Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
49 years ago, two of history's greatest boat-car hybrids heroically traversed the English Channel.
But for a brief, heady time, tomorrow's car was the Amphicar—"the sportscar that swims."
Like a sexy, two-seater Duckboat, the Amphicar was the world's only amphibious car ever to reach civilian mass production. Manufactured in Germany from 1961 to 1965, the majority of the 3,900 or so Amphicars made were sold in the U.S. to well-heeled sports enthusiasts.
But a small share came to the U.K., and it was the Brits who arguably made the most dashing use of the seafaring convertibles. On September 16, 1965, four Englishmen set out in two Amphicars to cross the English Channel. "Boating" from Dover to Calais, they'd then drive some 375 miles to the Frankfurt Auto Show to make an utterly dashing entrance.
Behold two of the intrepid drivers, setting out from Dover:
From the outset, "a fair amount of roll and pitch was evident," as one of the drivers wrote. "Currents at times tended to come from the side; the only way to combat this was to put the foot down hard and motor through the top of the wave, clinging grimly to the steering wheel and watching the compass for direction."
A bilge pump on one of the cars turned out to be blocked five hours into the 31-mile trip. Using a single nylon rope, the other Amphicar towed it another two and a half hours, until they reached Calais:
The beach was soft sand and the going was difficult; however, the local French populace appeared miraculously in their hundreds and very soon we had the crowd organized on a 125-foot nylon rope; together we got the two cars on to the beach. There we were greeted by rather amazed customs and immigration officials, who had been informed of our arrival only an hour beforehand.
The crew spent the night in Calais, arriving the next day (September 17) at Frankfurt in full Amphicar glam. Read the full account of the onetime car of the future's epic traverse here.