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Kind of Gives 'Car Pool' a New Meaning

The now-rare 1960s German Amphicar can go for a spin on land and in the water.

April 03, 2001|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first time Dick Bruner drove his car into the water, his knees were shaking. But when the propellers kicked in and he pulled away from the dock, he realized the hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars he had put in to restoring his vintage German Amphicar had paid off. Not only did it handle perfectly on the street, it floated.

"We resealed everything so we could go in the lake and bring it back home instead of sink it," laughed Bruner, 60, a real estate broker from Rancho Palos Verdes who got the car from his wife's uncle four years ago.

"I've always liked weird cars," admitted the rather normal-looking Bruner, who owns a classic Volvo and Ford Mustang as well as one of the last 500 Amphicars on the planet. The other 3,000 that were manufactured in the '60s have since rusted away into obsolescence.

The cars, which initially sold for $3,000 but now fetch upward of $40,000, have in recent years become highly collectible playthings for the rich, pet projects for the mechanically minded and subjects of intense curiosity for regular Joes who never knew such a car had even been invented, let alone mass produced.

"I always remember to comb my hair and put on my lipstick before I go in the Amphicar," said Jeani Gordon, 59. Gordon and her husband, Hugh, run Gordon Imports, an Amphicar parts business in Santa Fe Springs.

The Gordons own 16 of the land-water vehicles but "only one good one," a 1967 model that they keep at their cottage in northern Michigan where they "drive right off of our yard into the water."

They have been driving and boating in the car there for 25 years. Still, whenever and wherever they go, "it's like the first time anyone's ever seen it," she said. "I keep thinking no one's gonna stare at us. Ha-ha. . . . I've been photographed more times than some movie stars."

Gordon said she doesn't like all the attention, but for many owners that's precisely the appeal.

"It's the uniqueness," said Marc Schlemmer, president of the Kentucky-based Amphicar Club, an international group with 240 members. Whenever he takes his out on the Cincinnati River, he said he receives standing ovations from those eating in restaurants along the waterfront.

"An Amphicar can be sitting next to any car made--a Corvette or a Porsche--and everyone's eyes turn to the Amphicar," he said.

The propellers tucked under the rear fender are a bit of a giveaway that this is no regular automobile. That and the rubber seals around the doors and tie-downs along the left edge of the body--the ones that hold the car to the dock and prevent it from floating away.

Manufactured in four colors--fjord green, regatta red, lagoon blue and beach white--they travel a maximum of 70 mph on land and 7 mph on water. That isn't quite fast enough to water-ski, though some have tried. Bruner said the former owner of his car used to pull his twin daughters behind the Amphicar on a sheet of plywood.

A vintage ad banner hanging in Bruner's garage reads, "It's a car. It's a boat. Amphicar. The car of the future--here today."

It hasn't quite lived up to that promise. Designed by Hans Trippel, a German inventor who developed his first amphibious vehicle for the German army in World War II, the Amphicar was produced from 1961 to 1968 at a factory in Berlin. About 3,500 were manufactured. Ninety percent of them were imported to the United States, which was seen as having more frivolous consumption habits.

But in 1968, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation effected more stringent environmental and safety requirements. The Amphicar couldn't comply and went out of business. The remaining parts have since been purchased by Gordon Imports.

While amphibious vehicles have been used for years in various countries' military operations, the Amphicar was the first and only mass-produced land-water vehicle for commercial use. The original inventor--Trippel--is still alive, having survived a stint in prison for Nazi war crimes. Since then, he has attempted to produce other versions of the Amphicar, but he never got funding. A couple of companies in Europe have also attempted to emulate the Amphicar in recent years but have never gone into production.

It's the safety and environmental requirements that will prevent such a car from ever being manufactured again.

"There are so many Coast Guard regulations on the water and safety regulations on the land that it would be very difficult for one vehicle to comply," said Schlemmer.

That's just as well for Schlemmer and the other members of his Amphicar Club. His group hosts a national convention each July in Ohio and eight regional events throughout the year so enthusiasts can gather, gawk and go for "swim-ins," driving their cars into various lakes.

Fresh water is far preferable to salt water, which corrodes these already high-maintenance steel cars. Michigan, land of a thousand lakes, has a high concentration of Amphicar owners, Schlemmer said, followed by Florida and California, where the weather is good but fresh water is hard to find.

Driving down the sidewalk in his red Amphicar with his son Scott last week, Bruner navigated his way through an assortment of ducks and geese, down a ramp and into a local reservoir, all the while looking out for police or park officials.

"We're not doing anything illegal here," he joked over the roar of the engine, noting there were no signs in the park prohibiting the use of amphibious vehicles. "We're just going to sneak in and out where no one will see us."

Bruner said he sought and received the lake manager's approval to take his car in the water and test for leaks.

"We've been in there three times," he said, then added with a smile, "testing for leaks."

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