GRR

Dan Trent: Craving VW's bathtub on wheels – the Schwimmwagen

13th March 2018
dan_trent_headshot.jpg Dan Trent

Just last week I was chuckling at those trading on the supposedly positive associations of a favourable former owner as a selling point. Even in this day and age the mythical ‘one lady driver’ is still, apparently, a thing. In the case of this week’s pick, however, dwelling on the qualities of the original owners raises a slight ethical concern, given it was built for the German military in the period 1939-1945. Tricky, right? 

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Maybe. But the Volkswagen it was based upon successfully transcended its Nazi-sponsored roots as the KdF Wagen and became a hippie icon and symbol of Germany’s post-war rebirth. I think the Schwimmwagen can just about carry off the same trick, at least assuming you don’t go the whole hog and dress up in, shall we say, period costume. I’ll leave that to the re-enactment brigade while I just appreciate one of the quirkier spin-offs of Dr Porsche’s iconic platform.

And unusual ones too. The sources I consulted (OK, mainly Wikipedia) suggest of the 15,000 or so Schwimmwagens built during the war just a couple of hundred survive, making this a very rare car indeed. Its appearance at a high-end classic specialist more accustomed to selling blue-chip Ferraris is therefore perhaps less surprising than it might otherwise seem, the advert explaining it had until recently been part of “perhaps the most complete private collection of Volkswagen Beetles in Europe” owned by a “famed and Volkswagen aficionado and collector”.

I totally understand the appeal. There’s the endearingly straightforward German logic of the name of course, the bathtub on wheels appearance with the swing-down propeller offering an equally unambiguous visual explanation of what it does. Technically it’s a very interesting machine too, taking the four-wheel-drive version of the Kubelwagen (the German equivalent to the American Jeep) as its basis. A military version of the rear-engined KdF Wagen, the Kubelwagen was very light, used portal axles (as seen on modern-day Mercedes Unimogs and the mad G500 ‘squared’) and proved a capable all-terrain vehicle. The four-wheel drive version was turned into the original Schwimmwagen, also known as the Type 128. The full production Type 166 was shorter, narrower and, how to put this tactfully, more watertight.

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It just looks so much fun too. OK, so it’ll only do 50mph or so on the road. But the ability to just drive off it and into the water opens up a whole new world of possibilities. A talent apparently appreciated by the British Army engineers helping the Germans restart production of the Volkswagen in the ruined Wolfsburg factory. Light relief wasn’t easy to come by in post-war Germany but racing Schwimmwagens around the site, jumping them off the docks and into the Mittelland Canal was one way of letting off steam.

OK, so it’ll only do 6mph or so in the water. But I’d take a certain satisfaction in dodging London traffic jams by chugging up the Thames and plotting my routes around town via usable slipways. Holidays in the Lake District or Scotland could be fun too. Why queue for ferries when you can just drive into the water, swing the propeller into position and potter across Windermere under your own steam? Pulling up outside a canalside pub in an amphibious Volkswagen on a summer’s day would be amusing too.

How much for such a machine? Let’s just say you could spend a lot more on a classic Porsche without batting an eyelid. Appealing in itself. But try driving that into a canal and see how far you get.

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