Volkswagen’s Schwimmwagen (literally, swimming car) was an amphibious four-wheel drive vehicle used by the German military during World War II. Between 1941 and 1944 over 15,000 Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen cars were built at the VW factory in Wolfsburg and the Porsche factory in Stuttgart, making it the most mass-produced amphibious car in history. Only around 160 have survived.
The Schwimmwagen was based on the Volkswagen Kubelwagen, a military vehicle which was based in turn on the KdF Wagen, the predecessor of the civilian VW Beetle. The Schwimmwagen was powered by a 1.2 liter 4-cylinder air-cooled engine on land, and by an engine-driven rear propeller which could be lowered down for water crossings. The propeller drive only worked when the vehicle was moving forward; to reverse in the water you needed to use a good old-fashioned wooden paddle (seen attached to the side of the Schwimmwagen) or put the car in reverse and let the turning wheels move the car backwards. The front wheels served as rudders when in the water, so the steering wheel steered the vehicle on land and water. The vehicle could reach about 50 mph on land and 6 mph in the water.
You can see a VW Schwimmwagen in person at the Louwman Museum in The Hague – the world’s oldest private car collection. Or if you’d like to own one of these unique pieces of history, they do come up for sale occasionally – but you’d better be prepared to part with about $150,000.