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Hermon Amphicar owner reflects on vehicle, legacy


HERMON — The 91-year-old man behind the wheel was gleeful as he revved up the car’s engine and brashly drove it into the Grasse River.

Water splashed up over the hood as the convertible, top down, nose-dived off a ramp and into the water, causing the driver’s passenger to double-check his door lock.

But the 2,300 pound vehicle evened out, its 9-inch dual propellers kicked in and the driver/captain at the wheel was happily cruising down the river without a care in the world on a late-summer day.

He punched a cassette into the tape deck and calliope music, more commonly heard on Mississippi riverboats, cascaded out of a speaker on the cowl of the car, echoing off trees lining the riverbank.

“I should have brought some Manhattans,” said Francis J. “Red” Grandy.

Life’s a beach when you have an Amphicar.

The vehicle, made in 1965, has appropriately known only one home: a land of amusements and recreation known as the Lazy River Playground, an oasis built and opened by Mr. Grandy’s father, John B. Grandy, in 1942. It’s tucked into 200 acres of St. Lawrence County forests, about 3 miles from the village of Hermon.

Amphicars are rare; only about 3,800 were made. The International Amphicar Owners Club estimates about 2,000 still exist, with a fraction of them still fully operational. Only a few of them are in the condition of Mr. Grandy’s vehicle, which he purchased new in 1965 in Germany.

But Mr. Grandy has more than an eye for adventurous cars. Walk into the Stars and Stripes Photo Gallery in his home and you’ll see the results of a life of adventure. In 1951, he signed on as a staff photographer with the European edition of Stars and Stripes, a daily newspaper published by the U.S. Armed Forces. A year later he was named photo chief of the paper — a title he held until he retired in 1986 and returned to Lazy River.

His notable photos include shots of President Nixon’s historic visits to West Berlin in 1969 and Spain in 1970; the crash of a Russian jet known as the “Concordsky” in the French countryside; the aftermath of an earthquake that rocked a Libyan town, and the reunion of an American employee with his family in Vienna after he had been convicted of spying and held in solitary confinement for 17 months in Hungary.

One photo shows a thick bandage covering CBS newsman Dan Rather’s left temple. Mr. Grandy and Mr. Rather had been standing side by side on a press truck as President Nixon cruised through West Berlin. Someone fired a rock at the press. It would have nailed Mr. Grandy, but Mr. Rather’s noggin got in the way.

Mr. Grandy was 29 when he took his most famous shot, of Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s reaction — surprise and befuddlement — the moment he learned that President Harry S. Truman had stripped Gen. Douglas MacArthur of his Far East command.

Mr. Grandy good-naturedly worries about the legacy of his esteemed photography career.

“There’s people around here, when I pass on, they are going to say, ‘That Grandy boy who died — you know him? He’s the guy who had a car that goes on water.’”

“It has nothing to do with this,” Mr. Grandy said, pointing to his gallery images. “I’m known for that, not this.”

That was parked in his driveway on this day. History will tell if Mr. Grandy’s prediction is correct. One would do well to bet against it. Cars rust. Legacies do not.

But for the time being, Amphicars are receiving a ripple of attention following a Wall Street Journal story last month about how the vehicles, which have a loyal following, “refuse to sink into oblivion.”

surprise along the rhine

The story of how Mr. Grandy obtained his Amphicar and its subsequent adventures is an amusing ride.

“It was the spring of 1965,” he said. “On a Sunday. I’m driving along the Rhine River to cover something in Koblenz and I saw a white car in the middle of the river. Men don’t like to turn around and go back. But I said, ‘I gotta see this.’”

He caught the driver’s attention and persuaded him to come ashore. Mr. Grandy was full of questions and learned a dealer in Frankfort was selling them for about $3,000, which Mr. Grandy said was about what a luxury car cost back then.

He had to have one.

“I was thinking of Lazy River,” he said.

He ordered one “right away” and received it two weeks later. He enjoyed driving it around Germany and recalled one particularly exciting trip with a friend who was anxious to go for a ride in the Amphicar.

Mr. Grandy was familiar with ferry crossings across the Rhine. He said most pathways leading to the ferries were cobblestone and on even level with the ferry deck. But on the trip with his friend, he came across a dock he was unfamiliar with.

“I could see the ferry boat coming across, and I wanted to beat it,” he said. “I never looked for a ramp.”

There was no ramp.

“It was just a steep drop about 10 feet straight into the water,” Mr. Grandy said.

Luckily, he had the Amphicar’s top up.

“I went down, and got completely submerged” he said. “I don’t think anybody ever completely submerged one of those before. It came right back up. I turn the props on and buzz on off down the river.”

In the fall of 1965, while on vacation, Mr. Grandy had the Amphicar loaded on a ship in Bremerhaven and traveled with it to New York City, where it was unloaded. Before driving it north to Russell, he drove it to some assignments in the Big Apple.

“My God, it drew a crowd everywhere I went,” Mr. Grandy said.

He also raised some eyebrows in Vermont when he stopped at a Lake Champlain ferry dock for the trip to New York state.

Mr. Grandy told the astonished ferry pilot that he’d like to drive across the lake. The pilot gave Mr. Grandy the heading for his compass.

The ferry passed him about halfway across the lake, but its passengers waited for him and his Amphicar to arrive.

“It was like Columbus arriving,” Mr. Grandy said.

busy at lazy river

Mr. Grandy’s Amphicar is used often at Lazy River, which is now open only for events like weddings, reunions and company picnics. At Lazy River weddings, Mr. Grandy and the bride go in the Amphicar upriver and come ashore at the facility to the awaiting groom and guests. He also uses it to fish.

He takes it to car shows occasionally along the St. Lawrence. Last Sunday, he planned to drive it from his home and across the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge to a show in Iroquois, Ontario, a distance of about 50 miles. But in Rensselear Falls, he noticed that the Amphicar’s brakes were dragging a bit. He checked the right rear wheel. It was hot. He took off the wheel but couldn’t find a problem.

Mr. Grandy met up with Kyle Hartman in Rensselear Falls. He is a fellow member of the Seaway Cruisers Auto Club. Mr. Hartman also was stumped by the brake problem.

“Not wanting to continue on to the Iroquois meeting, I decided against the possibility of being embarassed by being towed across the Prescott-Ogdensburg bridge, and called off the trip,” Mr. Grandy said. “During the 47 years I have had the Amphicar,it’s the first affair where it has let me down.”

He recalled engagements that went more smoothly, such as the warm reception her received in 2011 when he and the car were invited to the Antique Boat Museum in Clayton. He drove the car off the museum’s ramp for a demonstration.

“I had the biggest audience I ever had,” he said. “I should do more of that, but I don’t like to wear it out.”

He estimates the vehicle has about 22,000 road miles and has “no idea” of its total mileage on water.

At 91, its driver has no plans to retire the Amphicar. Back in his gallery, Mr. Grandy reflected gratefully on his life of adventure.

“I can’t believe it, really,” he said. “I should have died years ago. In the newspaper business, particularly over there (Europe), it was movie stars, cocktail bars and shiny cars.”

He has plans for Lazy River when he’s gone and for his 1965 shiny car, which he says he’ll never sell.

“My grandson (Douglas), down in New Hampshire, is taking over the whole place,” he said.

The place includes the keys to a 1965, single-owner “Regatta Red” German-built amphibious car with its original paint job. Available options: creating a new generation of stories.

About the Amphicar
• The vehicles were made in Germany based on amphibious prototypes developed by Hanns Trippel.
• A total of 3,878 Amphicars were produced between 1961 and 1968. Amphicar experts estimate about 600 usable ones still exist.
• All are model Nos. 770 and are virtually identical.
• Amphicars can travel about 8 mph (7 knots) on water and 70 mph on land.
• They have 4-cylinder British-made 1147 cc Triumph engines.
• While waterborne, the front wheels serve as rudders.
• They have required maritime equipment such as water navigation lights and electric bilge pumps.
• Their engines are in the rear.
• Interested in buying one? Check the classifieds in Wheels-n-Waves, the newsletter of the International Amphicar Owners Club. A 1964 model in “very good” condition was selling for $58,000 in the January-February issue.
Source: The International Amphicar Owners Club
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