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1943 Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen vs. 1943 Ford GPA - Backward Glances

Posted in Features on July 22, 2013
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The Ford GPA was originally designed as a recon vehicle but saw use with combat engineer bridge-building units. Unlike its German counterpart, it was designed to be capable in surf, but wasn’t the safest rig in even moderately heavy weather. Missing on Saft’s GPA is the surf shield, a foldable clamshell to minimize the water rolling over the bow.

Water barriers are the perennial military problem. Crafty armies develop ways to cross them in places the enemy least expects. When motor vehicles entered the military scene in the early 1900s, it didn’t take long for someone to figure out how to make them float and use them in battle. By the onset of World War II, amphibious vehicle technology was well understood, but neither the German nor American armies had amphibs in inventory. This required each country to develop them according to their operational needs.

The two main amphibs developed for the American army were the legendary American 2½-ton GMC DUKW 6x6 “Duck,” probably the most successful amphibian of WWII, and the ¼-ton Ford GPA. The Germans had little need for large amphibians, but the Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen became their primary scout vehicle and had amphibious capability.

Today, both the GPA and the Schwimmwagen are incredibly rare and valuable. Finding two of them swimming together in one place, and at one time, is a once-in-a-lifetime event. We can all thank the owner of both vehicles, Richard Saft and the Kübel Korps USA, for this opportunity—Saft for bringing them together for serious play and the KKUSA for making that possible by having a great annual members-only event.

Richard Saft’s 1943 type 166 is set up as it would have been used as a recon vehicle, complete with MG34 and plenty of drum magazines for shooting and scooting.

1943 PKW Type 166 Schwimmwagen
Ferdinand Porsche began militarizing the VW Beetle for the war effort in 1938 and the Type 82 Kübelwagen (see “Backward Glances,” Aug. ’12 issue) was in production by 1940. Four-wheel drive was developed for the Type 82, but deemed nonessential for production models. Instead, smaller numbers of more capable 4x4 scout vehicles with amphibious capability were ordered.

The first Porsche-designed amphibian was the Type 128 of 1940, but structural troubles with the unitized body led to the shorter and narrower Type 166. Large scale production began in the summer of 1942 and the 166 was issued primarily to armored units as a scout vehicle. It utilized the four-wheel-drive system developed for the Type 82, delivered superior cross-country ability and wasn’t stopped at the waters edge.

The Type 166 was extensively used on all fronts, the Russian in particular, where rough terrain capabilities were valued as much as floatability. The Type 166 was designed to carry four fully-equipped troops and could mount the feared MG-34 machine gun.

Schwimm running gear is very familiar to air-cooled Vee-Dub parts. The archetypical transverse torsion bar front axle was augmented with half-shafts and a differential driven by a jackshaft from the transaxle in the rear. There is no low range in the familiar sense. Four-wheel drive is engaged at any speed, but there is a separate creeper gear that takes the place of low range. ZF automatic lockers were mounted in both diffs. The Schwimm’s air-cooled flat-four made 25hp from 1131cc.

The Schwimm prop is driven from the engine crankshaft via a short shaft that extends thru the hull. The prop and gearbox is on a hinged bracket, lowered manually and engages with a dog clutch. Thrust from the prop keeps the dogs engaged.

Saft’s ’43 Schwimm is one of over 15,000 built between July of 1942 and November of 1944, plus some assembled later from parts. Many Schwimms were destroyed during and after the war. The survivors had only limited usefulness to civilian populations, so many more faded away before they became a collectible in the ’70s. Remaining Schwimms are reported to number under 200, and a restored one will cost you over $100,000.

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1943 Ford GPA
The development of a ¼-ton amphibian started in 1941 when marine architects Sparkman & Stephens designed a hull for the newly developed jeep. Marmon-Herrington got the job of creating a production-ready vehicle. In an apparent bet-hedging move, Ford Motor Company was also given a development contract some months later. Despite starting last, Ford finished first and their prototypes were superior to Marmon-Herrington’s. Ford was awarded a large production contract in 1942.

The new vehicle soon acquired the nickname “Seep,” presumably for “sea-jeep.” Ford’s nomenclature was GPA: G for a government contract, P for the ¼-ton platform, and A for amphibian. It borrowed many components from the standardized Ford GPW land jeep, including the engine and drivetrain. The transfer case had a power take-off for the propeller and bilge pump.

The departure angle of the Seep was actually a little better than the jeep. Besides the jerrycan and bucket, a Danforth anchor was normally carried, and the operator’s manual showed you how to use it for recovery on land as well as anchoring in water.

The GPA proved satisfactory in testing, but its role became less clear once it entered service. As a land recon vehicle it was limited by poor cross-country performance, and its amphibious capabilities were seldom needed inland. The GPA proved generally unsuitable for beach landings, where cargo capacity and seaworthiness in surf were key. While it was handy in a few isolated moments during the war, overall the Seep was an “also-ran” for the Americans in WWII. The most effective combat use of the GPA was made by the Soviets, who got 3,500 via Lend-Lease and used them for river assaults or reconnaissance in force. The Soviets liked them well enough to make a homebuilt clone, the GAZ-46 MAV.

The GPA didn’t remain in American military service long after WWII. As a surplus novelty, they found civilian jobs as everything from harbor tenders to ice cream trucks. When used in the water, they were high-maintenance and tended to rust out quickly and most had gone to scrapyards by the ’60s.

Seeps made more headlines in civilian hands. Australian Ben Carlin modified a GPA to cross the Atlantic and, after some aborted attempts, got Half-Safe across the pond in 1950. Over the next eight years, Carlin circumnavigated the globe in his GPA. In the ’50s and ’60s, Helen and Frank Schreider used their modified GPA, La Tortuga, to explore South America and the Pacific as photographers for National Geographic. One GPA even made the pages of the February 1964 issue of Four Wheeler. In the story, “Plucky Duck,” Paul Warren wrote about wheeling the Four Corners area, including a dip into the newly formed Lake Powell.

The GPA is also highly collectable, with 250-300 remaining of the 12,774 built between October 1942 and May of 1943. Like the Schwimm, only a small percentage are water-worthy or have owners daring enough to risk them that way. A fully-restored and floatable GPA will cost you upwards of $60,000.

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A Seep versus Schwimm water drag race was held. Here they are at full speed with the GPA ahead by a length and rapidly gaining distance.

Seep or Schwimm
So which was better? The GPA is the winner in ergonomics, if one dares use that term with a military vehicle. It’s far more comfortable than the Schwimm. Climbing into the tall GPA requires some agility, but once inside, it’s far more roomy than the Schwimm, especially for the backseaters. The Schwimm driving position is nice, but getting there requires some contortions. The seats of both deliver military numbutt, but the GPA has lots more padding on the seats.

The GPA is at its worst on land. The 134ci, 60hp (gross, 54hp net) flathead-four is overwhelmed by the 3,500-pound curb weight, not to mention the 4,300-pound gross weight, as are the brakes. You can get to about 50 mph with a third of a mile to accelerate and it takes just about as long to stop. Maneuvering is akin to driving a motorhome without power steering. The GPA was rated to tow 1,000 pounds from its military pintle, enough for the American 37mm anti-tank gun. The GPA could also mount a light machine gun on the M31 pedestal mount, but this was almost never seen in American service.

Off-highway, the GPA is an overweight hippo. Rated gradeability was only 45 percent versus 60 percent for the land jeep, and it had worse approach and ramp breakover angles than the land jeep, plus about an inch less minimum ground clearance. It wasn’t economical. The 15-gallon tank could take you about 200 miles on good roads for about 13 mpg. The GPA has a 3,500-pound PTO capstan winch, which was very useful for helping it waddle out of the water.

The Seep has a fair bit of freeboard with a light load. The open lid on the forward deck allows air to go to the radiator, and the air exits thru side vents just under the canvas splash curtains. In surf or rough water, the deck intake and side vents can be closed. Air is then drawn in from under the dash and exits thru a vent that opens just above the dash, but airflow is limited and overheating can result. Spinning the wheels at the same time as the prop adds a little speed, but puts a heavier load on the engine. Spinning the wheels alone can deliver a speed of about 1.5 mph.

In terms of land performance, the Schwimm is the winner by leaps and bounds. At a 2,006-pound curb weight, and with a gear ratio of 6.2:1, even the Schwimm’s tiny 1131cc, 25hp powerplant has the oomph for brisk acceleration. Top speed is only 50 mph, but light weight, wide tires, locking diffs in both axles, and good clearance gave the Schwimm excellent cross-country ability. Better, in fact, than the non-amphibious American jeep. Fuel economy is great as well, and on a good day, the twin 6.5 gallon fuel tanks can take it 275-300 miles. In many other military land duties, the Type 166 is inferior to the jeep. Cargo capacity is minimal, though more limited by volume than weight. Towing capacity is non-existent since the Type 166 has no hitch. The Schwimm can mount 7.92mm MG34 or MG42 machine guns on a dash mount with a tripod on the rear deck for dismounted use.

The shoreline is where the fun begins and the tables turn. Like a hippo, the ungainly GPA changes personality in the water. It isn’t a great boat but it will outrun, outmaneuver and outfloat the Schwimm. You have 25-35 miles of cruising fun ahead of you before the tank is dry and a rated max speed of about 5.5 mph. The GPA has a reversible propeller and a rudder, as well as manual and PTO-driven bilge pumps.

The Schwimm’s water performance is less than stellar. You soon learn why the paddle is included because there is no reverse in the water. The manually lowered propeller is driven by the engine and rotates in only one direction. There is no rudder; the front wheels do the steering. There is no factory fitted bilge pump either, so water playtime is limited by how much water leaks in—and they all leak. Perhaps this is why we could find no listed water range, since it wasn’t designed for long-term immersion. Top speed in the water was listed at 6 mph in still water, but a water drag race between the two amphibs showed the GPA is faster.

So, how does the owner evaluate his two floaters? Richard Saft sums it up brilliantly, “The Schwimwagen is a car that goes in the water, while the GPA is a boat that goes on land.”

At A Glance General
Owner: Richard Saft
Vehicle: Schwimm... Seep
Estimated value: $120,000... $65,000
Engine: 1131cc flat-four... 134ci L-head four
Power(hp): 25@3000 rpm (net)... 54@4000 rpm (net)
Torque (lb-ft): 46.7@2000 rpm... 105@2000 rpm
Bore & stroke (in): 2.52x2.95... 3.13x3.38
Comp. ratio: 5.8:1... 6.48:1
Transmission: 5-spd manual... 3-spd manual
Transfer case: 1-spd, VW... 2-spd, Spicer 18
Front axle: VW, independent... Spicer 25
Rear axle: VW, transaxle... full-float, Spicer 23
Axle ratios: 6.2:1... 4.88:1
Tires: 7.90-16... 6.00-16
L x W x H (in): 150.6x58.3x63.6... 181.75x64x67.75
Wheelbase (in): 78.7... 84
GVW (lbs): 2,965... 4,300
Curb weight (lbs): 2,006... 3,500
Fuel capacity (gal): 13... 15
Min. grd. clearance (in): 9.8... 8
Approach angle (deg): 48... 39
Departure angle (deg): 34... 37

PhotosView Slideshow

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