Amphicar: driving to the drink

Feb 20, 2017 General Interest ,Technology

When Darryl Goble heads out for a drive, he’s likely to end up in deep water – and still make it home in time for dinner, writes Lindsay Wright.

It was a few days before Christmas and not a reindeer was in sight, when we spotted what looked like Santa’s sleigh tootling down a central Taranaki road. The gentleman at the helm was a few follicles short of the real Santa’s face wear but his little bright red conveyance did sport twin propellers under its angular transom stern.

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“It’s a 1964 Amphicar 7-70,” explains owner Darryl Goble. “It was years ahead of its time. You can be driving along the road, come across a launching ramp and, within minutes, you change from being a motorist to a mariner.”

The perky little German auto takes to the water like – well – a duck, and comfortably cruises at 8.7 – 10.4 knots (16 – 19.2 km/h). Its two doors have double rubber seals and extra door handles at the bottom which operate a cam-style arrangement to squeeze them tight.

“I was really nervous when we first put it in the water,” says Darryl. “We lowered it down the launching ramp on a rope tied to my ute, ready to pull it out again at the first sign of trouble. But it didn’t leak a drop. Since then the perky little Amphicar has given the Gobles many hours of leak-free family fun on local lakes and watercourses.

Darryl, who has a collection of 15 – 20 classic cars, located the Amphicar through an
advertisement in a local newspaper in 1990.

“It was sitting in a defunct museum at Okaiawa. It didn’t look too bad externally – but it was completely rusted out underneath and covered in a layer of bird and possum crap. It came with a few boxes of parts and trim.”

The Amphicar was trailered to its new home in Stratford and the beginning of an eight-year rebuild.
The first step was a total acid bath at a specialist shop in Rotorua. “I bought the car for $5,500 – but I’ve spent thousands of dollars on it since,” says Darryl.

His car – Amphicar number 20-0001 – was one of 3,800 produced at the German factory of Industrie Werke Karlsruhe, mostly for the American market.

“Around a hundred right-hand drive versions were built – and this car is the first of those. It was imported to New Zealand in September 1964 with 1,600 miles (2,560 km) on the clock. The designer, Hans Trippel, served jail time imposed by the Allies for his role in designing amphibious military vehicles for the Nazis, but his first prototype – called the ‘Eurocar’ – was displayed at the 1959 Geneva Motor Show.

About 250 of the cars are still in working order around the world and International Amphicar Club records show that three of those are in New Zealand.

“A Karl Walker from Wellington brought this one in – I’d love to get in touch with him so he could see it now,” says Darryl.

The immaculate little convertible, its red coachwork highlighted by white naugahyde upholstery, collapsible top and white rubber chafing strip, is powered by a 1,297cc four-cylinder Triumph Herald engine which develops 60hp at 4,750 rpm, driving through a Porsche gearbox. The designer tried various German engines – but they were all too heavy.

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The two nylon propellers, which look so incongruous on the road, drive off the crankshaft through a 3:1 reduction gear. One drawback with this set up is that both propellers are right-hand rotation – not counter-rotating as a twin-prop installation on a boat should be.

“It does turn a hell of a lot better in one direction than the other,” Darryl admits, “but considering that the only rudders are the front wheels, it handles amazingly well in the water.” Top road speed is about
120km/h, but he says you wouldn’t want to push it hard around any corners.

A small lever pokes from the floor beside the gangly gearshift to move from ahead to astern and the throttle is operated by a conventional automotive foot pedal. The retro dashboard features a speedo, rev counter and knot meter.

The Amphicar tips the scales at just over a tonne, has an overall length of 4.3m and a beam of 2.21m. It draws about 600mm of water underway. The underwater area consists of a large steel pan and brake lines. Control cables and other penetrations in the pan are fitted with rubber seals.

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The rear axle operates in a water-filled tube that runs athwartships and Darryl says that the rubber seal for the transmission is a major drawback in the design.

“If that rubber seal goes – they fill up with water and flip over backwards,” he says. The Operation Manual gives stability data which recommends that weight distribution should be 38 percent forward and 62 percent at the rear axle. Darryl says the back digs into the water a bit when he puts his
foot down.

“We’ve restored everything – right down to the last nut and bolt and made a few improvements along the way. We put extra seals around the handbrake, fitted a new Stromberg carburettor – and a new transmission oil drain.”

An hour meter was installed to record the amount of time the car spends afloat and a modern automatic bilge pump has replaced the ‘clunky’ old German model.

“You can buy most of the parts off the shelf in the US. I acquired parts and had work done as I could afford it. I was lucky – two mates, Brian Hewson and Brendan Old, helped me out heaps with work and know-how.”

The Amphicar begins to cross the broad line between motor car and motor boat with the plaque on the dashboard reminding skippers to fit the bilge bung, make sure the luggage compartment is securely closed and the lower levers are fully closed to seal the doors.

It continues on the bonnet with the stylish chrome navigation light fitting and the 1960s horn which looks like it would be equally effective in a fog bank or a traffic jam. It also doubles as a breather for the 52-litre fuel tank in the forward hold.

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A removable all round white light is mounted on a stalk on the boot and stylish fins either side of the engine compartment are curved outwards to deflect any water finding its way aboard.

“The hydraulic drum brakes are supposed to be waterproof but they need a pretty hard workout to dry them off when you come out of the water,” says Darryl.

“It’s the first and only boat I’ve owned – so it’s taught me a lot about boating too – maybe I should have a Day Skipper’s ticket to go with my driver’s licence.”