Amphibious Axis and Allies
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.
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.
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 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.