I think it’s safe to say most of us are primarily land-car drivers. There’s just something about dry land that’s great for driving — the existence of roads, the difficulties of drowning or plummeting — I’m a fan. But a car that can go on land, and, say, water, that’s amazing. A car that can fly — also amazing. One that has done all three? Astounding. And a Beetle.
Sure, there’s been plenty of amphibious cars made, and those are a fascinating segment of cars, and ones I’ve written about before. The same goes for flying cars — sure, they’re maybe less practical and are usually insane overblown hype, but they do exist.
Conventional, production road cars have taken on these additional roles before — the Beetle has long been known for its ability to float, for example, and many other production cars have been converted to be amphibious. Even the oft-mocked Ford Pinto had a flying version.
A single that can do all three is pretty much unknown, in one vehicle. Hell, even one type of car that has been converted to all three forms of terrestrial travel I thought was unknown. That is, until my recent trip to Volkswagen’s amazing Automuseum, where I came upon this remarkable pair of Beetles: a Beetle modified to swim in the water, and a Beetle modified to fly in the air.
After thinking about it for a while, it dawned on me: I’m pretty sure the old Type I Volkswagen Beetle is the only production car ever to have been outfitted to be piloted on land, sea, and air. That seems important, somehow.
Let’s look at these two cars, and see how they do what they do.
The one on the right I was familiar with — it’s the famous slightly-modified Italian Beetle that crossed the Strait of Messina between Italy and Sicily in 1964, and then again in 1984. It’s a 1960 Beetle, which I know because it has the one-year-only, Italian-market-only ‘50-50’ taillights I once publicly lost my shit over.
The idea of converting a Beetle into a boat isn’t as weird as you might think; unmodified VWs right from the factory were so well-put together and had a sheet of steel sealing their bottom that they were capable of floating in water for around 30 minutes to an hour or so. VW even showed this off in their ads:
By the way, let’s just take a moment and appreciate this ad a bit. Can you imagine a car company today making an ad like this for their cheap economy car? The car’s front end gets dropped five or so feet to the ground, the actor tears away the inner door panel, and then drives it right into a freaking lake. I might go out and buy a Mirage the same day if Mitsubishi made an ad like this.
Back to the famous Italian waterbug here — the modifications are hardly extensive, and are really quite clever: the carb’s air intake has been relocated to inside the car, in the rear luggage well, the exhausts have long snorkels on them, a small bilge pump has been added, and a boat propeller has been connected to the crankshaft pulley via what appears to be a modified VW half-axle.
The rear bumper has been modified to carry the propeller, and the distributor has been sealed in a water-tight case. That’s pretty much it! With those few modifications, this Beetle drove to the shore, into the water, and then through 3.2 miles of waterway to get to the other side. And it’s by no means the only Beetle to have done something like this.
Now, the red Beetle there, this is the one I never knew about before. I knew Beetle engines were often modified into aircraft motors — and still are today — but I had never heard of an entire Beetle being converted into any sort of aircraft.
Then I saw this thing. Initially, I speculated that the tall assembly coming out of the roof of the car and the two cylindrical units housed at the top were some sort of mobile laser assembly, in case humanity found themselves in a Space Invaders-type situation, where we had to move around and shoot up a lot.
Of course, I quickly abandoned that idea when I saw how dramatically lightened everything in the car was: the interior gutted, to the point of cutting away the entire round part of the steering wheel, the gas tank reduced to a little 3-gallon moped tank stuck in the engine bay, and so on, making this one very superleggera Beetle.
The reason for all the adding of the negative weight was because this Beetle was also a hot-air balloon! I’d speculated on the possibility of a car/hot air balloon hybrid before, but I had no idea anyone was crazy enough to try it.
I have no idea why I didn’t find out about this before, or why there’s so little information about it online — you’d think plenty of car and especially VW geeks would love to know about this thing. And, as I type this now, I finally found a site all about what may be possibly the only actual drivable/flying Beetle ever.
It looks like its official name is the Mongolfiere VW Beetle, after the Montgolfiere Brothers, the pioneers of ballooning. A team of five people hurriedly converted a Beetle to become a hot-air balloon to participate in the 1993 Château-d’Oex ballooning festival, and I suggest reading through the site to get the full story. It appears that the tiny moped gas tank was a safety requirement of the organizers, along with an easily-removable battery.
Also, I didn’t know this about balloon gondola-building: you have to hang the gondola (in this case, the Beetle) by its balloon attachment points for eight days for it to be rated safe.
So, there in the museum, filled with land-Beetles, sits an Air-Beetle and a Water-Beetle, making the Volkswagen Type I the only model of car — I’m pretty sure — to have been converted for use on all three major forms of Earth-bound transport: land, sea, and air.
Of course, if someone wants to build an amphibious Pinto, they can match this achievement. Who’s up for it?
UPDATE: Commenters have posted at least one car — a Mini — that has achieved this same goal. I tweaked the headline, and I’m curious to see if there’s more!
(some photos of the balloon-Beetle from http://www.coccinelle-montgolfiere.com/)
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