Archive Gallery: A Century of Ambitious Amphibious Vehicles

Would you take these seaplanes and other vehicles out for a ride? We'd take our chances on the marsh buggy, but would probably strap on a life vest (or two) while riding the amphibious bicycle

We’ve covered a fair number of amphibious craft over the years, most recently (and perhaps most memorably), a land-water ice cream truck that popped up on the Thames during Britain’s National Ice Cream Week. And while you won’t find any floating treatmobiles in our archives, the old-time amphibious vehicles we uncovered might prove just as charming.

Click to launch the photo gallery.

As a bonus, we threw in a couple of peculiar seaplanes from the 1930s, because who can resist an illustration titled “Air Conqueror of Tomorrow”? As goofy as some of these concepts look in retrospect (just wait until you see the amphibious bicycle), they’re not far removed from the amphibians in operation today. For instance, one French inventor designed an underwater tour bus similar to the ones used in Duck Tours, except that his could actually dip underwater.

Meanwhile, Captain Frank T. Courtney suggested replacing a seaplane’s wheels with endless treads in 1932, and prophetically enough, a good number of amphibious vehicles employed by the military draw inspiration from tanks instead of jeeps. Out of all the vehicles outlined in this gallery, the military amphibians are most reminiscent of their modern-day counterparts. Yet for every no-nonsense tank, there’s an Arctic vessel equipped with a bladed hull and an airplane propeller, as well as a roly-poly combat vehicle outfitted with hemispherical wheels.

You might be asking whether these vehicles (excepting the military ones) are actually necessary. It’s hard enough to maintain a car the runs on dry land, let alone one that can double as a motorboat, but practicality aside, we’d love to have taken one of these vehicles out for a spin. Correct us if we’re wrong, but nothing says “August joyride” like a marsh buggy with jumbo-sized wheels.

Click through our gallery to read about the oil-hunting “tank,” the Arctic amphibian, and more amphibious vehicles collected from our archives.

Amphibious Plane of the Future: May 1932

According to famed test pilot Captain Frank T. Courtney, this is what airplanes would look like once we perfected their design. In addition to expandable wings and free-wheeling propellers (in case the motor failed), Courtney recommended making amphibian landing gear a standard feature for airplanes. Not all areas had a usable runaway, and landing on rough ground took such a toll on airplanes that it only made sense to make them capable of taking off and landing in water. Although seaplanes had already existed for the past several years, engineers had difficulty making a folding device that was strong enough to lift the wheels, but light enough to keep the plane airborne. He recommended scrapping previous designs and staring anew, perhaps by substituting wheels with endless treads. Once an inventor figured out how to reduce the resistance of tread landing gears, engineers could feasibly combine pontoons and treads to facilitate takeoffs and landings. The perfect seaplane would also have a device that would speed up takeoffs by minimizing water resistance against the hull. Previous designers suggested that hydrovanes, which resemble Venetian blinds, could provide a bit of lift by tilting upward during takeoff, but Courtney warned that fish or seaweed could clog the panels. Read the full story in “10,000 Aircraft Patents Leave Big Problems Unsolved

Underwater Bus: June 1932

Want to experience marine life without getting wet? Sign up for a tour aboard the underwater bus. Like Courtney’s ideal airplane, this French engineer’s concept for an amphibious vehicle uses endless tractor treads instead of wheels. As a safety measure, the passenger compartment could eject the undercarriage and rise to the water’s surface during emergencies. A small motor and propeller would transport the passengers to safety. Read the full story in “Sightseeing Bus Runs Underwater”

Amphibian Bicycle: December 1932

Believe it or not, those hollow bike floats could actually double as wheels. At a Paris exposition, the bike’s French inventor demonstrated how his bicycle used the inner floats as wheels on dry land, and as buoyancy devices in the water. Fins on the larger rear wheel functioned as paddles to propel the bicycle along. When the rider pedaled, all six of the wheels would rotate so as to reduce drag. Read the full story in “Amphibian Bicycle Can Travel on Land or Water”

Three-Wheeled Amphibious Aircraft: February 1935

Just three years after publishing his previous article on amphibian landing gear, Captain Frank T. Courtney designed a five-passenger amphibious plane that used a swiveling nose wheel to ease landings. While the average amphibian plane risked tipping forward onto its nose while slowing down on dry land, Courtney’s aircraft could perform takeoffs and landings on the ground as smoothly as it did on water. The main wheels’ location behind the center of gravity also kept the plane from ground looping, which happens when one of the wheels is caught by an obstacle. The plane could fly at a speed of 151 miles per hour, and on the water, a set of double rudders helped pilots maneuver it to safety. Read the full story in “Safer Landings with Three-Wheeled Amphibian”

Amphibious Lifeboat: January 1937

Now here’s a heavy-duty craft. This land-and-water rescue boat, which was designed to perform rescues in dangerous currents, was powered by a gasoline engine that drove both its wheels and propellers. The craft rode across dry ground on three wheels, including a steering wheel that could function as a rudder in the water. In addition to providing stability, the pontoons housed extra fuel tanks and spiral propellers, but they could be removed if the captains wanted to use the amphibian as a regular motor boat. Read the full story in “Amphibian Lifeboat Speeds Rescues”

Oil-Hunting Craft: March 1937

The creators of this oil-hunting amphibian drew inspiration from three sources: automobiles, tractors, and boats. “The hybrid vehicle looks like an inventor’s nightmare — but it works!” we said. This machine, which was the first of its kind, was built in Pittsburgh to help the Gulf Research and Development Company explore areas that were previously inaccessible. During the late 1930s, the so-called “marsh buggy” was used surveyors and prospectors of the Gulf Oil Company to scout new oil fields on the Louisiana coast. On dry land, the huge tires were sturdy enough to withstand rough terrain, while buoyant enough to keep the 7,500 pound machine afloat in water. Rubber cleats could be hooked onto the wheels to act as paddles or to add traction in slippery areas. A standard eight-cylinder automobile motor permitted the marsh buggy to move at a speed of 35 miles an hour, through marshes at eight to ten miles an hour, and in water at six knots. Read the full story in “Strange Oil-Hunting Craft Runs on Land, Water, or Mud”

Amphibious Craft for the Arctic: January 1938

There are few places more worthy of an amphibian craft than the arctic. Stainless steel runners along the vehicle’s hull allowed it to move across ice and snow (as if it were a giant ice skate), while the entire craft was driven by an airplane motor above the stern. To steer it, the ride would use a rudder modeled like the ones on airplanes. Fin-shaped propeller guards provided some extra stability. Read the full story in “Air-Driven Craft Skims Over Water, Ice, or Snow”

Amphibious Automobile: January 1940

“Retracting its wheels as an airplane does, a proposed amphibian automobile transforms itself into a rakish water craft,” we wrote. Rakish is right: out of all the amphibians outlined in this gallery, inventor Paul Pankotan’s is the swankiest. Once afloat, the vehicle would move using a propeller inside the stern. Read the full story in “Car Pulls Up Its Wheels to Become a Boat”

“Roller” Combat Vehicle: September 1943

Greek engineer Elie P. Aghnides, of New York City, designed his amphibious vehicles as replacements for tanks. Despite their comical appearance, these roly-poly vehicles were intended for sea-borne invasions, combat, and reconnaissance in rough terrain. “Rollers” were comprised of two hemispherical front wheels and a small spherical rear wheel for steering. In addition to being capable of floating in water, the Roller could right itself when tipped over, swivel freely, and move at the speed of an automobile. Read the full story in “War Ideas”

Amphibious Tractor (AMTRAC): September 1945

Is there anything more daunting than a swarm of tanks emerging from the sea? These Amtracs (or “amphibian tractors”), were modeled after a rescue vehicle invented by Daniel Roebling ten years earlier. Classified as LVTs, they proved useful when navigating the Pacific jungles and the beaches at Iwo Jima. The use of amphibious combat vehicles also reduced the military’s reliance on potentially unstable bridges. And although they could reach speeds of just 20 miles per hour, these LVTs were still an improvement on tanks that got stuck in the mud. A typical battle strategy called for two waves of armored amphibians leading a legion of thinly-plated Amtracs carrying cargo and men. Read the full story in “Meet the LVT’s Beach Busters”