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Ford GPA Seep

The eccentric engineer: Ben Carlin, his wife and their honeymoon with a Ford GPA

Image credit: Oxyman | Wikipedia

Ben Carlin persuaded his new wife that the ideal honeymoon would be crossing the Atlantic in an ex-Army amphibious vehicle.

 The season of weddings and honeymoons is upon us and there can be few groups in society more romantic than engineers. So where would an engineer honeymoon? Cern? The Tacoma Narrows? Both have their positives, but few have had quite the impact of mining engineer Ben Carlin’s suggestion to his new wife Elinore: “Let’s spend our honeymoon crossing the Atlantic in a Jeep.”

Carlin was not quite as reckless as he sounds. Having served across the globe in the Indian Army Corps of Engineers during the Second World War, he had come across a remarkable vehicle, the Ford GPA, effectively an amphibious version of the ubiquitous Army Jeep. This was designed for crossing rivers and lakes, but not oceans, and his fellow engineers had ridiculed his suggestion that he might be able to go around the world in one. Yet he remained undaunted.

In 1946, Carlin managed to buy a GPA and set about modifying it for ocean travel, increasing the fuel capacity, fitting a rudder, installing bunks and rebuilding the front to give it a seaworthy bow. Pleased as any engineer would be with his handiwork, he named his vessel ‘Half-Safe’ and asked Ford if they would sponsor him. They refused, claiming the vessel wasn’t safe at all. 

And they had a point. Carlin and his wife left Montreal in late 1947, arriving at New York in time to try the Atlantic crossing to the Azores in the summer of 1948. One newspaper describes their departure as witnessed by “crowds of sceptical waterside workers”. Like Ford, the workers were right to be sceptical. They were rescued after five days, just 40 miles from New York after steering gear failure. The second attempt went the same way thanks to a cracked exhaust pipe that nearly suffocated them. A third attempt failed, mainly due this time to sea sickness, and a fourth rescue had to be made after a propeller bearing seized. 

Lesser honeymooners may have given up, but engineers never surrender. Pausing to raise more money and further refine the Jeep, the fifth attempt might have been successful had it not been for the auxiliary fuel tanks being lost. Astonishingly, it was Carlin’s wife who persuaded him to continue and their sixth attempt proved auspicious. Having left Halifax on 19 July 1950, they arrived in Flores in the Azores after 32 days at sea. From here they travelled to Madeira, coming ashore in Morocco, crossing the Straits of Gibraltar, driving up through Spain and France, crossing the Channel and finishing their voyage in Birmingham, England. 

Hailed for their engineering feat the Carlins decided to carry on around the world, but only after spending four years recuperating in Birmingham, during which time Ben Carlin completed his seminal book ‘Half Safe: Across the Atlantic by Jeep’. The money from the book allowed for repairs and improvements and the Carlins set off across Europe and the Middle East in early 1955. Having reached Calcutta, they were forced to detour to Ben’s native Australia for a publicity tour as money was running short. 

Patience, it seems, was also running thin and Elinore Carlin decided the honeymoon had gone on long enough and returned to her native USA. Undaunted, Ben returned to Calcutta and set off alone across the Bay of Bengal to Burma. Here he was joined by fellow Australian Barry Hanley, who continued with him across the Burmese mountains to the Irawaddy river, crossing the South China Sea to Hong Kong and Japan. 

In Japan, further rest and repairs were needed both for Carlin and the Half-Safe. Hanley had also had enough and was replaced by Boyé Lafayette de Mente, a US journalist from the Japan Times. From Tokyo, the two bumped and scraped their way to Hokkaido, hitting a few submerged rocks and springing a leak en route. From here, the two set off across the Pacific Ocean for the Aleutian Islands. Despite being feared lost as they failed to make radio contact, the Half-Safe arrived on Shemya on 8 July. From here, they island-hopped to Alaska and then drove to Anchorage, where de Mente called it a day. The title of his book speaks volumes about the voyage: ‘Once a Fool: From Tokyo to Alaska by Amphibious Jeep.’

Carlin continued, driving all the way to California where he met his wife who he hadn’t seen in two years. From here, he drove back to Canada, finally reaching their starting point, Montreal, on 10 May 1958. Carlin was the first and only person ever to circumnavigate the world in an amphibious vehicle. The honeymoon was over. As was his marriage. The long-suffering Elinore had divorced him three years previously in 1955.

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