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An Amphibious Amphicar Bash in Ohio


And back on planet Earth, you may have heard big, older model American cars referred to as `land yachts,' but what would you call a car that really is a boat? Well, as it turns out, you'd call it an Amphicar--Amphicar, and it was produced in Germany in the 1960s. Back then, the amphibious vehicle proved to be a flop, but recently it's experienced a revival. Reporter Trish Anderton went to an Amphicar rally in the little town of Celina, Ohio, and filed this report.


Here in Celina on Saturday afternoon, the bank clock reads 96 degrees. The central Ohio sun beats down without mercy. For Darryl Tressner(ph) and his friend, Barb Evans(ph), that means just one thing: It's the perfect time for a drive in the lake.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

ANDERTON: As Tressner noses his sky-blue 1967 Amphicar off the boat ramp into the water, he steps on the clutch to switch power from the wheels to a pair of small propellers under the rear bumper. The tires disappear under the water.

Mr. DARRYL TRESSNER (Amphicar Owner): It's pretty exciting the first time. Everybody thinks they should sink, don't they?

ANDERTON: Well, yes, but we don't sink. The Amphicar's body is designed to be airtight like the hull of a boat. The doors are double-sealed with rubber and there's a bilge pump in case water does get in. The Amphicar feels surprisingly stable and buoyant as we head further out onto Grand Lake St. Marys. Like all Amphicars, Tressner's is a convertible. Tressner simply turns the steering wheel to keep the Amphicar on course. He explains that the front wheels act as rudders.

Mr. TRESSNER: They steer better to the right than the left because both propellers are turning us to the right. They're pushing us right already. You learn that if you ever have to turn in a hurry, you turn right.

ANDERTON: There's one other thing you learn: To stop, you have to put the propellers in reverse. Barb Evans says that's hard for rookies to remember.

(Soundbite of engine)

Ms. BARB EVANS (Amphicar Fancier): You can tell new owners of Amphicars, because when they're out in the water and they want to stop, they'll put their brakes on. They'll hit the brake lights, and you'll see the brake lights light up.

ANDERTON: When you hear the words `amphibious vehicle,' you may imagine something heavy and lumbering like a military duck boat, but the Amphicar looks more like a smaller version of a '57 Chevy, complete with fins on the back. It perches high on its tires. Its long nose and round headlights combine to give it a slightly surprised and kind of goofy expression. The Amphicar was developed in Germany after World War II. The company that made it figured car-happy Americans would go crazy for a vehicle that doubled as a boat. They were wrong.

Mr. HUGH GORDON (Amphicar Owner): Amphicar made a mistake. They tried to market the car as everything: your car, your boat, your jeep, everything.

ANDERTON: The Germans should have pushed the vehicle's quirky appeal, says Hugh Gordon, one of the fathers of the Amphicar revival. Gordon bought his first Amphicar when he got out of college in the early '60s. Then he realized he could make a modest living getting them at bargain basement prices and turning them around for a profit.

Mr. GORDON: I would buy an Amphicar, drive it around in lakes. Some guy come up to me, buy it out from under me. I'd get another one, drive it. That's all I did for about four years.

ANDERTON: Gordon has had more adventures in Amphicars than some people have in an entire lifetime. He drove one from Michigan to Mexico and back, crossing hurricane-swollen rivers along the way. He's driven them in Lake Michigan in high winds and heavy swells. Now Gordon sells Amphicar parts for a living. Some he bought in Europe after the factory closed in 1968; others he's convinced the manufacturers to start producing again. With the growth of the Internet, Amphicar owners have found each other and formed clubs. That's inspired people with old Amphicars in their barns and garages to dig them out and restore them.

(Soundbite of water splashing; Amphicar)

ANDERTON: On Saturday night, the Amphicar owners went back out on the lake, headlights playing over the dark water. John Edelstein looked on. Edelstein is president of the International Amphicar Owners Club. He says he bought his Amphicar partly because he never got the hang of backing a boat trailer down a ramp.

(Soundbite of water splashing)

Mr. JOHN EDELSTEIN (International Amphicar Owners Club): I don't have to do anything. I just turn on the key and drive in the water. Drive out, dry it off, park it back in the garage.

ANDERTON: But Edelstein says the main reason the Amphicar is back is that it's fun. Wherever he goes, he says, people wave and laugh and point and take pictures.

Mr. EDELSTEIN: They come over. They fondle your car, which, you know, if you've got a Jaguar or a Lamborghini you could frown on that. But an Amphicar, everybody's like, `Yeah, yeah, go ahead, touch it. Yeah, sit in it. Let's go for a ride.'

ANDERTON: While the Amphicar has finally gotten the popularity it missed, its future is somewhat cloudy. Fewer than 4,000 were ever made, and just 500 or so are now in working condition. Since no new transmissions or chassis are being made, some fans worry the Amphicar's days are numbered. But Edelstein says he's not losing any sleep. He says Amphicar owners already invest a lot of time, money and ingenuity in their cars. He's confident they'll find a way to keep them running and swimming for years to come. For NPR News, I'm Trish Anderton.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Trish Anderton