Amphicar enthusiasts equally comfy on land, in water
By Jane Beathard
It’s a car, a boat and a collectible piece of automotive history.
An amphicar – short for amphibious car – is all these things wrapped into one classy little convertible. And one of the best places to see an array of these restored and functioning car/boats is northwest Ohio’s Grand Lake St. Marys in late July.
That’s when the International Amphicar Owners Club gathers for its annual three-day “swim-in,” which coincides with the Celina Lake Festival.
It’s the largest gathering of amphicar owners in the world, according to Jim Golomb, club president.
In July this year, about 100 people with 35 cars traveled from 15 states to socialize, compete in water games and display their vehicles. In years past, enthusiasts have also come from as far as England, Germany and Australia – although generally without their amphicars, considering shipping costs.
Why Ohio’s Grand Lake?
About 21 years ago, club leaders mapped the addresses of the 300 or so amphicar owners in the United States and learned Celina was geographically equi-distant for most of them. Marrying the swim-in event to the annual lake festival seemed a logical move for everyone, Golomb said.
A West German company produced slightly more than 3,800 amphicars between 1961 and 1968. That number fell far short of the 10,000 the company originally planned to make.
“They (cars) did not perform well,” Golomb said. “They missed the mark.”
Three thousand of the 3,800 produced in Europe were shipped to the United States where they were introduced to the public at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
That, too, was a near-disaster, Golomb said, since the car’s display area was ‘off site’ – on the fringe of the fairgrounds. Not many fairgoers saw them.
A few cars were picked up by the “Santa Village” in Chicago and the rest were scattered to dealerships around the country.
Only two models in four colors were ever manufactured. Dealers added model year numbers only after a car was sold. Consequently, it is difficult today to determine exactly when an amphicar rolled off the assembly line.
The cars were difficult to maintain, especially with frequent transfers from highway to waterway. Many ended up at the bottom of lakes and streams.
In Celina last July, a club officer constantly reminded drivers to “check their plugs” as they headed down the boat ramp and onto the lake.
Restoration and maintenance of an amphicar can be a pricey endeavor, generally costing about $100,000. Only four or five mechanics in the country know how to restore one and make it operable, Golomb said.
Once the original manufacturer closed, its stock of amphicar parts was bought up by a European who eventually sold it to Gordon Imports in California. Today, that company is the only place where amphicar parts can be ordered.
A few years ago, a California company tried manufacturing an SUV-like water-car that was built from a kit. Like the German version of the 1960s, that “Panther” amphicar also failed to attract customers.
What kind of person is drawn to buy an amphicar?
“People who like unusual things – something different,” Golomb said.
He owns a 1964 (he thinks) amphicar, as well as a 1955 Messerschmitt KR200, a 1951 MG-TD and a 1957 Isetta 300. All are fully restored.
Many of the vehicles gathered at Grand Lake in July were modified – a typical move for amphicar owners – most of whom appeared to be senior citizens. That’s the generation most interested in restoring and driving old cars, Golomb observed.
Free amphicar rides were available to anyone interested at the swim-in gathering. That was especially true for children.
“We are trying to get kids involved,” Golomb said.
Otherwise, the next best place to hop into a restored amphicar is at Disney Springs in Florida’s Disney World Resort. There, a 20 to 30-minute ride will cost an enthusiast about $125.
Cutlines for photos sent:
An amphicar splashes into Grand Lake St. Marys for the start of a Scrabble game played on the water. Other games played on the water during the swim-in include Bobbing for Booze and a Poker Run
Steve Behneke of Wisconsin sorts lettered tennis balls into words, following an on-the-water Scrabble game played by amphicar owners at Grand Lake.
A “Panther” amphicar heads onto Grand Lake during the annual swim-in. These cars were built from kits and could cost up to $200,000.