Swimming car collectors enjoy unique rides
Published: Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 12:56 p.m.
LEESBURG — Debbie Wilkerson thought Ron Trudeau had lost it when he started to drive into the water on their first date.
“I said ‘You're crazy.' I had seen the props on the back of the car, but I thought you would have to stop and add some boat rigging or something, but he just drove right in,” Wilkerson said.
Wilkerson has known Trudeau for about a year and a half and has come to love rides in his red 1967 Amphicar Model 770. The novel ride in the mid-1960s was a compact four-seat rear-engine convertible “hybrid” — which in those days meant a cross between a car and boat.
Trudeau, a retired construction worker, lives in a modular home park on Lake Griffin near Leesburg. It is also home to Gord Souter, a semi-retired auto mechanic and seasonal Leesburg resident from Orillia, Canada. Souter owns five of the Amphicars circa 1961 to 1968.
Both enjoy boating only a short dry drive away.
“There's nothing like your first time going in the water in the Amphicar,” said Souter, a collector, restorer and avid fan of the swimming cars powered by a 1,200 cc Triumph four-cylinder engine made in West Germany from 1961 to 1968 then discontinued due to strict EPA and DOT regulations, according to Souter.
“The car has a four-speed manual transmission. I've made trips of 1,000 miles on land and you can swim for two hours or longer until you get bored,” Souter said.
The Amphicar sold originally for about $2,900. Estimates of a fully restored machine now start at about $70,000.
Souter has a stockpile of parts, including pistons, points and body molds from various sources.
“I can make a hood, side panels and more. I ship parts worldwide to France, Australia and the Netherlands,” he said.
After years of interest in houseboats, Souter married his aquatic pursuits with his automotive knowledge and in 1994 began collecting and restoring Amphicars.
“The Amphicar was the only mass produced swimming car, with about 3,700 of them made,” Souter said.
The compact convertible Amphicar Model 770 will travel about 70 mph on land and clip along at about seven knots in the water, propelled by two 12-inch diameter props while being steered by the front wheels, which act like rudders.
“They get about 34 miles per gallon on land and about one hour of run time in the water on a gallon of gas,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau spotted an Amphicar on the side of the road for sale in 2004. In the process of restoring the machine, he met Souter and struck up a friendship.
“My emergency breakdown kits had a paddle in it,” Trudeau said as he pointed out the Coast Guard certification and the other materials required for boating, including a bilge pump, life jackets and a fire extinguisher.
When heading to the water, an extra lock to seal the door is turned, a hand rod engages the twin props and you're off just the same as any small boat with a bow, stern post and starboard marker lights would be. The water ride is smooth and steady, even in a slight chop.
Celebrities, including custom car builder George Barriss of Batmobile fame, have ridden in Trudeau's Amphicar and autographed the paddle shaped decorative sun visors.
Billy Syx, 60, owner and operator of East Coast Amphicar, a repair and restoration shop for the machines, located in Mays Landing, N.J., has been a devotee of the vehicle for more than 20 years.
“There are likely about 500 of these cars left and about 64 of those have gone through my shop,” Syx said in a telephone interview.
Chicago-area resident Dave “The Wave” Derer became enamored with the little vehicles when he saw people getting rides in Amphicars at a Santa's Village when he was a kid. Derer, 53, owner of a 1961 model, is a member of the International Amphicar Owners Club.
“I was a founding member about 15 years ago. We have about 450 members now,” he said.
The club promoted an event last year where about 60 cars showed up to swim in Ohio, according to Derer, who hopes to open a repair and restoration shop in Central Florida.
When asked to sum up the attraction of the car, Syx said, “You can buy a car that will hit 140 mph and you can buy one that there are only one or two of, but only an Amphicar can do what it does.”
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