propeller fly off," Brunner says. "When the wheels hit the ground, you just come out."

There was just a hitch: the half-boats were built, imperceptibly, out of steel, which rust with prolonged exposure to the water. In the 1970s and 80s, many Amphicars had fallen into ruin. "Of the less than 4,000 that have been manufactured, probably half of them are still there, regardless of the conditions," Brunner said. "As for the usable, there must be less than 1,000."

Although counterintuitive, the number of usable Amphicars increases each year. "For a long time, cars were worthless. But nowadays, the value has increased, "says Brunner. "People always find them in a barn or a backdrop … and now they are restored and reused." Replacing parts with more modern materials, as well as ordinary paint and oil, can prevent rust. But some have abandoned steel and turned to modern amphibious cars to meet their needs.

But exceeding limits has a price. In the United States, these dual-use jalopies seem to elude regulators on land and water. Since 1999, 41 people have died in incidents involving ducks in the United States and Canada. This was attributed to a lack of supervision and some peculiarities of their design. Seat belts, for example, save hundreds of homeowners each year, but the stresses can be deadly in a boat, preventing passengers from escaping from a capsized boat. Similarly, many ducks have an awning to protect tourists from the sun. The only problem is that the soft top can act like a net when it is spilled in the water, which traps customers even when they are wearing lifejackets.

Tim Dutton is a UK-based manufacturer who has been showing his own amphibious drawings on the street since 1989. When I asked him why we were not all driving cars, he said it had nothing to do with technology. "We handled the problem very well," he told me. Unlike their mid-century predecessors, Dutton vehicles are made from lightweight but durable fiberglass, a pillar of contemporary shipbuilding. Modern rubbers and quality plastics fill gaps. And the 8-inch propeller is enclosed like the fan of a jet ski.

One thing that has not changed from President Johnson's time to ours is speed. On land, the Amphicar traveled 100 km / h, but in the water, it reached about 6 km / h. "Speed ​​is now absolutely the same," says Dutton about his job. This has to do with the body of the boat. Planing hulls are the fastest craft, allowing masters to navigate on the surface of the water. The semi-displacement hulls sit in the middle. And the displacement hulls, common to barges and amphibious cars, are low in the water – robust but relatively slow. "No matter how big the engine you put in a displacement hull, it will only roll at 10 km / h," says Dutton.

Competitors in the amphicar space have their own tactics, with mixed results. SeaRoader's Mike Ryan has transformed existing car bodies from trucks to Lamborghini vehicles into water-worthy vehicles – and viral sensations on eBay. From 2002 to 2003, a company based in New Zealand produced the Gibbs Aquada with great success. With a submerged speed of 31 km / h, it allowed the eccentric British billionaire Richard Branson to set a new record for the Channel crossing. (He traveled the country from one ocean to the other in 1 hour 40 minutes and 6 seconds.) But, like the 2004 Swiss Rinspeed Splash, the l & 39; Aquada was a limited concept car and has never been mass-produced.

Machine purists continue to criticize four-wheeled boats as they steal cars. At the same time, the residents of the Great Lakes and the reducers looking to the future continue to promote them. "My former boss, he always hated when people said they were not a very good car or a very good boat," says Brunner, the automotive parts supplier. But, because of the "mixed design criteria of the vehicle, there were compromises". Just look at the shape of the vehicle. "Amphicar, for all intents and purposes, has the shape of a brick – an attractive brick," says Dutton. "With the boats, you want a good point to separate the water, but you can not have a good point on a car, because you would do the trick of the harpooners."

Compromises aside, Dutton and Brunner think that amphibious cars are an engineering feat – and totally ready to be transported. (Dutton bets his life on it, the inventor does not know how to swim, but relies on these tight rides all the time) -a machine.

Every year Dutton sells about 10 submersibles. About half is purchased for industrial purposes – scientists could use it for watershed research, for example – and the other half is for entertainment. Responding to refurbished Amphibious and Recreational projects, the total number of useable waterproof canes indicates that only a few hundred people feel the need to drive their car in a river at any time.

For the rest of us, we manage to get by with separate cars and a boat, at least for the moment. "We will have them all, with climate change," predicts Dutton. "When there is everywhere three feet of sea level rise, they will make a lot of sense."