By Land and Sea: The History of Amphibious Vehicles

Hemmings Daily
Hemmings Daily / Hemmings Daily

Fifty-five years ago, on May 13, 1958, an Australian man by the name of Ben Carlin completed a 10-year journey to literally drive around the world: Using a modified Ford GPA dubbed Half-Safe, he traveled 11,050 miles (17,780 km) by sea and 38,987 miles (62,744 km) by land, starting and ending in Montreal, Canada. His decade-long escapade was (and remains) the only documented circumnavigation of the earth by amphibious vehicle.

Early Amphibious Vehicles

Looking further back in history, 120 years ago, Charles and Frank Duryea manufactured what many consider to be the first American-made automobile, in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Courtesy of Hagley Museum and Library

If you look beyond simple road cars, though, you find that while the Duryea’s invention certainly was the first practical gasoline-powered vehicle made in North America, it wasn’t the first automobile—that landmark had been set almost 90 years prior by a vehicle that was not only a land-craft, but a steam locomotive and dredging barge, as well.

The Orukter Amphibolos, or Amphibious Digger, was produced in 1805 by Oliver Evans, an inventor living in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The craft was built at the behest of a city council which wanted to deepen the Delaware River Dock area of the Schuylkill River. At 17 tons, that barge had wheels attached to get it from the workshop to the river, creating the first amphibious vehicle. Evans was a man ahead of his time—his craft is only known to have run one time, and although the design would have produced a functional dredge, the dangers of high-pressure steam engines and the impracticality of such heavy machinery on roads meant for light carriages meant that self-propelling land vehicles would have to wait for the innovations of the late 19th century.

The concept of the convenience of amphibious vehicles was appealing, though, and Gail Borden (of condensed milk fame) produced one of the next documented land-and-watercrafts in 1849. This vehicle was a sail-powered wagon, and while it was watertight and ran just fine on land, it tipped over 50 feet from shore due to a lack of ballast to counteract the force of the wind on the sails.

Courtesy of Duck Works magazine

In the 1870s, logging companies largely relied on river flow to carry their timber to mills, but on slow-moving rivers and lakes, there would often be big pile-ups of felled trees that wouldn’t move downstream. The solution to this was the first major use of an amphibious vehicle: the “Alligator tug.” This was a steam-powered paddleboat that, by using a winch and large anchor, could haul itself out of the water and across land to the next body of water it was needed in. Although they only traveled overland at 1.5 to 2 mph, they were efficient movers of log booms in water, and were used across Canada and the Northeast United States until the late 1930s.

Courtesy of Modern Mechanix

Between the dawn of the gasoline-powered car and the late 1920s, less-industrial amphibious vehicles were created by combining car chassis, boat hulls, and oversized wheels. One of the first truly all-terrain vehicles, able to travel overland, in shallow water, and at sea, was created by Peter Prell of New Jersey in 1931.

While amphibious vehicles didn’t play a notable role in World War I, the Second World War was another story: both sides had amphibious military craft, used for transport of troops and supplies. In Germany, the Landwasserschlepper began production in 1936, and was regularly used all the way through 1945. The British produced the Terrapin, when the U.S. couldn’t produce enough DUKW-353 crafts to keep up with demand.

Courtesy of DUKW (Duck)

Before the DUKWs (colloquially known as “ducks”), though, the Ford company produced a modified ¼-ton GPW Jeep, called the “Seep” (for seafaring-Jeep) by troops. It was smaller, lighter, and much less stable than the DUKWs, but while serving for the Indian Army in the Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern theaters, Ben Carlin decided that the Seep was the vehicle for him. 

Half-Safe and the Honeymoon Adventure

Courtesy of Hemmings Daily

Near the end of the war, Carlin met an adventurous American Red Cross volunteer nurse named Elinore Arone, and moved to the United States with her after his discharge from service in 1946. They married in 1948, and began to plan for what was to be their honeymoon—a trip around the world in a modified “Seep." Initially, Ben tried to get Ford to sponsor the voyage, but they reportedly called him crazy, and insisted that the vehicle would not be able to complete the trip. In fact, so many Seeps sank during the war, that despite over 12,000 being made and the military selling off the vast majority of its surplus stock after the war, it took considerable effort to acquire a single one.

After finding a 1942 Ford GPA being auctioned off in Washington, DC, and purchasing it for $901, Ben began to refit the vehicle so that it was more seaworthy. While he made sure the GPA was still completely reliable on land, he also added a bow, a rudder, a longer cabin, and two extra fuel tanks, making it much more boat-like than the versions used in the war. As the boat was to be at sea for several weeks, he also added a bunk in the cabin, a two-way radio, aircraft instruments on the dash for navigation, and the fuel capacity was increased from 12 gallons (45 L) to 200 gallons (760 L). At this point, he christened the vehicle “Half-Safe,” after the catchphrase of Arrid deodorant—“Don’t be half-safe—use Arrid to be sure.” 

The car-boat lived up to its name, and Half-Safe would have driven most people to give up before they started, or, at the very least, to re-name their craft. But Half-Safe was the name Ben Carlin chose, and the name the craft maintained through the entire voyage. With an inauspicious beginning, the “honeymooning” couple had four false starts before they finally made it across the Atlantic.

The first time they departed, on June 16, 1948, their radio transmitters gave out just days after setting sail, the rudder was jamming, and the steering gear couldn’t be locked in place. Five days after departure from New York Harbor, Half-Safe drifted into the Shark River Inlet in New Jersey. On July 3, the Carlins departed again from New York Harbor, but were forced back just three days later, after being nearly asphyxiated by a cracked exhaust pipe. Their third attempt in late July was thwarted 270 miles offshore by heavy seas and engine trouble, not to mention serious seasickness in both of them. After 20 days adrift, they were rescued by the tanker New Jersey on its way to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

With winter closing in, Ben decided to postpone their next attempt until the following year, and spent the time between September 1948 and '49 raising money and working out the kinks of his vehicle. He also acquired two additional fuel tanks, as he realized that 200 gallons would not be nearly enough to get him across the Atlantic. In mid-September 1949, the Carlins departed from Montreal, but the first night out, one of the petrol tanks sprung a leak, and the other was washed away. At this point, Ben offered to liquidate Half-Safe and give up on the trip, but Elinore said no. On July 19, 1950, with a specially-made additional petrol tank, the couple set off on their fifth attempt to cross the ocean. After two weeks, their radio transmitters gave out; Coast Guard officials believed the craft floundered. But Half-Safe was still afloat and under its own steam, despite everyone’s doubts, and after 32 days at sea, it rolled ashore on Flores, the most westerly island in the Azores. LIFE magazine published an article on their journey thus far the following month, and the Carlins continued to sail for another 23 days, through Hurricane Charlie, through the Canary Islands, and on to Cape Juby, Morocco.

Courtesy of LIFE

After traversing Morocco and crossing into Europe at Gibraltar, the couple drove through Portugal, Spain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark. They crossed the sea from Denmark to Sweden, drove overland back to Denmark, through Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, before finally crossing the English Channel and reaching London in early January 1952. Though the Carlins had been showing off their vehicle at department stores and trade venues throughout Europe to raise money, they needed to raise the funds to traverse the Middle-East, India, and East Asia, where they would not be able to stop and show off Half-Safe. They settled in London for two and a half years, refitting Half-Safe, replacing worn parts, and gathering supplies and money. During this time, Ben wrote his first memoir, a well-received book entitled Half-Safe: Across the Atlantic by Jeep.

In early 1955, the pair set out again, driving through France, Switzerland, Italy, and Yugoslavia. They continued through Greece and Turkey, and sailed across the Bosphorus Strait into Asia Minor (the Middle-East). From there, they progressed overland through Syria, Iran, Iraq and Pakistan, and arrived in Calcutta, India, in October 1956. At this point, having suffered from seasickness every time the craft was afloat, Elinore decided she’d had enough, and returned to the United States. She filed for divorce in 1956. Ben shipped Half-Safe to Australia, to visit his family in Perth, and to raise additional funds for the rest of his trip. After touring and displaying Half-Safe in his home country for several months, the vehicle was shipped back to Calcutta, to resume its path.

Owing largely to his “irascible character” and aggressive nature, Ben had a hard time keeping a shipmate, but the necessity of another crew member at sea made it necessary that he picked one up. He cycled through three known shipmates during his voyage across the Far East, Japan, and back into North America, the most famous of which was Boyé Lafayette de Mente, who eventually went on to write more than 100 books on Mesoamerican and Japanese culture. He joined Carlin in Japan, trying to escape two “strong-willed Japanese girlfriends who were on the warpath,” and believed that a jaunt up through the Bering Strait and into Alaska would be less dangerous than the ladies he sought to evade. After two months of island-hopping from Japan to the Aleutians, through rough seas, rough tempers, and rough weather, they finally reached Anchorage, Alaska, where de Mente bailed, and flew down to Phoenix, Arizona, to stay with family and recuperate from the trip.

The rest of the journey was simply an overland excursion from Anchorage, down to Seattle, and finally, on May 13, 1958, eight years after he departed, and ten years after he began his journey, arriving back in Montreal. Unlike when he initially crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the completion of his journey was not widely covered by the press, and indeed, most people doubted he really drove the Jeep all the way around the globe. It wasn’t until Carlin’s North American tours and lectures, and the posthumous publication of The Other Half of Half-Safe, that all of his claims were fact-checked and verified. Even though Elinore refused to talk about the trip, she also confirmed the veracity of Ben’s books, at least as far as she was his shipmate.

After Half-Safe

Courtesy of Guildford Grammar School

After several years in the United States, Ben Carlin returned to Western Australia, and left Half-Safe in the care of his friend George Calimer, who occasionally displayed it upon request. When Carlin died in 1981, he left a half-share of Half-Safe, as well as a substantial sum of money (in the form of a scholarship, awarded for "the proficiency of the English language with the avoidance of clichés"), to Guildford Grammar School. The other half of Half-Safe was left to Calimer. In 1999, Guildford Grammar School purchased Calimer’s share of the vehicle, and transported it to their main campus, where it now resides in a glass case specially made to display it.

Courtesy of CAMI

Guinness World Records recognizes Ben Carlin as the first and only person to circumnavigate the globe in an amphibious vehicle. These days, there are many more amphibious vehicles than there were in Carlin’s time, and some are as luxurious as a yacht to live in. Perhaps someday another person will set out to drive around the entire earth in an amphibious vehicle again, but Carlin will remain the first, and almost certainly the most rugged and rag-tag “adventurer of the old-school” to complete the feat. Long live the spirit of adventure!

To read more on Ben Carlin and the Half-Safe adventure, check out Boyé Lafayette de Mente’s book, Once a Fool: From Japan to Alaska by Jeep and James Nestor’s summary of the escapade, in Half-Safe: A Story of Love, Obsession, and History’s Most Insane Around-the-World Adventure.