Amphibious Amphicar review

By: Guy Allen & Angelo Loupetis, Photography by: Guy Allen & Angelo Loupetis

Presented by

Is it possible to have a halfway decent car that can just trundle down the nearest boat ramp and go for a swim?

It’s one of those dream combinations, isn’t it? A car that can literally drive on water, or a car that can also fly. Lots of attempts have been made over the years, with wildly varying degrees of success. And it’s kind of irresistible if you have any interest in machinery. As they say in the classics, whatever floats your boat...

When Amphicar owner Tony Nassar got in touch with us ages ago, we essentially built a road trip around visiting him in Cooma, NSW. He’s involved with the incredibly lively Cooma Monaro Historic Car Club, which runs the annual Cooma Motorfest in November.


He has a bit of a taste for quirky machinery but how on earth did he get wrapped up in these? "This was a long-time dream," he explains. "There was a Snap-On Tools calendar getting around when I was 19. Each page had girls holding the tools with a car in the background. And on page three of this one was a car with propellers showing and I was interested. So it’s been on my mind for over 20 years."

The subject of Tony’s desires isn’t the easiest thing in the world to get your hands on. They were built in Germany across 1961-68 and just 3878 were made. We suspect the survival rate is fairly low.


It depends on the angle, but you could be forgiven for not realising it swims..

Its design roots go back to World War II and the Volkswagen Schwimmwagen military vehicle designed by Hans Tippel. He went on to develop the Amphicar, with the support of industrialist Harald Quandt. The Quandt family retains strong roots in the German auto industry, with long-term holdings in BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

If nothing else, the Amphicar’s make-up was very pragmatic. Aside from the custom-built body, it drew components from a wide variety of sources. Tony ticks off the components list: "He used a Triumph engine, a Porsche transmission (four-speed manual), steering is Volkswagen, wheels and brakes (drums) are Mercedes-Benz and the interior is Borgward."


Angelo survives his first 'swim'

Of all those, the engine is arguably the most intriguing – why a Triumph engine? Price would have played a big part, plus the compact four was reliable enough for its day and was small enough to fit in the intended space.

According to Tony, the end product was still expensive – roughly equivalent to the price of an E-type Jaguar.


It brings a whole new meaning to the term 'Sunday cruise'!

They weren’t exactly a top-seller in Australia, with only a few making it here when they were new. The first was believed to be owned by NSW pharmacist Rod Radford. He lived in the Wagstaffe district, on the water south of Gosford, and for him the Amphicar was a godsend. This was before the Rip Bridge was built.

He could almost throw a rock across the water from his house to his pharmacy, but it was something like an hour’s drive.

However it was a mere ten minutes across the water, and the little car (he owned two) turned out to be an ideal delivery vehicle in the water-bound district.


For Tony, getting his own example was a roller-coaster journey. These are expensive cars, with the world record at auction set at over US$100k (see sidebar). That was a somewhat terrifying amount and probably more than he was prepared to fork over. As fortune would have it, the Global Financial Crisis hit about a decade ago and classic car prices in the USA plummeted. At the same time, the exchange rate swung in our favour, with the Aussie dollar buying US$1.10 at its height.

It was time for Tony to strike. "I had been looking over the time and the values kept fluctuating," he said, "sometimes to a level where I thought it would be out of my reach. Some salt-water cars came up, but they have challenges.


"I have an uncle who lives in Florida and a lot of them ended up there, because they have a lot of freshwater lakes. An auction came up during the last GFC, so my uncle had a good look and said this was the one to get."

It was a new year’s day event, which probably kept the interest down, and Tony found himself bidding by laptop while on holiday. He got it.

What he got when he unpacked the crate was in very good shape and complete. Tony decided to give the body a once-over and a new coat of paint, but leave everything else pretty much alone.


Engine is by Triumph

Performance for the little car is not exactly staggering and the model designation is a clue to what it does. It’s an Amphicar 770, with the numbering standing for 7 knots on the water and 70mph on the road.

Standard they run the 1147cc version of the Triumph engine, though a popular upgrade is the 1493cc version out of the Triumph Spitfire. Tony accepts the performance for what is. "While it’s travelling it will do 100km/h, but you’re dropping gears once you encounter hills. And you’re basically pushing a brick through water, so it’s not very dynamic," he says.


"It drives like a boat on land and like a car in the water," he laughs. "You have to get your head around that. If you want a good car, go and buy one, if you want a faster boat go and buy one." Clearly, it’s about the fun factor.

Of course, a lot depends on what you define as fun. Former USA President Lyndon Johnson was notorious for using his Amphicar to scare visitors to his Texas ranch. Driving at speed towards the lake, he’d pretend to lose control and let the car spear
into the water, without having mentioned any amphibious ability. Some guests/victims, were not amused.


 Note the navigation lights on the bonnet

Registered both as a boat and a car, the diminutive machine is arguably less complex to use than you might expect. Okay, it has a locking/sealing mechanism for the doors, and a bilge pump – not your standard car appointments – but it seems otherwise pretty conventional.

Obviously the propellers are engaged when the car is in the water, and the gearshift is moved to neutral. You re-engage first as you cruise back to terra firma, and simply drive out.


The interior is thought to be Borgward

It sits fairly low in the water and seems to get along just fine, with the steering wheel acting as the rudder. It’s a little weird to sit in a car and see a bow-wave.

Tony says that he sometimes gets a laugh from the response of unsuspecting onlookers as he casually meanders down to the water’s edge at Lake Jindabyne and keeps going. Sometimes they wave their arms and reach for the mobile phone, until they realise the car is perfectly alright. New passengers often react in funny ways too, such as instinctively lifting their feet as the car hits the water.


So was it a good decision to buy an Amphicar? "Absolutely," says Tony, "and I still have that calendar!"

Record setter

Barrett-Jackson Auctions in Scottsdale Arizona are known for setting record sale prices.


Back in 2006, well known American concept car restorer Tom Maruska sold his nut 'n' bolt restored 1964 Amphicar for a record price of USD$124,200. Amphicars have gained popularity since and have become regular participants on the worldwide classic car auction scene.

Disney connection

Amphicar hype even secured a place in the happiest place on earth, Disneyland's Disney Springs, located at Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

Back in 2015 the Boathouse introduced a fleet of Amphicars which were upgraded to endure 18 hours of daily operations destined to run everyday of the year.


The upgrades included a re-designed bilge pump system and substantial unseen upgrades costing USD$65-75K above the purchase price of the vehicles.

Rides cost $125 per car for a 20 minute lake tour and you get your very own captain.


1964 770 Amphicar

Body: 2-door roadster, amphibious
Engine: 1.2-litre four
Ppwer & torque: 32kW @ 4750rpm, 81Nm @ 2250rpm
Top speed: 110km/h (70mph) on land, 7kts on water
Transmission: Four-speed, all synchromesh manual
Suspension: Independent front & rear
Brakes: Drums front & rear
Numbers built: 3878


From Unique Cars #445, Oct 2020

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