Amphicar is one of fewer than 4,000 ever made

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011
— Bob Kimball's car wants to be a boat.

His boat wants to be a car.

A sharp eye would spot propellers tucked under the vehicle's back bumper, boat numbers stenciled along the side, a license plate on the rear and life jackets on the back seat.

Settle onto the spiffy, cherry-red seats and rumble down the road. Or turn on the bilge pump and propellers and ease into the Rock River.

Kimball, a Janesville developer and contractor, restored the Amphicar—a vehicle that's at home on the road or on the water.

The four-passenger convertible was one of 3,878 made in Germany from 1961 to 1968. It has a bowed front and a four-cylinder Triumph engine in the rear.

The Amphicar was the only civilian amphibious passenger automobile ever mass-produced.

Kimball likes just about anything with an engine—he has owned boats, trucks, vintage tractors and a plane—and that led him to the Amphicar.

Years ago, Kimball rode on one of the Wisconsin Ducks—amphibious military vehicles produced beginning in World War II that now give tourists rides in the Wisconsin Dells. He thought it was cool that it could run both on the road and in the water.

Kimball went looking for a Duckling, an amphibious jeep. He never found one but stumbled upon a manual for an Amphicar. He located one of the vehicles in storage—"just sitting in a shed, like all these old things are"—north of Janesville.

Kimball restored the Amphicar over 20 years. The engine and running gear needed an overhaul. The upholstery was redone in the original red, but Kimball painted the outside white.

Amphicars are rare, but Kimball has seen several in the area. He said there's a green one on the south side, two or three in Beloit and several in Madison.

Today the vehicles sell for $65,000 to $70,000 at car auctions.

Kimball launched the restored Amphicar on its maiden voyage on the Rock River a month ago.

He pushed the button on the dashboard and activated the bilge pump. A red light indicated the propellers were on.

"We went in real carefully," Kimball said.

He had a pontoon boat on standby just in case he needed a tow.

"It's called insurance," he said.

The vehicle did well. Kimball cautiously motored to the middle of the river and then gingerly went up the ramp—twice.

"We knew it went in," Kimball said. "We had to make sure it came out again."

"I was happy," he said. "It did what it was supposed to do."

Kimball and a guest went for a ride Monday.

The vehicle putted serenely on the river, water gently bubbling behind. The water reached about halfway up the doors.

The Amphicar has green and red lights in front and a white anchor light in the back. Just like in a boat, paddles are required equipment. It doesn't have a rudder, and Kimball steers with the steering wheel.

The windows roll up, but Kimball said he probably would never take it out with the roof up.

"If you have to get out quickly for whatever reason, it would be difficult," he said.

On land, the Amphicar goes up to 70 mph and on water between 5 and 7 mph. It can't pull a skier, but it can pull a tube.

It probably could go faster in the water, but that would force water over the windshield, Kimball said. And the wipers don't work the best, either.

The water ride is "completely relaxing," Kimball said as he settled back on the comfortable upholstery and enjoyed the bright day.

"It's fun when you come up the ramp and feel the front tires catching," he said.

No need to mess with a trailer—just hit the road.

Kimball said he drives the car locally but trailers it over longer distances because the suspension is not the best.

The Amphicar has no seat belts.

What if a police officer stops him on the road?

"He's going to have to make a decision," Kimball said.

Car? Or boat?

Last updated: 6:02 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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