Schwimmwagen the Iconic ‘Boat on Wheels’

The Volkswagen Schwimmwagen, literally translated as “swimming car,” was a light four-wheel drive amphibious car extensively used by German ground forces during the Second World War.

In 1936, the project was initiated to transform the civilian Volkswagen 60 into a military vehicle capable of transporting four people along with their equipment. The first prototypes were produced in 1938, and the German army selected one of the models that caught its attention.

Production commenced immediately, and the first vehicle was introduced into service with the German army in December 1939. Officially named the “Kübelsitz-wagen” model 82, it was swiftly nicknamed the Kübelwagen by the German military.


From this original design, many variations were developed. Among them was the amphibious model known as the Schwimmwagen, literally “swimming car,” first produced in 1940.

Its production took place in the Bugatti factories in Molsheim, Alsace, as well as in Fallersleben and Stuttgart, Germany. The Schwimmwagen was designed to cross water obstacles while transporting the same amount of personnel and equipment as the Kübelwagen model.

Today, the Volkswagen Schwimmwagen is a rare collector’s item, prized for its unique design and historical significance.

Origins and Development

The origins and development of the VW Schwimmwagen were shaped by the specific needs of the German military during the pre-World War II era. This period was marked by a push for military innovation and expansion, leading to the demand for a versatile and robust vehicle that could support reconnaissance and various support roles.

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The VW Kubelwagen and Schwimmwagen, while sharing the same rear-mounted, air-cooled flat-four engine, had very few other parts in common. The four-wheel-drive assembly of the Schwimmwagen was specifically designed for this model, and its most distinctive feature was the retractable water propeller, located at the rear of the vehicle’s frame.

The bodywork of the Schwimmwagen was constructed as a single-welded, sheet-steel hull, resembling a boat more than an automobile. It was reinforced with cross-members to enhance its structural integrity. Due to the vehicle’s design to float low in the water, doors were not included; instead, entry and exit were facilitated by simply climbing in and out.

The 50 mph Schwimmwagen

From 1942 to 1944, a total of 14,276 Schwimmwagens were manufactured, and they were deployed on both the Eastern and Western Fronts during World War II.

On land, the Schwimmwagen was capable of a top speed of around 50 miles per hour (80 km/h).
On land, the Schwimmwagen was capable of a top speed of around 50 miles per hour (80 km/h).

The Schwimmwagen was capable of reaching a top speed of 50 miles per hour on land and six miles per hour in water. It was equipped with an air-cooled, overhead valve, flat-four cylinder engine, featuring a displacement of 1,131cc and producing 25 horsepower.

The vehicle also included a four-speed transmission, a hinged, triple-bladed propeller, and four-wheel brakes. Its design featured a seamless pressed-steel monocoque hull, engineered to prevent water ingress.

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Initially, the Schwimmwagen faced competition, but it ultimately emerged as the primary amphibious vehicle for both the German army and the Waffen SS. The most notable of its competitors was the Type 2SG, designed by Hannes Trippel, with a production of a thousand units before the cessation of all amphibious vehicle production in 1944.

The Porsche Design Bureau’s Type 128 Kubelwagen, serving as the prototype for the Schwimmwagen, was first presented in 1940. Thirty units of this prototype were constructed and delivered to the army in the following year for testing purposes.

Mass Production

This model featured a boat-shaped body mounted on the standard VW chassis frame. Following approval from Maj. Gen. Hans Jüttner of the SS Leadership Office, the Type 128 underwent improvements and was evolved into the Type 166. This improved model commenced mass production in 1942.

Rare photos of an SS Schwimmwagen recon team.
Rare photos of an SS Schwimmwagen recon team.

The Schwimmwagen was designed not only to operate in water but also to serve as a replacement for motorcycle scout vehicles, which had demonstrated their effectiveness in Western campaigns. Initially, motorcycles had been introduced as substitutes for horse cavalry. Ironically, despite the introduction of motorcycles, horses experienced a resurgence in the East, due to their superior suitability for off-road terrain.

The production model of the Type 166 Schwimmwagen featured a wheelbase that was 40 cm shorter and a width 10 cm narrower compared to the earlier Type 128.

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It was powered by the same 1,130 cm engine used in the 1943 Kubel, and had a water draft of 77 cm. In addition to the Waffen SS, the Schwimmwagen was also used by regular German Army pioneer (engineer) battalions, Reich Marshal Hermann Göring’s Luftwaffe field divisions, and the elite parachute forces under Luftwaffe General Kurt Student.

Type 128 Schwimmer

On September 21, 1940, the inaugural model of the Schwimmwagen was unveiled, bearing a strong resemblance to the Kubel Type 87, characterized by its box-like structure and welded-shut doors. Several decades post-war, from 1973 to 1976, a variant of this vehicle reemerged in the United States and Mexico as the Volkswagen “Thing.”

It was primarily used for reconnaissance and communications purposes by the German military.

Equipped with the Kubel Type 87 power plant, the Type 128 Schwimmer also featured front-axle and front-wheel drive, a locking differential, exceptionally watertight front wheel bearings, and front axle carrier screws encased in rubber rings. The speedometer cable was routed through a watertight body, complete with rubber sleeves and metal protective caps, and the vehicle included twin three-leaf spring bars.

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Distinctive features of the Type 128 Schwimmer’s transmission included rear axle drive shafts that were simpler to assemble, double-sealed half-shaft crown wheel, rear axle attachment to the main body using sleeves, different arrangements for spring bars, rear shock absorber attachment, and sealing. The brake cables were greased and made watertight, although lubricating nipples were absent.

Schwimmwagen Waterborne Trials

By November 1, 1940, the prototype Schwimmwagen was prepared for testing by the Army Weapons Office. These rigorous trials, conducted on the Autobahn, secondary roads, cross-country, and in its primary role as a water transport vehicle, continued until December 6.

The Schwimmwagen had four-wheel drive, but only in first gear and reverse, to aid in rough terrain.
The Schwimmwagen had four-wheel drive, but only in first gear and reverse, to aid in rough terrain.

During water operation, the Type 128 VW Schwimmer consumed six liters of fuel per hour. In December 1940, the Wehrmacht authorized the construction of an additional 100 vehicles, with the Drauz Company, later joined by Ambi-Budd, assigned to build the bodywork.

Further tests were carried out in the spring of 1941, both before and during Operation Barbarossa on the Eastern Front, as well as waterborne trials by the Wehrmacht’s Instructional Department at Wunzdorf Lake in Germany. The new Schwimmers successfully passed these tests.

An ultimate trial for a trio of Type 128s occurred in August 1941 in the Alps, as the Germans achieved significant victories in the East against the Soviet Red Army. Covering a total of 2,580 kilometers, these mountain tests were extensive.

Extraordinary Off-Road

The official report highlighted, “Driving mountain paths in the high mountains under difficult conditions, as at the Kitzbuhler Horn, or under the very worst conditions at the Rudnicker Alm near Watsching, sometimes muddy, rocky, very narrow and steep, demonstrated the Type 128’s extraordinary off-road capability when driven sensibly. Paths previously untraveled by motor vehicles were navigated, with the total weight almost half a ton.

The Schwimmwagen’s body was constructed from a single piece of stamped steel, which contributed to its buoyancy and strength.

“The vehicle’s water capability was equally impressive, performing flawlessly in rivers at a higher speed than the competitor vehicle, especially after its great off-road test runs.”

Subsequently, on February 18, 1942, both the 128 and 129 models were discontinued in favor of the improved Type 166, which was officially launched in April of the same year. Influenced by the challenges of World War II, the vehicle was engineered to navigate both land and water environments effectively.

Schwimmwagen Type 166

In his 1976 memoir, “We at Porsche,” Dr. Ferry Porsche is cited as describing the Type 166, stating, “This machine [the Type 166] could carry four people and was different from its predecessor, the Type 128, not just in size but also in detail.

A VW Type 166 Schwimmwagen driving on some seriously muddy road conditions
A VW Type 166 Schwimmwagen driving on some seriously muddy road conditions

Less equipment was carried … items like an anchor, commonly found in Navy craft, were deemed unnecessary … Its primary purpose was to enable officers of advance units to traverse cross-country, ford rivers, and conduct reconnaissance by water. In fact, it was even used by officers as platforms for duck shooting.…

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“The Type 166 amphibian’s performance during the Russian campaign was exceptionally good. This compact machine effortlessly navigated the same terrain as tanks! As the person responsible for all Kubelwagen production—both land and amphibian types—from 1939 until 1945, I can express some satisfaction.…

“In August [of 1941], the first prototype was ready for testing. I was invited to present this vehicle at Hitler’s headquarters for a demonstration, and it seemed to be well-received.… He spent a considerable amount of time examining the vehicle and inquired in great detail … He also raised a specific concern, saying, ‘By the way, I would like you to consider a serious problem.

Killer Mosquito

It relates to our soldiers in the East. They are constantly battling swarms of mosquitoes in addition to the Russians. Is it possible to design some kind of mosquito net for this car to protect them while in transit?’ Hitler asked.”

It was relatively small and lightweight, making it easy to transport and air-drop along with troops.

“At that precise moment, one of the generals standing beside Hitler was bitten on the cheek by a mosquito. Hitler quickly struck out, killing the mosquito. The blood the mosquito had been sucking immediately started to trickle down the general’s face. Hitler found this amusing and exclaimed, ‘Look! The first German general to shed blood during this war!’”

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The Light Personnel Car (Kfz 1/20) Type 166, as it was officially designated, possessed a wheelbase measuring 2,000 mm, a length of 3,825 mm, an overall height of 1,615 mm, and a width of 1,480 mm. Its tread centers were 2,000 mm apart, and it weighed 890 kg.

The ground clearance of the vehicle was 265 mm. It was powered by a 24-horsepower engine and had a piston displacement of 985/1, (increased to 131 cc in later models), with a fuel tank capacity of 50 liters.

Four-Wheel Drive System

The vehicle was equipped with a five-speed gearbox, featuring two self-locking differentials and mechanical brakes, in addition to an independent suspension system with torsion bars. Its tires were sized at either 5.25-16 or 200-12.

Regarding the operation of the propeller system, the vehicle was capable of entering the water with a leap. Once submerged, the propeller, having been lowered beneath the surface, was engaged with the drive shaft, enabling the boat-like vehicle to smoothly glide towards the distant shore.

The driver could steer the vehicle in the water using the front wheels, which acted as rudimentary rudders.

Upon reaching its destination, the propeller was manually disengaged from the drive shaft and lifted out of the water. The four-wheel drive system was subsequently reengaged, allowing the vehicle to drive itself out of the water as soon as its front wheels made contact with solid ground. The rudder action of the vehicle was controlled by turning the wheels either to the right or left.

Nicked Named ‘the Boat on Wheels’

The Schwimmwagen was essentially a boat on wheels, capable of traveling on land, equipped with a high-mounted exhaust system at the rear and a basic air intake grille behind the cockpit.

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Keith Seume, in his book “VW Beetle,” notes that “The large engine access panel was designed to prevent water ingress into the engine bay. The simple top, which folded down, offered minimal protection when raised. The rudimentary mudguards provided similarly limited protection.… This vehicle is considered one of the most versatile military vehicles ever constructed.”

American author Walter Henry Nelson, in his 1965 book “Small Wonder: The Amazing Story of the Volkswagen,” provides a final perspective on this remarkable wartime vehicle. In 1945, the British Army captured the VW works at Wolfsburg and showed a particular fondness for the Schwimmer.

A distinctive feature of the Schwimmwagen was its foldable rear propeller, which was manually lowered into the water to propel the vehicle.
A distinctive feature of the Schwimmwagen was its foldable rear propeller, which was manually lowered into the water to propel the vehicle.

Nelson wrote, “Games were held by them where the vehicle would be driven off wharves into the Mittelland Canal at 40 mph, creating a large splash, followed by driving the cars up and down the canal.”

The French had intentions to acquire some of the factory’s crucial butt-welding machinery, but the British opted for a rather unique method to dissuade them from this objective.

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Near-drunk guests were placed in Schwimmers by the British and driven along the canal. A sudden swerve off the embankment into the water was then executed, with the vehicle flying over the surface at high speed before landing squarely in the water.

An officer later recollected, “A quite wild ride was given to the French in the water, and then, coincidentally, the bilge tank plug came out; our vehicle just happened to sink!”

The Numbers

Approximately 14,000 units of the Schwimmwagen were produced, making it the most mass-produced amphibious vehicle of its time. This high production volume was indicative of the significant role the Schwimmwagen was expected to play in military operations.

The majority of these vehicles were assembled in the Porsche factory in Wolfsburg, a facility that played a key role in the production of various military vehicles during the war. Post-war, the Schwimmwagen found a new purpose in Europe as a recreational vehicle, becoming particularly popular among duck hunters in swamps and marshes.

For me, the Schwimmwagen is one of the coolest designs for WW2. I like the fact that with all of its cool design features, it comes with oars – now that is prehistoric.