Lessons learned from ‘George’, our 1967 Amphicar

A 1967 Amphicar is unlike any car, or boat, you’ve likely ever driven. It’s not a particularly practical vehicle on land or on water. On land, it tops out at around 80km/hr and has very little trunk space given the need to store paddles and life jackets for the switch to water mode. In water, it handles more like a bathtub than a boat. But performance isn’t really the point. George is cool. George is the ultimate smash up – part boat, part car and 100% fun. George is also a business guru and life coach. Here’s what he can teach:

Lesson #1 – Go For It!
There are very few 1967 Amphicars left in the world. It is safe to assume that most of the 800 models that were produced are now on the bottom of the world’s waterways. We acquired our 1967 Amphicar through our Chairman, Mark. Mark’s dad, George was the original owner. He then gave it to a friend. Years later that friend learned about Georgian Bay Spirit Co. and knew it needed to become our mascot. Naturally, we Christened the amphicar ‘George’, an homage to Mark’s dad and Georgian Bay.

Because there are not many 1967 Amphicars left in the world, and because they are such unique vehicles, George is pretty valuable. He’s small and kind of funny looking but in monetary terms he’s worth as much as a high-performance sports car. In sentimental terms, George is priceless. If you dwell on George’s value too much, however, you become less inclined to take him for a spin on the lake – but then all you are left with is a cramped, finicky, low performance car that’s hard to start. So, even though George is leaky and has a bilge pump that sometimes shorts out, and is prone to stalling and then not starting again, if you don’t take him in the water once and a while, what’s the point, really?

In other words, life is full of risks. Only by embracing risk with a spirit of fun and adventure can you achieve real success.

Lesson #2 – Have A Backup Plan
So of course we had to take George out on the water. But we knew the risks. We had long conversations and numerous visits with Bob the mechanic. We made sure George was purring like a tiger before his maiden voyage as the new Georgian Bay Spirit Co. mascot last summer. It was to celebrate and promote our sponsorship of the Kee to Bala’s Balapalooza event. It was a rare sunny day for that summer and the winds were fairly gentle. Our summer rep, Peter and I checked and then double checked for life jackets, tow rope, bailers, paddles and other safety items. We ran down the marine switch-over protocols like a couple of fighter pilots. And then we headed out gingerly into Lake Muskoka.

I ran the numbers in my head – mapping out vectors from current position to the launch ramp accounting for drift over time and distance – just in case we had to high tail it back to the ramp. Peter was behind me in the backseat. At 6 foot 7, he’s too tall to actually sit in George. Fortunately, from that vantage point he could look back and see the bilge hose. As we began circling back from our furthest venture from shore, Peter declared the bilge pump to be non-functional. It was like a warning light going off on the space shuttle. Our voices maintained a calm and professional tone but there was obvious stress and high tension aboard SS George at that moment.

The moment Peter alerted me to the bilge pump issue, I felt water sloshing around my feet. It’s not uncommon to see water in the bottom of an old boat, but when that boat is part car, has virtually zero flotation, and doors with weathered and cracked seams, any amount of water is highly troubling. I had no idea at which point water would start pouring in through the sides of the doors. There is actually a manual locking device on the doors to ensure they don’t accidently open while on the water – an instant sink scenario. But the lock was flimsy and the rubber seals around the door trim were well beyond their best before date.

But you see, we had a back-up plan for everything. Our biggest fear was that if we took on water the engine would be more likely to stall. For this scenario, we had a tow line on board. Given how quickly we were taking on water, it suddenly occurred to me that there might be a Plan C option for the tow line. If we were to stall, we could end up sinking before a nearby boat could be hailed in time to tow us to shore. In this case, we’d have to tie the rope around the steering wheel, then grab a life jacket and tie it to the other end of the rope to create a makeshift buoy, something to aid the very expensive, but not more expensive than George, recovery operation. But right now, we were in the thick of plan B. Hit the gas and head for shore.

I opened the throttle and George’s speed increased about half a knot. If we were going down it would be like watching a slow-motion video that suddenly speeds up for the final few seconds – we’d inch our way to shore and then suddenly sink like a boulder.

Success in business and Amphicar adventures comes down to back-up plans. The more potential problems you can anticipate and plan for the more prepared you will be when things suddenly veer from plan, which is pretty much a guarantee in business and in life. Peter got the bailer out while I focused on getting us to shore.

Georgian Bay Spirit Co. - Amphicar George


Lesson #3 – Trust Your Instincts
The minute you get that feeling – that uneasy, hard-to-put-your-finger-on, wake-up-in-the middle-of-the-night feeling – listen to it. Your gut is an incredible guide. We make assessments about people in seconds. We read the situation. We see things coming. That’s primitive. That’s survival.

‘Trust your instincts’ is usually a credo that is brought up in afterthought. “Too bad about Bill and the whole solo Everest summit. I had a feeling. Wish I’d said something.” In business, it’s easy to wish you’d trusted your instincts post-bankruptcy. The trick is to trust them in the moment. Have an open and honest dialogue with yourself, one that doesn’t sugar coat the situation to make yourself feel better – and then take calm and rational action. Remember, sometimes it’s better to slowly walk away than to run even though the initial instinct is almost always to run like hell.

I got that sinking feeling the moment the water level hit my ankles. Up until then I felt like our odds of making it to the launch ramp, switching to car mode and driving away from this whole scenario were at least 4 to 1. But the water level rising in the boat to that extent got me thinking about the engine. Going full throttle lifts the front of the car up ever so slightly, sending the water sloshing to the back where the engine sits. If the engine were to flood out, we’d be toast, so the math became a little more complex. Wind drift to dock position to distance to speed to degree of incline – or should I say decline – from bow to stern. My instinct was to go full out. Perhaps the designers had considered this predicament and set the engine above the point of no return in terms of water level. There was only one way to find out.

Lesson #4 – Course Correction Takes Time
George in the water does not respond like a boat when you turn the steering wheel. Basically, the wheels do the turning just like on land. The wheels are the rudder, so to speak. The problem with this scenario is that a rudder at the back of a boat is much more effective than four wheels. Most boats also come to a point at the bow to assist turning, not squared off like a car. In George, you have to start your turn way sooner than you think you need to and then wait a few minutes for the turn to happen. If you’re not patient, you’ll end up going in a big zigzag pattern which is not very efficient when you’re sinking.

It’s the same in business. It’s easy to continuously second-guess yourself or over-correct everything if results aren’t immediate. But sometimes you have to wait a while for bold moves to pay off. The key is to stay the course, making minor corrections here and there as opposed to veering wildly from one direction to another, wasting precious time while you slowly sink.

Because George is square and bathtub-like, any wind or wave action will cause him to drift significantly. You need to understand vector geometry to drive George efficiently. To a casual observer, it probably looked like we were driving George straight to the nearest shore, but accounting for drift, we were actually making a straight line for the launch ramp. We had our course, and we were sticking to it.

Lesson #5 – At Some Point, You Will Need Help. Accept It.
Essentially, with George that day, we got lucky. But luck is easier to come by if you are open-minded and willing to let others help you. We reached the ramp and I felt the front wheels touch the ground. We switched over to car mode by pushing forward a lever on the floor that directs power from the propellers back to the drive train. I put the car in gear and started driving out of the water. I accelerated and nothing happened. I shifted up a gear and nothing happened. I took my foot off the gas in fear I was doing something wrong. George stalled. I started the car and tried again. Same problem. It was like a break was on. Then it occurred to me. The car was so full of water that it was too heavy to drive up the ramp. And every time the car would start up the ramp, the water would rush to the back and stall the engine. We were stuck. Worse still, steam was billowing from the engine. If we kept trying to get George up the ramp, we were going to risk doing irreversible damage.

So there we were, stuck on the boat ramp. We weren’t going to sink, but we weren’t going anywhere either. Worse still, there were people staring at us, waiting to launch their boats. Fortunately, George brings out the best in people. He’s quirky and unique. He’s hard not to love. People want to see George succeed.

There’s no better feeling than having people embrace what you’re trying to do. In fact, there is a point in any successful venture when the customer begins to take over. It can be a little unsettling to put your brand in the hands of your customer, but this is when things can really start to take off. When consumers feel a sense of ownership, they will go out of their way for you.

Someone with a truck and some rope had the idea to pull George up the ramp. Pretty soon, George had all 4 wheels on dry land. The person who offered a tow also happened to be handy with old engines. He took one look under the hood and suggested we not start the engine again before visiting our mechanic as there were clear signs of water in the engine oil. We wisely took this advice – turns out George needed quite a bit of TLC to recover from his near-drowning.

How close did we come to sinking? It’s hard to know for sure. But when we pulled the drain plug under George’s engine compartment, water poured out onto the ground for a good 5 mintutes – probably 200 litres or more of water. That would have added 200 kg of weight to George. I’m guessing another 15 minutes on the water and George would have gone under.

Lesson #6 – Celebrate Your Wins
George didn’t sink. That’s reason to celebrate. We declared George’s maiden voyage as Georgian Bay Spirit Co.’s mascot a resounding success. It brought us together. It made us stronger and it proved that you have to take some risks to see rewards. Later that same summer we took George out on the water again to film this video.

This ride was much more enjoyable as we knew what to look out for and how much time we’d have to react if George started taking on water again.

George is currently back with Bob the mechanic getting fixed up for summer 2018. Holes are being plugged, parts are being replaced. It’s clear that Bob has a soft spot for George, which is no surprise. George has that effect on people.

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