A drive on the lake

Just for kicks, Neal Kinzie likes to drive his car into a lake as often as possible. Up to now, he has driven into five different ones, and he manages to drive out every time. He even drove into the drink during the dead of winter, and sipped hot tea the whole time.

Kinzie owns a 1967 Amphicar, a German-made boat-car that made a splash in the '60s before sinking into obscurity due to poor crash tests and EPA regulations.

Worldwide, there are only about 500 known to be operational. Costing around $3,000 when new, the Amphicar slogan was, "It's not a great car, not a great boat, but it does both."

Kinzie is the vehicle's third owner, and almost lost that chance during a game of cat-and-mouse played out over an 18-year period.

"It took a lot of work to purchase this car," Kinzie said. "It was completely incapacitated, I was competing with another buyer and the seller was very indecisive. I often felt that it wasn't meant to be."

He described a visit to a house on Faith Street, where the vehicle had been sitting for 37 years. He asked a woman if it was for sale, and the answer was a flat-out, "No." Years later, he re-approached, and everything changed.

"This time she said she was tired of it sitting in her driveway," Kinzie said. "My jaw dropped; the car was in play."

According to Kinzie, the vehicle belonged to the woman's grandson; repeated attempts to contact him failed. While at a restaurant in Sacramento, Calif., he finally got the call.

"He asked me if I wanted to buy it, I said yes, but I was on my way to Hawaii," Kinzie said. "I offered to have someone to bring him a down payment, but he told me to wait until I got back. He gave me a phone number, but he sounded very evasive, like he wasn't sure if he wanted to sell it to me."

To Kinzie's dismay, the phone was disconnected when he returned to Ashland. He returned to the house on Faith Street and the owner's grandmother eventually got them together.

After consulting with a well-known Amphicar restorer, Kinzie learned it would cost $85,000 and two and a half years to have it restored.

"I decided to restore it myself," Kinzie said. "I wasn't worried about the cost, I just didn't want to wait that long."

The task was daunting: The top was deteriorated, the rubber seals were gone and water was inside the vehicle. It hadn't been started since 1972, but, despite appearances, the water was a blessing in disguise.

"The way the water came up in the car," Kinzie said, "it pushed the oil up, which helped to preserve it. The shell was solid and I did not have to rebuild the engine."

With the help of others, working nights, weekends and holidays, he completed the task in 10 months at a cost of $24,000. Kinzie jobbed out as much as possible. Every nut and bolt was removed and it was completely sandblasted. Every step of the process was photographed for referral, which was invaluable during re-assembly. The really difficult part came when it was time to install the windshield wiper motor.

"The wiper motor was the hardest part; we had to pull the gas tank, the glove box and instrument panel just to get at it," Kinzie said. "It took about an hour to get the six bolts in, and I had to do this three times to get it right. You needed to be a contortionist."

According to Kinzie, it is difficult to say how much the car is worth. Two years ago, a museum-quality Amphicar was sold at auction for $122,000. Kinzie said his is restored to "user-quality." As with the rest of the economy, the Amphicar market is flat, and it is rare that one comes up for sale.

There was a reason for him to endure this process; Kinzie plans on spending summers on Hemlock Island in Michigan. The Amphicar was the missing piece to the puzzle, making it "an integral part of being there."

Kinzie said his low-tech, high-pleasure vehicle makes a splash wherever it goes, putting smiles on people's faces every time he takes it out for a swim. He can't get enough of the onlookers' reactions.

On Emigrant Lake on Tuesday it was no different. An Ashland Parks Department pick-up passed by and the driver yelled, "Cool ride!"

Another onlooker said, "I've only seen one of those on TV."

"Oh man, it's hilarious," Kinzie said. "This car runs on smiles-per-gallon."

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