MOTORING: IS IT A BOAT? IS A PLANE?

No, it's a car. John Bullock reports on the more eccentric flourishings of the motor industry, from the Ornithopter to the Amphicar
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The Independent Culture
IT IS A HUNDRED years since Gottlieb Daimler produced the first automobile capable of taking people long distances by road. Since then, many optimistic entrepreneurs and madcap inventors have attempted to give the motorcar all sorts of extraordinary powers, to allow it to travel on the water, in the air, or just plain strangely. Although attempted at different times in different countries by many different designers, with varying degrees of success, all these creations do have something in common - every one of them was a total commercial flop.

Roussier, a French inventor and motorcar racer, designed the first "car ferry" in 1907. His idea was quite simple - a motorcar powered barge. The barge's paddle wheels were operated by a pair of rollers at the stern. The vehicle was driven onto the barge until its rear wheels sat neatly between the rollers.

Once chocks were positioned at the front to prevent the car from driving off the platform, the driver fired his engine; the rear wheels spun the rollers, the rollers turned the paddles, and the barge was propelled across the water. The driver had to be a good judge of speed and distance; if the barge was travelling too fast when it reached the other side, the car was liable to shoot forward, colliding with bystanders and anything else in its path. Monsieur Roussier hoped that his invention would be of particular value in places like the Scottish Highlands, with their wide lochs, where tourists faced lengthy car journeys to get to the other side. Sadly, his "car ferry" didn't catch on.

The idea of the flying car has always gripped popular imagination, certainly from before the children's "fine four-fendered friend" took off in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In 1910, another French enthusiast created a "flapping-winged Ornithopter". It never did leave the ground, but it serviced as a car with its wings folded.

Since then, some 20 inventors have attempted a version of the airborne car. The Frenchman Marcel Leyat, on the other hand, set out to design a car that had the manoeuverability of a plane, but never intended it to fly. His Helicar, with a flimsy plywood body that looked more like a fuselage, sported a propeller attached to its front. The Helicar had no instruments, and was steered through its back wheels; the pedals were connected to the brakes, which could be operated individually, enabling the car to pivot when required. There was no reverse, but the vehicle was light enough to be pushed with ease or lifted up at the back and moved about.

It took M Leyat only 12 hours to drive one from Paris to Bordeaux in 1921; and astonishingly, a Helicar reached nearly 100mph round the famous Montlhery circuit near Paris, at a time when the top speed of the average saloon was about 60mph. Out of around 30 built during the 1920s, two were bought by a chocolate manufacturer and created great excitement when they cavorted up and down the Champs-Elysees by their drivers, darting between the other cars in little more space than their own length.

When he realised that his invention would never be a commercial success, Leyat added some wings and a tailplane to the Helicar and turned it into a light aircraft.

Martin Fischer was Switzerland's first car designer; in 1904 he invented a vehicle so light and small that, he claimed, it could pass through a normal-sized front door and be taken upstairs by people living in flats. The Turicum was only 70in long, with its engine situated ahead of the front wheels, which the driver steered with his feet. The fuel tank at the rear acted as a backrest for the car's single seat. A lever on either side of the seat controlled the brake and gear changes, leaving the driver's hands free to blow the horn and fend off pedestrians if they got in the way. Although the Turicum could solve some parking problems, it attracted few buyers and Fischer's inventive genius was channelled in other directions.

An attempt by Villor P Williams to solve the American parking problem in 1927 was no more successful. His Parkmobile attachment slid beneath the car and lifted it onto four jacking legs on castors, so the driver could push the vehicle sideways between two parked cars and pull it out into the road again when he was ready to move off. Although a good idea in theory, problems arose when the cars were parked on hills and those on either side moved off. The driver with the Parkmobile attachment could return to find that his vehicle had rolled clean away.

It is fortunate that Sir Malcolm Campbell, the world landspeed record holder, was a more successful racing driver than he was an inventor. His clever idea was a police car which could be used to grab hold of criminals in the most literal sense. A large metal hand on a long telescopic arm was fitted below the front bumper and when it was near enough to the criminal's getaway vehicle, the driver released a lever and the metal hand shot out, grabbing the bumper of the car in front and hanging on to it until both cars ground to a halt. Campbell's invention is probably most remarkable for the fact that he actually got the police to test it.

As well as his astonishing helicopter, Leonardo da Vinci also left sketches for several amphib- ious vehicles. Cars took to the water seriously in l926, when Peugeot produced a breathtakingly elegant motorboat car, built on a standard car chassis and powered by a 1.6 litre engine. Six years later, Hans Trippel, a German inventor, started to test his amphibious Trippelwagens on the Rhine. He was encouraged in this by the German government, which was interested in the military advantages of floating cars in the event of the Rhine 's bridges being bombed.

After the war Trippel's Eurocar, powered by an Austin A35 engine and aimed at the American dollar market, was launched at the 1959 Geneva Motor Show but the car was underpowered. From 1961 onwards it was fitted with a 1,147cc Triumph Herald engine, mounted behind the rear driving wheels, and was marketed as the Amphicar. The model shown at the 1962 New York Motor Show had a top speed of about 7 knots on water and 70mph on land, but the wildly optimistic production target of 20,000 was never realised and only 3,750 were built. About 3,500 of them went to North America and the remaining few were sold in Europe.

Although the Amphicar went out of production in 1963, several more were assembled afterwards from a large stock of spare parts stored at the German factory. When the company eventually went bankrupt in 1967, after more than pounds 2m had been spent on research, each employee was given an Amphicar in place of severance pay, which is why there are still more than 100 of them in the Berlin area. Four Amphicars are still used regularly in Britain and several hundred more are with enthusiasts in America and Canada, where there is a successful Amphicar owners' club.

Although they are usually restricted to rivers, canals and lakes, two Amphicars have made successful crossings of the English Channel. The first was in 1963 and four years later one crossed from Dover to Calais in a force six gale on its way to the Berlin Motor Show.

It was also during the 1960s that an Amphicar was run down by an oil tanker in the Straits of Gibraltar. Mysteriously, the Amphicar was travelling at night without lights and there were reports at the time that it was being used for smuggling drugs. Whatever the facts, this incident remains the only collision ever recorded at sea between a ship and a car. !

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