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In the spring of 1940, as the German armed forces were sweeping across Western Europe, famed automobile designer Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, creator of the Volkswagen or “People’s Car,” was asked by the high command to build an all-purpose vehicle for the coming campaign against the Soviet Union.
In April 1941, as the Balkan campaigns got underway, the Waffen SS asked Porsche’s son, heir, and namesake, Dr. Ferry Porsche, to design a similar car. The result was the Kubelwagen, or bucket car, and a derivative of that design was an amphibious version called the Schwimmwagen, or swimming car. A total of 150 four-wheel-drive amphibians were manufactured for tests and trial runs.
The Evolution of the Schwimmwagen
The VW Kubelwagen and Schwimmwagen had very few parts in common but shared the same rear-mounted engine, an air-cooled flat-four. The four-wheel-drive assembly, however, was special, as was its truly unique feature, a retractable water propeller at the rear of the small vehicle’s frame.
The bodywork of the waterborne Kubelwagen was a true single-welded, sheet-steel hull, more like a boat than an automobile, and reinforced with cross-members. As the car floated very low in the water, there were no doors to open or close, and one simply climbed in and out to enter or exit the vehicle.
Between 1942 and 1944, a total of 14,276 Schwimmwagens were built, serving on both the Eastern and Western Fronts. After the war, the car got a new lease on life in Europe as a recreational vehicle favored by duck hunters in swamps and marshes.
The Schwimmwagen had a top speed of 50 miles per hour on land and six miles per hour in the water. It had an air-cooled overhead valve, flat-four cylinder engine with a displacement of 1,131cc, and a rating of 25 horsepower. It also had a four-speed transmission and a hinged, triple-bladed propeller and four-wheel brakes, plus a seamless pressed-steel monococque hull, built to keep out water.
It initially had competitors, but in the end the Schwimmer beat them to become the sole amphibious vehicle of both the German army and the Waffen SS. Its closest competitor had been designer Hannes Trippel’s Type 2SG, of which a thousand were built before all amphibian production was halted in 1944.