When LBJ Drove on Water

Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
March 6 2013 12:30 PM

When LBJ Drove on Water

The Vault is Slate's new history blog. Like us on Facebook; follow us on Twitter @slatevault; find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

In this photo from April 1965, Lyndon Johnson took two visitors to his Stonewall, Texas, ranch on a ride in his Amphicar. A West German firm built 3,770 of these land-to-water vehicles between 1960 and 1968, and the president loved his lagoon-blue model. 

According to one of LBJ’s aides, Joseph A. Califano Jr., the president liked to play a trick on visitors. Califano first encountered the Amphicar when he visited the ranch and LBJ offered him a ride. “We reached a steep incline at the edge of the lake and the car started rolling rapidly toward the water,” Califano recalled. “The president shouted, ‘The brakes don’t work! The brakes won’t hold! We’re going in! We’re going under! ’”


The Los Angeles Times tested an Amphicar in 1963 and reported that the transition from highway to lake was fairly easy: “There is no trick to handling it, on land or sea.” The process was simple. One: drive the car into the water. Two: engage the two propellers, located under the rear engine compartment. Three: Steer as usual—the wheels acted as stabilizers.

Despite these initial favorable reviews, the Amphicar never quite took off. As automotive critic Dan Neil wrote in Time in 2007, the car’s flotation was “entirely dependent on whether [its] bilge pump could keep up with the leakage.”

There’s still an international Amphicar Club, which holds periodic “swim-ins” where the assembled owners take to the water to the delight of spectators. This year’s swim-in calendar can be found here.



The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

Does Your Child Have Sluggish Cognitive Tempo? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Mitt Romney May Be Weighing a 2016 Run. That Would Be a Big Mistake.

Amazing Photos From Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.


See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

What a Juicy New Book About Diane Sawyer and Katie Couric Fails to Tell Us About the TV News Business

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

  News & Politics
Damned Spot
Sept. 30 2014 9:00 AM Now Stare. Don’t Stop. The perfect political wife’s loving gaze in campaign ads.
Sept. 30 2014 11:25 AM Naomi Klein Is Wrong Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 30 2014 10:10 AM A Lovable Murderer and Heroic Villain: The Story of Australia's Most Iconic Outlaw
  Double X
Sept. 29 2014 11:43 PM Lena Dunham, the Book More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 11:38 AM Tim & Eric Brought Their Twisted Minds—and Jeff Goldblum—to This Bizarre Light Bulb Ad
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 7:36 AM Almost Humane What sci-fi can teach us about our treatment of prisoners of war.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.