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    • The Amphibious Jeep `Half Safe'


      It is now half a century since Ben and Eleanor Carlin set sail out of New York Harbour on the afternoon of the 16th August 1947 in a WWII Ford GPA amphibious jeep or Seep to drive and sail around the world. Most travellers of that time chose the Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth to cross the seas in comfort and safety, in particular the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans but not the Carlins. They set out in an 18' x 5' Ford amphibious jeep.

      Ben Carlin was born in 1912 in the tiny outback town of Northham, 60 miles west of Perth, Western Australia. He was educated at Guildford Grammar School in Perth and when war broke out, he enlisted in the Indian Army as a qualified engineer and rose to the rank of major. After WWII, life became a little dull for Ben so he decided to leave army life and look for new thrills elsewhere. While browsing through a WWII vehicle park in India, he spotted a strange looking little boat on wheels, the first amphibious jeep he had ever seen. It gave him an idea, a hairbrained scheme to sail around the world in one.

      Ben moved to Maryland, USA and purchased his GPA from a government sale held near Washington. It was one of 12,778 built by Ford's Lincoln Division at Rouge River, MI. Now, I doubt if Ford had the same idea in mind as Ben had when they sent their amphibious jeeps across to the QMC for army service. Not many then and definitely not now would see the opportunity to sail around the world in one of these tiny Ford bathtub Jeeps.

      Ben and his wife Eleanor set about preparing the GPA for its world cruise. Eleanor would be his first ship mate - one of several crew members Ben would have before the trip was over - I wonder why?





      First they would have to outfit the GPA and this was no easy matter on a shoe string budget, but with help from friends in Annapolis, MD and Washington, D.C., the GPA was modified here and there from an awkward looking ugly duckling into a sea-going aquatic ugly duckling. A crude home-built cabin was constructed and the 15 foot hull was extended to 18 feet by the addition of a pointed bow-shaped fuel tank and a stern fuel tank. This gave an on-board fuel capacity of 200 gallons. A bunk was installed crosswise behind the front seats - an extra the U.S. Army had seen no requirement for its military service. A remodified dash and engine firewall with extra aircraft instruments, a radio transceiver, a few provisions and personal items gave this GPA a real chance of making it out, at least into international waters. It seemed to be a real casual approach to a world cruise - just as if it was going to be another Sunday afternoon drive.

      Half Safe was so named because of a radio commercial at the time, which promoted a body deodorant which was worded - "Don't be half safe, use such and such." Ben must have seen the humour in it so he chose to name his little boat Half Safe. Now, if that's not casual, I don't know what is. Within 18 months of the purchase, Ben and Eleanor set out for New York Harbour to cross to England on the same afternoon that the Queen Mary set sail. The irony is that both boats still survive today, but, no doubt, some thought that this boat wouldn't last a week as it bobbed up and down in the Queen Mary's wake.

      To ensure that Half Safe crossed the Atlantic successfully, Ben towed a rubber fuel pontoon at a fair distance behind and this gave them a total fuel capacity of 880 gallons. They also carried 30 gallons of engine oil and 30 gallons of water. The fuel was crucial for a successful crossing as there are no fuel service stations in mid-ocean and no civilian air-sea rescues then. Any mishap could have spelled disaster and, as it happened, Ben's radio came in handy, for disaster did strike 300 miles out. The propeller shaft rear bearing collapsed and lady luck helped out as well as a passing Canadian cargo ship.

      Half Safe was hoisted aboard, kit and caboodle and eventually dumped on dryland in Montreal, Canada, a few hundred miles in the opposite direction. Definitely not a good start at all and anyone else but the Carlins would have given up then.

      Within 12 months, they set out again by driving to Halifax, Newfoundland and then driving back into the Atlantic bound for the African Coast and this time with a lot more spares and a lot more experience. On the 63rd day, they finally reached Cape Jury, Morocco on the North Coast of Africa and to the amazement and astonishment of the locals, this small barnacle covered tin motor boat - well something like that - dragged itself up out of the sea. It was with disbelief that a boat this size with wheels could drive into the water from America and drive out of the water in Africa. It seemed something impossible and without a sail also. Ben neglected to tell them how they had constant overheating problems with the Ford Go-Devil engine resulting in several valve grinds and gasket changes capped off with waves up to 90 ft. Imagine lapping in valves, bobbing up and down, heaving to and fro, spanners and parts rolling about the bottom of the hull and constantly sea sick, drifting day and night in the middle of the ocean. What a ton of guts it took. We will never know how touch and go it must have been for the pair in this little 18 ft. Ford Jeep. Eleanor was such a brave companion she must have had lots of faith in Ben to have gone so far - I will never understand.

      Now in Africa, they faced a whole lot of new experiences as they drove this time on land northwards through the Sahara Desert. The heat inside the cabin topped 170°F forcing them to travel by night and eventually they reached the Mediterranean Sea where they then sailed across to Spain and then travelled northwards to Paris and eventually reached Copenhagen. They then went south and then crossed the English Channel to London. By then the little Half Safe was tired and worn and needed a total re-build and to modify and modernize the cabin. Ben took a job and some time off to ready the GPA for the next leg of the journey -four years in fact. He also found time to write part one of their journey up to then.

      The Carlins again set out, this time east across the English Channel from Dover to France then across the bottom end of Europe and on to the old Persian camel routes of the Middle East where they experienced atrocious roads and more extreme heat from the desert. The little Jeep ploughed on until it reached India where Eleanor by now had decided she had had enough and so left Ben to travel back to New York. Ben was now solo and low in finance so he shipped Half Safe down to Fremantle, Western Australia and then went on a fund raising tour of Australia railing Half Safe east to Sydney and Melbourne then eventually shipping it back up to Calcutta, India.

      From Calcutta, still solo, Ben carried on his world odyssey and met up with a fellow Australian - Barry Hanley, who agreed to accompany Ben from Rangoon through Burma and up to Vietnam.

      That section was the worst that Ben had experienced so far having had to negotiate flooded rivers, swamps and unmade roads. They were constantly digging and winching their way north. In some portions, they relied on local knowledge and were directed from one point to another by compass and guess work. The little Ford Jeep carried on and on grossly overloaded by two or three tons. Eventually they entered the South China Sea and sailed up to Japan's south island. By then, Half Safe was in bad shape. Ben was forced to stop over that winter to repair his GPA to ensure a successful Pacific Ocean crossing which lay ahead. Barry took a job and decided to stay in Japan.

      Boyd De Mente from Phoenix, Arizona decided to ship out with Ben and Half Safe. They drove up through to the top end of Japan and set sail up along to the Russian coast with the trailing floating fuel tank. This crossing was a new experience for both as sea temperatures were freezing. They slowly made it northeast at three knots along the Russian coast then set out east across the Pacific to the Aleutian Islands. When the fuel supply was exhausted in the trailing fuel tank, it was cut loose. Their only fuel now was what they carried on board.

      Eventually they sighted the Aleutians and island hopped to the North American coast. They were once again on U.S. soil but just how they explained themselves to the U.S. customs is not known, or if they ever did. The pair drove north to Anchorage then slipped and skidded south along the frozen Alcan Highway into British Columbia, skirting the Rocky Mountains and down into Blaine, Washington, then right down the west coast to LA, east to Phoenix, then across to Dallas, Texas. He then turned north up along the mighty Mississippi to Chicago and on to Montreal, Canada arriving on the 13th day of May, 1958 some nine years later - what a trip! Just the trip down the Alcan and across USA in a GPA would be momentous in 1958, but to eventually circumnavigate the globe in a Ford amphibious jeep is unbelievable, and to pass through 38 countries, Texas included, in Ben words, travelling 11,000 miles by sea, 39,000 miles on land is simply incredible.

      This is the first and still the only time an amphibious jeep has travelled around the world and it is the smallest motor boat to ever cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. There is no doubt it will be hard to re-create this epic odyssey again. I cannot help feeling that no one but Ben Carlin could do it anyhow. Half Safe's journey was not quite over yet. Ben tried to sell Half Safe but no one was interested. Maybe if Henry Ford was alive, he would have seen the significance in this Ford Jeep and displayed it in his Ford museum and shaken Ben Carlin's hand realizing it was the most famous motor vehicle ever built, and a Ford vehicle at that.

      After storing Half Safe for awhile in Annapolis, MD, Ben shipped it to Perth, Western Australia.

      Upon his death in 1981, he left it to his former old Grammar School, Guildford, for safe keeping and as an inspiration to all the young students that man can actually achieve the impossible. There is no doubt that Major Ben Carlin was a real achiever, and his efforts and dedication to his Jeep could make him the father of our hobby in the preservation and restoration of our WWII motor vehicles. Eleanor sadly passed away in 1996 in New York, but Half Safe is still alive and running.

      This year is the 50th year since Half Safe began its incredible world journey and it's not over yet as its next leg was to be transported by truck across to Corowa’s 1999 20th Annual Swim In on the Murray River in New South Wales in the company of 15 other GPAs and one GMC DUKW.

      This annual event on the Murray River is the last for this century and as it is the 50th year of Half Safe and for this special event, it was planned to bring Half Safe out - an idea David Stafford had. Roger Ross took the idea seriously and negotiated with Guildford Grammar School with help from Bob Dimer of Perth. The school agreed so Bob transported Half Safe 2,000 miles to Corowa to the delight of all who attended. Half Safe was driven in the town parade and was on display all week. I was invited to have a ride in this most famous of all Jeeps. I can say with pride that I was another crew member of Half Safe for a few minutes - a ride I will always cherish and remember. Half Safe was eventually returned back to Guildford Grammar, Perth, thus completing another or final leg of an unbelievable world journey spanning from 1949 to 1999.

      Ben Carlin wrote 2 books on his journey. Part 1 dealt with his and Eleanor's journey to England and Part 2 thereafter. Both are found in second hand book shops etc. A video copy of the world odyssey filmed in 1960 is available.

      Inquiries could be directed to Roger Ross, River Mouth Road, Eagle Point 3878, Victoria, Australia. Suggested price is approximately $30.00 plus postage in VHS PAL format. Also inquire about NTSC format copies. I am sure you would enjoy the video of this remarkable man and his WWII Jeep Half Safe as well as his two books.

      Illustration shows Ben Carlin’s ‘Half Safe’ Ford GPA. The most famous Jeep in the world. Note the large rudder and the stern fuel tank. The tiller shaft allowed Carlin to operate the rudder from the cabin. The propeller tunnel is completely closed in. This was the final conversion accomplished in London in 1948. Photograph by MVPA member, David Stanton.

      Article courtesy of ‘Army Motors’ magazine, #89, Fall 1999 issue.