The 1960s were a decade of scientific ambition. Some of those ambitions—like computer development and the space program—led to enormous scientific achievements. Others decidedly did not. One ill-conceived aspiration came from auto industrial designer Hanns Trippel. As NASA determined how to put a man on the moon, Trippel asked the brave question: How do we put a car on the Hudson River? Thus was born the Amphicar Model 770, an amphibious vehicle that was part convertible, part boat, and entirely trivial.
While the Amphicar intrigued many at its 1961 New York Auto Show launch, it wouldn’t have taken long for auto buffs to see that the car-boat hybrid was neither a great car nor a great boat. On land it topped out at 70 mph, yet it had a price tag rivaling that of a Mustang. On water, the front-wheel-steering vehicle had less maneuverability than a conventional boat and required greasing at 13 points after operation (one of which necessitated the removal of the back seat).
Time magazine referred to the Amphicar as “a vehicle that promised to revolutionize drowning.” One owner joked, “We like to think of it as the fastest car on the water and fastest boat on the road.”
Due to the Amphicar’s impractical design and hefty price, only 3,878 units were ever produced; however, the novelty of the vehicle earned it a cult following.
Among the Amphicar’s fans was President Lyndon B. Johnson. Known as a practical joker, Johnson was said to have taken unsuspecting guests for Amphicar rides on his ranch. When he reached a hill overlooking the property’s lake, he would shout that the brakes had malfunctioned and drive it down onto the water.
Though the Amphicar did not see great commercial success, it became an instant pop culture phenomenon. To this day, auto enthusiasts love it for its endearing and enduring absurdity.