- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 25, 2004

“The car of the future is here today,” boast 40-year-old ads for Amphicar. “The car that swims.”

The only civilian amphibious passenger automobile ever to be mass produced was built in Germany from 1961 to 1968. Of the 3,878 vehicles manufactured, 3,046 were shipped to the United States. When new, the unique cars sold for between $2,800 and $3,300.

One of the dealerships was located in what is now a condominium at Prince and South Fairfax streets in Old Town Alexandria, convenient to the Potomac River.

Just down the street in those days, young Brendan O’Leary was busy growing up. “I remember all the colorful cars lined up outside,” he says. All Amphicars are convertibles and they originally were offered in only four colors:

• Beach white.

• Regatta red.

• Lagoon blue.

• Fjord green.

Young Mr. O’Leary walked by the dealership daily and asked the sales staff the same questions people ask him today:

• Does it float?

• Do the propellers work?

• How do you steer it?

He wasn’t even a teenager when U.S. government regulations went into effect with the 1968 mode- year vehicles and effectively put the Amphicar company out of business. Almost 80 percent of its sales had been in the United States.

But the government regulators in the Department of Transportation were too late. Mr. O’Leary had already been exposed to the Amphicar virus even though he was six years away from having a driver’s license.

During the next few decades Mr. O’Leary was to learn that the Amphicar virus can only be controlled, not cured.

From the mid-1980s when he bought his first Amphicar, a Fjord green 1966 model, he never considered it his primary mode of transportation. He had a daily driver car when he found that Amphicar in Maryland.

Mr. O’Leary acknowledges that his knowledge of Amphicars at that time was limited. “I never took it in the water,” he says.

That car was soon sold and another Fjord green Amphicar in New York caught his eye. That one was a 1967 model. He kept that one a few years and sold it in 1990.

His third Amphicar was also a Fjord green 1967 model also located in New York. “It was a rust bucket,” Mr. O’Leary says. He had it trucked to a restoration shop in New Jersey. After a month he received an estimate on the cost of restoration and quickly sold the vehicle to someone with deeper pockets.

A pristine Regatta red 1967 Amphicar from Pennsylvania became Mr. O’Leary’s fourth one in 1998. Unfortunately, a real estate deal came along a year later and, as Mr. O’Leary says, “The house won.”

Late in 2003 Mr. O’Leary learned of a Regatta red 1966 Amphicar in California being offered by the second owner. “I bought it sight unseen,” Mr. O’Leary says. “I really lucked out.” The original owner kept the vehicle at Mount Shasta in California until 2002 when the second owner moved it to Sacramento.

When the Amphicar arrived at Mr. O’Leary’s Alexandria doorstep, it was accompanied by a spare transmission, spare wheels and assorted other goodies.

Like every Amphicar, this one weighs 2,288 pounds and has a rear-mounted 70-cubic-inch, British-built Triumph Herald four-cylinder engine that develops 43 horsepower.

The canted fins on the rear fenders of the 14-foot, 2-inch-long car/boat help ensure that, when waterborne, water doesn’t wash over the rear engine hood, which is perforated with 52 louvers. If water should wash through the louvers, Mr. O’Leary explains, the efficient bilge pump will push it out through a hole in the panel near the right taillight.

Both the width and height of the Amphicar are within a hair of 5 feet. The ride on land is rather choppy because of the 82.6-inch wheelbase. “It’s a heavy car with a small motor,” Mr. O’Leary says. The speedometer is set to record speeds up to 90 mph even though factory literature lists a top speed of 75 mph on land. That top speed drops to 10 to 12 mph in the water because with a ground clearance of 10 inches the wheels mounted with 6.40x13-inch tires create considerable drag in the water. The front wheels are the rudders that steer the car on land or sea.

Mr. O’Leary says the well-maintained Amphicar has the original gray-and-white vinyl upholstery. The white vinyl top and red paint have been replaced, the paint in 1990.

A few of the more noticeable features that set the Amphicar apart are the Coast Guard-required registration numbers on the front fenders. If the horn protruding from the deck lid in front of the windshield isn’t enough of a nautical clue, then the chrome hood ornament with a split red/green light should be. The Coast Guard-mandated white pole light is removable for land travel but can easily be snapped into place on the rear deck lid.

Like most motor boats, the Amphicar is lined on both sides and the rear with a rub rail to prevent damage when docking. The rear is otherwise protected by a pair of nautical-inspired vertical bumpers.

“Amazingly,” Mr. O’Leary says, “parts are readily available.” All the control knobs are labeled much like any other 1960s-era car except for two, one labeled “navigation lights” and the other “bilge pump.”

A special two-part land/water transmission allows the rear wheels and two nylon propellers to be operated independently or simultaneously.

“It’s no speedboat,” Mr. O’Leary says. The land part of the transmission is a four-speed unit while the water part is a two-speed offering with single forward and reverse gears. Both props turn clockwise to go forward and counterclockwise to reverse.

Mr. O’Leary’s outstanding Amphicar has just recently turned over 16,000 miles on the odometer. With a 13 gallon gasoline tank, the factory figures the vehicles can achieve 32 miles per gallon on land and 1.5 gallons of fuel per hour on water.

Citing performance on land and sea, Mr. O’Leary says, “It doesn’t do either well, but it does both.” For him, the future that was promised 40 years ago is here, right now.

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