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Driving on Water: A History of Amphibious Car Concepts

Is there anything more exotic than the thought of pulling up at the seaside and driving your car straight into the water, as you voyage across the waves just like James Bond? The history of amphibious cars goes back over 200 years, encompassing all kinds of weird and wonderful concepts. 

Early origins

Back in the 1770s, Italian nobleman Raimondo di Sangro came up with a design for an amphibious carriage. The inspired inventor lays claim to being the brain behind coloured fireworks and a printing press able to print different colours in one impression. Meanwhile, his amphibious carriage was made up of wood and cork “horses”, and could operate on both land and water thanks to a system of paddle wheels.

First self-propelled vehicle

Just after the turn of the century, American inventor and engineer Oliver Evans designed the first known self-propelled amphibious vehicle. The Orukter Amphibolos was a steam-powered wheeled dredging barge, although it’s disputed whether he successfully managed to get it to travel over land and water on its own.

Other efforts

Fast forward to 1849, and Gail Borden - who also invented sweetened condensed milk - designed a sail powered wagon, although it ran into trouble close to shore and can’t be considered a wholehearted success. Alligator tugs did a better job in North America for logging companies in the 1870s, but it was only after the 1920s where things developed from pretty much sticking a set of wheels and axles on boat hull.

All around the world

On 13 May 1958, an Australian called Ben Carlin completed an incredible 10-year journey to quite literally drive around the world. He modified a Ford GPA, and travelled 11,000 miles by sea and almost 40,000 miles by land, beginning and ending his voyage in Montreal. That remains the first and only documented circumnavigation of the earth by amphibious vehicle.

People bought into amphibious cars

Things really got going for amphibious cars in the swinging sixties. Between 1961 and 1968, some 4,000 Amphicar models were built, making it the first, and probably only to date, commercial success. Even US president Lyndon B. Johnson had one of these West German creations, which deployed a petrol engine from the Triumph Herald and mounted it to the rear where you also found a set of twin propellers activated by the flick of a lever. 

And the army used them too

Before that commercial success, the VW Schwimmwagen was built prolifically during the Second World War. The German military produced over 14,000 models between 1942 and 1944, and it later went into production where it came with an oar for reversing. 

What else has there been?

If it’s speed you’re after, then the Rinspeed Splash is the amphibious concept for you. With a 750cc, two-cylinder turbocharged engine, it had designs on reaching some 125mph on land, and 45 knots of the water. Elsewhere, the SeaRoader Lamborghini Countach had a hydrofoil at the front to lift its nose out of the water as you cruise along in serious style.

Discover the deep

Finally, back to Bond himself. Inspired by the very car that 007 took beneath the waves in The Spy Who Loved Me, the sQuba is another creation from the good folk at Rinspeed. With an all-electric powertrain for underwater diving, this submarine car comes with an oxygen regulator and is capable of hitting 75mph on the road before the propellers and twin blow jets power you along in the water.