1944 Volkswagen Type 166 Schwimmwagen

If one thinks 'Porsche' and its famous designer Erwin Komenda, the first images that come to mind are 356s scuttling up Alpine passes, or the very first 911. A camouflaged military go-anywhere, fording rivers on the Eastern Front in 1943, seems worlds away.

But it was Ferdinand Porsche and Komenda, architects of the VW Beetle and its military cousin, the Kübelwagen, who developed the VW Type 166 ‘Schwimmwagen’. From mid-1942 to late-1944 around 15,000 were produced at either Fallersleben (Wolfsburg) or Porsche’s own factory in Stuttgart. The bodies (hulls, should we say…) were by Ambi Budd of Berlin.

The ‘swimming car’ differed in many respects from the angular ‘Kübel’. It was 10cm narrower, and based on a shorter (200cm vs. 240cm) wheelbase for greater manoeuvrability. And the construction was made far stronger to cope with the anticipated rough usage across country. It was also streamlined – all the better to ‘swim’.

Variations between individual models exist but all had four-wheel drive, a low ratio and the option of switching to two-wheel drive only. On the road, the Type 166 was surprisingly fast: 80km/h was possible.

The engine came straight from the Beetle, being the familiar 24.5bhp, 1131cc, air-cooled flat-four. The propeller ran at engine speed off a coupling on the rear of the crankshaft. After lowering the propeller assembly to engage drive, the force of the water against the screw kept it turning. Rearward travel was not possible via the propeller, although crews could engage the heavily-treaded driven wheels in reverse via the gearbox, or use the paddle fixed to the side of the car. The latter was also employed to rescue the craft in the event of engine failure on water.

Steering was via the front wheels so, with just the accelerator and steering wheel, the small car could be ‘driven’ across quite big rivers and streams.

It was not armoured, and only made tough enough to last as a fast reconnaissance machine, augmenting and replacing the German army’s famous motorcycle and sidecar combination. Once on active service the life of a Schwimmwagen could be as little as six weeks. It saw action on both Eastern and Western fronts.

This late-1944 (chassis 7-013480) ‘Schwimmer’ has only just come out of a two-year, ground-up restoration by recognised model expert Dave Crompton of Michigan, USA. Since the work was completed, it has not been used and is in ‘factory fresh’ condition and its larger (36bhp) engine gives it better driveability. The 24bhp original is included in the sale.

Great attention has been paid during the car’s restoration to keep its specification totally authentic. For example, as many original parts as possible were carefully re-used. All the now impossible-to-find fasteners and mounts are present and totally correct. As the Type 166s were hand made, so the restoration has taken painstaking care to replicate the style of welds and finish common in 1944, and no two cars were exactly the same.

Only very few Schwimmwagen survive today and most are static museum exhibits with many functioning parts absent or irreparably damaged. This is a rare opportunity to purchase one of the best, in mint, ‘out of the box’ condition thanks to the skill of one of the world’s foremost experts.