AND THE STRANGE VEHICLE THAT MADE IT POSSIBLE
Americans were saddened by the recent tragedy on Table Rock Lake outside Branson, Missouri. An amphibious duck, a six wheeled craft that travels on both land and water, sank during a storm killing 17 people. It put me in mind of a smaller version of the duck and the president who loved using it for his favorite prank.
For some reason that defies logic, German auto engineers once believed a lucrative commercial market awaited an amphibious vehicle. So in 1960 a small factory outside Berlin, West Germany began making the Amphicar (combining “amphibious” and “car” in a name as appealing as the product).
The Amphicar debuted at the 1961 New York Auto Show. It was short, squat and ugly. Twin propellers hidden behind the rear bumper moved it in water. The few (very few) people who bought one were enthusiastic. “We like to think of it as the fastest car on water and the fastest boat on the road,” one said. A reviewer from Time magazine was skeptical; he called it “a vehicle that promises to revolutionize drowning.”
One person who was crazy about the Amphicar was Lyndon Johnson. He got hold of one in 1962 and immediately realized its potential for pulling a classic practical joke.
After becoming president in 1963, Johnson enjoyed spending time at his LBJ Ranch in the Texas Hill Country. He frequently entertained there and used his Amphicar to make the visit memorable.
Johnson would load guests into his powder blue Amphicar, jump behind the wheel and take them on a guided tour of the ranch. He eventually made his way down a steep bank that led straight into a lake. LBJ would call out in a frightened voice, “The brakes are out! Hold on, we’re going to crash!” and plunge the little craft into the water. Last prayers were likely said until the Amphicar putted along calmly with the president howling in laughter and his passengers surprised to discover they were still alive.
He eventually refined his act to give it more credibility by radioing a Secret Service agent who was in on the joke. Their exchange went like this:
Johnson: “Did you get the bakes fixed on this car?”
Agent: “No, sir. I haven’t had time.”
Johnson: “Are you telling me the brakes AREN’T FIXED?”
Agent: “It’s ok, Mr. President. You can handle it. (pause) Probably.”
One time the joke backfired. A terrified woman lept out of the Amphicar and flailed in the shallow water so frantically she sustained a concussion, sprained wrist and ankle, and a bruised shoulder. A Secret Service agent and the president’s physician pulled her out. Johnson bent over her asking, “My God, why did you jump out?” She replied sheepishly, “I can’t swim, Mr. President.”
Presidential enthusiasm notwithstanding, the Amphicar was a novelty and nothing more. When it left the market in 1968, only 3,878 had been built. Collectors still meet at lakes to cruise in them. Johnson’s is on display at the LBJ Ranch.
In the end, non-existent demand spelled the Amphicar’s doom. It turned out the American family didn’t need (or want) a vehicle that was half car, half boat. Who’d have thought?
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