It happened today - September 17, 2015

President Lyndon B. Johnson driving an AmphicarIn case you’ve forgotten, September 17 of 1965 saw the triumphant arrival of two “Amphicars” at the Frankfurt Motor Show, having crossed the English Channel in about seven hours. Ah yes. Amphibious cars. The only model ever mass produced. Where are they now?

When we survey the magnificent march of progress we go from one brilliant invention to another, from waterproof cement to stirrups to windmills to steam engines to computer chips to karaoke machines, sometimes savouring the improbable connections between one great discovery and another. But it’s important to remember that for every technology that struggled from those comic clips of early airplanes crashing, collapsing, failing even to get off the ground before crumpling into it, the “hopeful monsters” of human ingenuity, there are countless things that inspired enthusiasm without ever getting anywhere.

Oh sure, you may say, the Amphicar was just one more product of the 1960s, an era that thought it would be cool to have pant-legs be really wide at the bottom, button jackets to the neck and let George Lazenby play James Bond tongue-in-cheek. But for all its follies, the decade saw some serious advances in both good and bad directions. The Amphicar is not so much a period piece as a lasting monument to the human habit of creating solutions to which no problem could be found as well as the reverse.

The Amphicar, for those of you who are not enthusiasts, was in production from 1961 to 1968 and nearly 4000 of these convertibles were produced, in four colours (Beach White, Regatta Red, Lagoon Blue, and Fjord Green) and powered, if that’s the word I’m looking for here, by a four-cylinder 43-horsepower rear British engine. Yes, I said convertible; just what you want while driving a car into the choppy English Channel is a soft retractable roof. That perhaps can be put down to the 1960s.

Evidently the manufacturers, Quandt, called it the “770” because of a basically unproven theory that it could go 70 mph on land and 7 in the water, though one owner opined that it did neither, holding instead the dubious distinction of being “the fastest car on the water and the fastest boat on the road.”

It was fairly rugged though. At least judging from the fact that when one of the two cars crossing the Channel from Dover in 1965 got a flooded engine the other was able to tow it the rest of the way to Calais. Unfortunately it wasn’t very environmentally sound. Most Amphicars, about ¾, were sold to Americans and when it couldn’t meet strict new pollution standards in the U.S. it went out of production.

Incredibly, enthusiasts have kept several hundred of the things on the road, or river, to this day. It is however one of those occasions when “They just don’t build them like they used to” is praise not blame. But don’t worry. The human race, between nude selfies, is eagerly at work on countless other things that are every bit as ingenious and pointless as a Lagoon Blue Amphicar.

It happened todayJohn Robson