BOOK EXTRACT: Serious Fun - The Life and Times of Alan Gibbs, Chapter 17

BOOK EXTRACT Serious Fun - The Life and Times of Alan Gibbs, by Paul Goldsmith (Random House; Kindle edition here)

Chapter 17: The Aquada unleashed, 2000–2005

While Gibbs watched a jet ‘bombing’ structures on his farm in October 1999, for a sixtieth birthday party treat, he had a team of engineers working away in the English Midlands on his amphibious car project. Hundreds of thousands of man-hours later, by the time Richard Serra’s Te Tuhirangi Contour was launched in February 2003, the team at Gibbs Technologies had nearly completed the world’s first high-speed amphibian legally permitted to drive fast on land and water. Gibbs presented the Aquada to the international media in London in September 2003, and the world was interested. Clips of the Aquada operating as a sports car on the road, then driving down a ramp and seconds later taking off as a jet boat fast across the water were the most downloaded items on the World Wide Web for more than 24 hours. Television stations from Turkey to Argentina covered the story with fascination.

Here was an outsized achievement that had the potential to transform the way people moved around their environment. By doubling the utility of the car, the boundaries of personal freedom could be extended, and, in cities around the world with rivers and harbours, transport patterns could well be altered forever. The swift transformation from land to water and water to land had the capacity to astonish. British journalist Simon Carr captured the moment:

As the Aquada drives off the road down the boat ramp towards the water, the driver pushes the amphibious button. Electronic interlocks switch the management systems to marine mode. The speed is noted, the presence of water is established, the fact that the wheels aren’t carrying any weight is checked; a dozen valves in the suspension open and close, the pressure rises in the damper struts and the wheels rise up out of the water in a graceful arc, settling into the body of the car as neatly as the wings of a swan fold into its back. The power train decouples from the axles and engages the jet. The driver hits the gas and nearly a tonne of thrust is thrown out of the impeller at the back, pushing the bow of the amphibian at the hill of water it has to climb. In moments it is up and over the hill and is planing across the surface of the water at a speed of thirty knots.

To the non-mechanically minded the scale of the achievement with the Aquada isn’t obvious. The press of a button going from land to water and back again masks the resolution of a multitude of complex technical issues.

Gibbs had arrived in the United Kingdom in 1999 with basic conceptual solutions to many of the major problems. The task for CEO Neil Jenkins and his crew from then on was to engineer those concepts into the best possible working model, given the necessary compromises of price and government regulations. With high hopes and merry hearts, Gibbs and Jenkins embarked on what they thought might be a two-and-a-half year project, with the finished amphibians ready in mid-2001.

Richard Branson breaks the amphibian cross-Channel record.

At Nuneaton Jenkins oversaw eight work streams: structure, which dealt with body and frame design; chassis, responsible for undercarriage, suspension and steering design; powertrain, dealing with engine and gearbox vehicle integration; marine systems, dealing with jet and hull design, ride and handling; electrical and electronics, responsible for electronic control unit (ECU) design and integration; styling, looking at overall packaging aesthetics and ergonomics; intellectual property, to protect innovation; and homologation, the process of gaining certification from the road and marine regulators. Gibbs considered himself chief technology officer. He’d walk around the offices and workshop questioning anyone and everyone. For this to work there had to be a clear understanding of the chain of command. Jenkins explains how it functioned:

At heart, Alan’s a frustrated engineer. He loves solving problems and he’s good at it; he’s had an awful lot of valuable input into solving lots of the problems. In terms of management structure, having your co-owner wandering around engaging with the engineers and technicians could be disastrous, but Alan quickly sorted out a working formula. Anyone was free to take his advice, but if they adopted it, they had to own it absolutely. Nobody could say they were doing something ‘because Gibbs said so’.

Gibbs had a sign erected on the wall to reinforce the point:

Alan Gibbs questions, challenges, and suggests ideas. These are not instructions, those come through line management. If you adopt Alan’s input it becomes yours.

The Gibbs team of engineers were equipped with the latest computer-aided design (CAD) machines to begin the task of designing each system or structure. But after years of experience, Jenkins had come to the view that it was quite possible to design a seemingly perfect vehicle on paper or on the CAD sheets, only to find ‘terrible screw-ups’ when building the first one. To keep theory in line with practice he was determined to build mules as quickly as possible to test their solutions with real metal on real water or tar seal.

Gibbs testing the first water mule.

First up was Mule 1, a new water mule, which had four cut-outs in the hull for the wheel arches, four wheels fixed in the retracted position and an outboard motor that had been instrumented to measure the thrust developed by the outboard and thereby the drag on the hull. They’d learnt something about hull performance from the water mule in Detroit, but so far they’d only scratched the surface. By summer they were racing around Bosworth Lake, five minutes from the factory. Gibbs and his team now had to engage seriously with the ‘black art’ of hydrodynamics relating to a small, heavy craft. He recalls:

No consultants or university professors had the science to tell us how a 15 foot hull would work with huge cut-outs amounting to a quarter of the hull. Had we wanted a battleship with sonar bumps all over its underneath, they could have told us the drag to within two decimal points. But this was entirely outside their range of knowledge. We had to develop our own science and there is a phenomenally complicated hydrodynamic interplay between surface drag, wave drag and the ordinary displacement. Even on standard hulls it is complex but with four arches scalloped out, the problems leap up in orders of magnitude. The front wheel arches act like secondary bows. The wave form leaves the primary bow and hits the secondary ones and wave amplitudes can, unless you deter them, reach their maximum when they hit the tertiary bows (the rear wheel arches). This is the worst possible effect. It has to be minimised, or, better still, prevented from happening at all.

The problem fascinated Gibbs and he spent much time with the team trying to marry their maths with what they saw on the lake. After much trial and error, they minimised the spray, wave forms and drag by altering the shapes of the wheel arches.

An interrelated problem was to find the optimum centre of mass for the vehicle. If the relationship between the centre of mass and the centre of pressure (the line on the hull when planing where the water first hits the hull) was out of whack, the boat would begin to bounce up and down in a manner known as porpoising. Much depended then on where the engine would sit, and so over the course of months there were many experiments to find the optimum distribution of weight. But they also had to consider, when distributing the weight, the impact it would have on the power required to lift the boat on to the plane; if the weight was too far back they’d never be able to generate the power required to lift it. Mule 1A replaced the outboard motor with a car engine and a jet.

Mule 2, a mean-looking black beast, was completed in January 2000. It was purely for road testing. The primary object was see how the combined retraction and suspension system worked on the test track; how it would handle the camber and castor of normal driving. The other task was to test their ideas about cooling a car engine in an enclosed (and ultimately watertight) space. Without access to the normal blast of cool air from under the vehicle as it went along the road, they had to experiment with extra radiators and cooling ducts, without adding too much weight.

Gibbs testing another mule.

Mule 3 was the first genuine high-speed amphibian. Essentially, it combined the first two mules. It had a Nissan engine, retractable wheels and a composite hull that was thinner than the hull of a typical boat combined with an aluminium frame that was weaker than that used in a typical car. The hybrid structure was strong, according to the stress analysis computer graphics produced by the Finite Element Analysis (FEA) software, but they’d only know for sure when it tore around its first corner on the track and hit a bump. Mule 3 held together nicely. It was rough and ready, and quite heavy, so everyone was nervous when it first dropped into the water in April 2000. Would it rise to the plane? Yes it did. Amidst the whoops and hollers, the team finally knew they were making progress. ‘It was the first time,’ Gibbs recalls, ‘that everyone could see what we working towards.’ Now they began several more months of testing to experiment with every aspect.

Another major programme of work reaching a critical stage on Mule 3 was the drive to improve the performance of the jet. Initially, Gibbs had hoped that the jet would be one thing they could buy off the shelf and install.

But, like most aspects of the project, the further they went the more they realised the extent of the challenge. They needed at least 800 kilos of thrust, but as Gibbs remembers, all the existing jets of that power were twice as long and at least three times heavier than anything they could accommodate in the amphibian.

In England they turned to Richard Parker, arguably the greatest jet engineer in the United Kingdom, who had worked for Vosper Thornycroft, a warship maker, and who had designed several jet-propelled boats for the navy. He set to work on all the variables — the angles and width of the entry and exit points, the number and pitch of the blades on the impeller — to find the combination that worked best in the space available. When it was tested pulling against a bollard, Parker’s design generated a remarkable 840 kilos of thrust.

Gibbs’ arrival at the testing lake always generated a nervous frisson amongst the technicians. Alan Wells, one of the longest serving techicians, groans as he remembers that whenever Gibbs turned up he’d break the machine:

It was always frustrating for us because it was invariably something that we didn’t think would fail and Alan, who only knew one speed and that was flat out, would break it. It was either that or he’d be getting us to push it to the limit. One day at the lake he was on a high, punching his fist in the air, wanting us to drive into the water as fast as we could. ‘Faster, you wimps,’ he was yelling. We did it at about 25 mph and I was thinking to myself, ‘Where’s it going to end?’ 

While the mule testing carried on at pace, a lot of work was being done on the vehicle’s styling. Gibbs insisted on the best and in April 1999 they laid out a detailed brief, then invited leading design teams from Italy, France and the United Kingdom to develop proposals. The field was whittled down to two. Bertone and Gibbs’ in-house designer, Steve Bailey, were invited to make quarter-scale clay models of their designs, and to everyone’s surprise, in September 1999, Steve Bailey’s design came out on top. With only a fraction of the resources of his international rivals, Bailey says he did have the advantage of fully understanding the vehicle’s technical requirements. And he’d taken to heart Gibbs’ and Jenkins’ suggestion that he buy two magazines for inspiration: a body-building magazine and Horse & Hound. ‘They were looking for a haunchy, muscular look, and wanted me to look at rumps of horses and the shoulders of body builders for ideas,’ Bailey says.

Bailey and his team set to work in early 2000, first making a 40 per cent-sized clay model of the car, which they subjected to wind tunnel tests to ensure that it successfully resolved the conflicting aerodynamics and hydrodynamics, as well as to help find the best spots to position intakes and outlets for the jets and cooling ducts. Through the spring and summer of 2000 they had a six-man team building a full-sized clay model of Bailey’s design, which allowed them to walk around the amphibian and debate how it could attain the more ‘purposeful stance’ for which he was still striving.

Neil Jenkins, Andy Yeomans, Alan Gibbs and Steve Bailey, with the styling clay model in 2001.

At the same time as the mule-testing and styling work, the team was grappling with the regulatory issues. Homologation, the term given to the regulatory process for allowing a vehicle to be sold for road or marine use, generated a whole new set of problems to overcome since they were the first to take a high-speed amphibious vehicle through the process. This meant reconciling the irreconcilable marine and road regulations. For example, the hole for the gas tank on a car can be no wider than 23.4 millimetres; but marine nozzles by law need to be at least 31.5 millimetres wide. Cars are not allowed red lights that shine forward, but a boat must have one. To resolve these and numerous other discrepancies, Gibbs’ staff were drawn into protracted negotiations with different authorities.

By late 2000 Mule 3 was working reasonably well and Gibbs and Jenkins had signed off the styling. The next step was to build five prototypes. The first of these, P1, which looked 95 per cent like the final Aquada, rolled off the stocks on 22 December, just in time for Gibbs to see it before leaving for the New Zealand summer. By then it was bitterly cold and when they reached the lake to try it in the water, the technicians had to use their Land Rover to break ice that clung to the shore.

P1 rose to the plane and everyone was very excited, but the celebrations were dulled by Gibbs’ awareness that the project had a major issue with its drive train. It centred on the engine’s power take-off (PTO) device. In a four-wheel-drive car the PTO splits the drive to power the front and the rear wheels. For the amphibian, they were using a PTO to split the drive between the rear wheels and the jet. No PTO had been designed for such use. Normally in a car, it would cope with full power going to one set of wheels and about 40 per cent of its full torque going to the other set. On the amphibian, they wanted to turn the wheels off (which the Gibbs team achieved by designing their own decoupler) and then put all the power into the jet.

The General Motors PTO attached to the GM engine that they had installed in P1 couldn’t handle the demands being made of it and after a few hours of use repeatedly failed, each time for a different reason. For months they’d been wrestling with the problem and this continued through the first half of 2001 while they built the prototypes. Despite endless analysis and experimentation, the issue didn’t resolve itself.

To make matters worse, in August 2001 it became clear that GM were no longer willing to supply their engine and powertrain. This was a major blow, since everything had been designed around the GM engine. Sophisticated modern engines, governed by their own electronic control units (ECUs), are not easily switched in and out. Chris Darby, Gibbs’ principal electronics engineer, knew the complications well:
ECUs from standard saloon cars have a number of software functions that we don’t need for an amphibious car. That has serious consequences. The ECU is very fussy about how it is handled. It insists on being wired up in precisely the same way it was wired up in its original vehicle. Its air conditioning wires need to be plugged into air conditioning sockets. And if you don’t have air conditioning, you need to persuade the ECU that you do — and not just any air conditioning but the air conditioning it’s used to working with. If you fail, the system will sulk and won’t let the engine start.

Having solved most of the quirks in the GM engine, they were now back to square one looking for a new source of power that inevitably would have its own quirks.

Salvation came from an unlikely quarter. Jenkins spent a lot of time with Steyr, an Austrian firm that made PTOs, trying to resolve their problem with the GM PTO. In frustration he asked them one day to nominate their best PTO; they pointed to the one attached to the Land Rover Freelander engine, the KV6. Jenkins went back to London, bought a Freelander, ripped the engine out and started tests on its PTO. Its performance was an order of magnitude better than anything else they’d tried. The KV6 was also a tidy engine that delivered the power they needed and was very compact. The next problem was to persuade the owners of Rover to let them use the engine for the project, which they did only after Gibbs had been through ‘somersaults and hoops of burning fire’.

After a delay of the best part of a year, they slipped a Rover KV6 engine into the fifth prototype, P5, and began testing it in late 2001. Most of 2002 was taken up with finding ways around the KV6’s in-built electronic defences in order to extract its full power. Gibbs also gave Keith Alexander, an academic from the University of Canterbury back in New Zealand, the challenge of improving the thrust performance from the jet by 5 per cent, which he achieved brilliantly by fine-tuning every aspect. As Christmas 2002 approached they’d finally found the thrust they needed.

The other work streams used the time taken to resolve the power issues for fine-tuning. On the water, Gibbs thought the prototypes were ‘a little too lively’ in the tail on tight corners. They improved handling by adjusting the strakes on the hull, the raised lines that grip the water when turning. Deeper strakes at the end would solve the problem, but would add weight; triangular strakes at the front that blended into square ones at the back formed the final solution. Every other aspect — the sound the engine made, the weight of the steering wheel, the colours used, anything that affected the overall experience — was given a great deal of thought. Gibbs also oversaw the highly technical business of sifting through their technological breakthroughs for potential patents, then lodging, defending and renewing them. By 2003 they had 60 patents granted and a further 120 under way.

The Aquada production line at Nuneaton.

The next phase after the five prototypes were working satisfactorily was to commence building sales-intent amphibians (SIAs). The plan was to build these in batches of five, undertaking yet more rigorous testing and making minor adjustments along the way, until somewhere around SIA 20 they would have settled on the final model, the specifications for which would be set in stone so that production could begin. That would be ‘Job 1’ and they hoped it might be ready for sale by mid-2003.

The sales-intent amphibians had 3178 different parts, each of which had to be bought or fabricated. Handling this volume of parts created a major logistics exercise, requiring serious quality control systems. As they relied on dozens of suppliers, most of whom didn’t have access to the sophisticated CAD systems that Gibbs had used, this phase led to many more headaches. The hulls were perhaps the trickiest part to get right, and the SIA programme was held up several months as many hulls were rejected. SIA 1 finally rolled off the production line on 20 February 2003.

Such slippages and complications were nothing out of the ordinary for new car programmes, and indeed weren’t surprising to Gibbs given the difficulty of the Nova project, but he was not known for his patience. Jenkins felt the greatest pressure, and yet like Gibbs’ other key partners before him, Charles Bidwill, Trevor Farmer and Noel Lane, he felt it as a positive force, notwithstanding its power:

Even at the darkest moments I never had negativity from Gibbs. He’d ask if we were doing it the most efficient way and whether we could do it quicker, for less cost, but he never threw his hands up. In terms of tenacity and determination, I’ve never met anyone like him.

The product itself was a great motivator; many people wanted to be part of a team that introduced such an exciting new product to the world. But Gibbs’ powerful brand of leadership was also necessary to sustain the team through the hills and valleys of the project. It was obvious to everyone that he believed fervently in the idea. Many of his workers responded to his clear emotional commitment to the project with great efforts of their own, so as not to let him down. But passion alone is insufficient; Gibbs knew every problem that they faced and had wrestled with it in his own mind. He’d review each programme of work regularly, not letting any matter go until he’d fully understood why something had been done a particular way or until he’d laid down a fresh challenge. Of the long-servers, Steve Bailey heard Gibbs’ favourite line many times: ‘If it had been easy, people would have done it before.’ Alan Wells toiled in the workshop and on the lake all hours to get the various vehicles operating. For a young guy from a modest background, spending time with Gibbs was a revelation. He says,

I’d never met anybody of that wealth and stature, and when I did get to know him he wasn’t like my impression of how people with wealth are supposed to be. He was impressive, but also so approachable. He always asked my opinion and he wanted to know about me and my family and what my aspirations were. And it wasn’t just patter; he was genuinely interested. Working away in a workshop you can go for a month or so, getting flat, and then you’ll see him and he injects you with his passion for the project. That happened time and again.

Gibbs had that mysterious alchemy in his personality that inspired great efforts; he was equally capable of providing entertainment. Adrian Locke, a finite element analysis engineer who did a lot of the work on the Aquada’s body structure, remembers showing Gibbs a new body material called Twintex. He’d laid it between two chairs to show its strength and was stunned when the 62-year-old Gibbs climbed on top and began bouncing up and down on it. ‘Yeah, it’s bloody strong stuff,’ he yelled.8

Slower than hoped for, and with numerous little niggles to deal with, the first vehicles were coming off the factory floor in the first half of 2003. It was a major achievement, beyond anything major car companies, the US military and others had managed. But Gibbs now had to decide finally what he was going to do with his amphibians.

Both he and Jenkins had been involved in manufacturing before and neither had great enthusiasm for it. Rather than launch forth with 5000 vehicles a year, as they’d boldly entertained early on, their basic plan now was to use the first few completed vehicles to launch the idea publicly. Then they’d approach established manufacturers who could build the amphibians under licence. Gibbs Technologies would make its money from licensing the intellectual property and devote itself to designing new generations of amphibians. By July 2003 they felt sufficiently confident to launch. Detailed planning began for a D-Day in September.
The team had spent months considering names and logos before finally settling on Aquada and a circular logo designed around the blades of an impeller. Both were simple and memorable, as was the tag-line for their promotional material: ‘Gibbs Aquada: Freedom has a new name.’ For his website Gibbs wanted dramatic video footage capable of arresting viewers. He turned to Kevin Roberts, a former Lion Nathan executive who shifted across to the advertising industry and now headed up Saatchi & Saatchi’s worldwide operations in London and New York. Gibbs persuaded him to have Saatchis produce a mock-up advertisement for the Aquada that they could use on the website. Jenkins recalls:

The people at Saatchis received Alan’s buy-in for a story line of a guy driving grim-faced on the road, then dropping into a river and cracking into a great smile as he roared about. They went about filming it in Hollywood style, it seemed to me — closing roads, getting a flash director, a top camera guy, lighting, the full monty. Alan wanted a rugged guy to drive, so they sent out a casting call and chose an actor. But when he turned up on the day, with everything in place, and they told him he had to sweep down this road, the actor said, ‘Have I got to drive?’ He didn’t know how to drive. What a scene! They had to do all sorts of tricks, with one of our technicians driving as a double in distant shots and even crouching below the steering wheel and doing the driving for the slow bits. But the result was phenomenal and a real hit when the site went live.

London was the obvious place to launch the Aquada; on the Thames. Eventually they settled on St Katharine Docks, a sheet of sheltered, enclosed water with a ramp that was effectively private land. Launch day was set for 3 September 2003. Nobody had much sleep the night before. Emma Gibbs travelled from New York to witness the spectacle and gives an account of the day:

Dad was pretty tense, but it was so exciting. All the journalists came to the room for speeches and presentations. We had been competing against a balloon taking off for a world trip somewhere else and so the PR people had had to work quite hard to get them along. They were a cynical bunch, very jaded, used to new technology and it was very hard to see any reaction to what Dad was saying. Silently they trooped outside, looking at their watches, and we thought ‘Cripes, this isn’t going well’, and then the Aquada went down the ramp and into the water. Suddenly their faces dropped and it was a mad dash to get the best view; cameramen were getting knocked over, one guy fell into the water, it was pandemonium. I heard them shouting down their cellphones, ‘We need more people here!’ Live satellite vans turned up and it went on for a couple of hours, while the Aquadas had to drive in and out of the water so everyone got their shot.

The stories and pictures went worldwide through network stations and the web. In Britain all the major dailies carried pictures of the Aquada: the ‘ultimate boy’s toy’. One declared that the launch ‘resembled an action sequence from a James Bond film’.10 Gibbs couldn’t have dreamed of a better product launch. Back home in New Zealand, the local media adopted the story with gusto, celebrating a Kiwi entrepreneur’s success on the world stage. A New Zealand Herald reporter immediately tracked down Terry Roycroft to see if he’d been treated well and reported that he was ‘chuffed’ with the breakthrough and felt himself very well looked after by Gibbs.

Gibbs and Richard Branson celebrate after the successful Channel-crossing record.

Within a couple of hours of the launch, Richard Branson, the founder of the Virgin brand, rang Gibbs wanting to buy the first Aquada to go on sale. That was promising; the car undeniably had huge glamour and dash, although a couple of British car commentators predicted that with the £150,000 price tag Gibbs had floated, the Aquada would occupy only a small niche in the short term. In September Gibbs Technologies registered more than 400,000 unique enquiries on its website, of which nearly 40 per cent were from the United States.

After the initial furore died down the Aquada next made waves a month later, on 13 October, when Neil Jenkins smashed the speed record for an amphibian at Windermere Speed Week. The previous record was a mere 8.8 mph, achieved by Charles Burnett in an Alvis Stalwart, an amphibious military truck. The Aquada hit 32.8 mph and a blurred picture emerged of Jenkins streaking across the lake.
The nice little story hadn’t been planned. Rather, it was an improvised diversion from the project’s first PR blunder. Gibbs had taken Neil and Beverley Jenkins to a nice hotel on Lake Windermere, in England’s beautiful Lake District, to celebrate the car’s successful launch. They’d brought a couple of Aquadas with them and planned their first casual public outing with the vehicles on Saturday morning. Jenkins recalls that they’d taken VHF radios with them and the plan was for him and Gibbs to stick together. ‘We were both a little nervous since these were still pre-production vehicles with many little wrinkles to iron out,’ he recalls, ‘and so we’d agreed that if anything went wrong, we’d both retire and get things fixed.’

On entering the water, Jenkins couldn’t get his wheels to retract. He drove back up the ramp to sort out the problem. Just as he came out, Gibbs drove in and roared off down the lake. He couldn’t be raised on the VHF radio and cellphone coverage was poor. Beverley Jenkins was with Gibbs and says she was enjoying the sensation of being a rock star as crowds on the shore pointed to them and clapped spontaneously, speedboats zipped around them, and everyone cheered.12 Everything was right with the world, until Gibbs noticed water pooling in the footwells. Neil Jenkins picks up the story:

Having heard nothing from Alan for a while, the phone starting ringing. Alan’s yelling, ‘Help, I’m sinking!’ ‘Where are you?’ I asked. He’d driven round from the remote area where we’d gingerly entered the lake and gone right into Bowness-on-Windermere, a busy tourist centre. All he could do was make a beeline for the first bit of dry land he could reach. Unfortunately, of all things, he landed right in the middle of a group of Alvis Stalwart enthusiasts, who happened to be having a day out on the lake. The water got into Gibbs’ engine and it conked out just as he reached shore, before he could get the wheels down. The Stalwart guys were very helpful and by the time I arrived everything was under control. I found a local boat merchant to pick it up and whisk it away.

On inspection, it turned out that for some reason the ‘butt plug’, as we called it, a drain plug on the back of the hull under the jet, had been left open on Gibbs’ Aquada. Neither of us had seen it. Then, as the water came in, a light on the dashboard had lit up telling the driver to switch on the bilge pump. But, quite naturally, in all the excitement he hadn’t noticed it. These are the sorts of lessons you need to learn when building a vehicle; we subsequently added a buzzer to the light for the bilge pump and then made the pump automatic. But it was a nasty lesson, because a large crowd had gathered and someone had taken photographs

Gibbs and Jenkins feared the worst, and soon hatched the plan that entering Windermere Speed Week and breaking the world record for amphibians might distract attention from any potential bad publicity. The plan worked, more or less, because they had a good run for the Windermere record. A few days later, however, they learnt that someone was offering photos of the distressed Aquada to all the British newspapers. Gibbs’ PR man, Shimon Cohen, worked hard to explain what happened and offered some exclusive opportunities for a spin in the prototype to understanding papers. Only the Daily Mail ran the photos, fortunately well back in the paper.

Through the last months of 2003 the Gibbs team made more SIA models, testing them as they emerged. SIA 2 was sacrificed for the front impact smash test, a procedure technician Alan Wells found painful to watch. SIA 3 was used for the side impact test and came through in such good condition that it was re-used for the ‘sink test’. That was to prove that at least part of the vehicle would float above the waterline even if it was full of water.

In November 2003, while the tests continued, Gibbs took off for another overseas adventure; this time to war-torn Afghanistan. Societies exposed to extreme regimes continued to fascinate him. Since visiting North Korea in 1999, he’d explored Bhutan, the closed society in the Himalayas, and Albania, the small country that for most of the twentieth century had tried to turn its back on modernity. In 2003, the great issue of the moment was the War on Terror, with Iraq and Afghanistan the primary theatres of the great struggle. Quite aside from the opportunity to witness Afghanistan’s contemporary travails first-hand, Gibbs was attracted by the rich layering of history that he expected to find in a region that had provided the traditional crossroads for Asia for millennia. In London Emma had met Robert Pelton, a Canadian journalist who specialised in books and articles about the world’s most dangerous places.14 Gibbs proposed a deal; he’d pay Pelton’s airfare to Afghanistan if he showed them around. Thus began one of his great adventures.

As they flew into Kabul airport on an Ariana jet, the national airline of Afghanistan, Gibbs noticed that the ground alongside the runway was littered with crashed or bombed Ariana planes and smashed-up Russian helicopters. He later learnt that the United Nations operatives were not allowed to fly on the airline. On arrival, everyone just piled off the plane and into the chaotic customs area.

Following Gibbs’ usual travelling pattern, they arrived at Kabul without hotel bookings or other arrangements. With the telephone system not working, he’d had little choice in any event. They had the name of a guest house but found it full of international aid workers. With no other choice they slept their first night in a bunkhouse with concrete floors, dirty blankets and a pervasive odour of urine. ‘Fortunately, we didn’t stay in the Intercontinental, because its front was blown off while we were there,’ Gibbs later noted.15

The trio scouted around Kabul for a while in local taxis. Most of the city had been destroyed during the civil war that followed the end of the Soviet occupation. They drove down great tree-lined avenues eight lanes wide that were now just dirty, dusty tracks bordered by bombed-out buildings. To cross the mountains to Bamiyan, where New Zealand’s special forces were stationed, Gibbs chartered a Russian helicopter. They’d befriended an old Vietnamese woman in Kabul who owned the only restaurant they’d found there; she specialised in running restaurants in war zones and had earlier operated one in Sarajevo.

She could spin a good yarn so Gibbs invited her along for the ride, together with a group of other locals they had met. Their old chopper belched great clouds of black smoke and the seat belts didn’t work. Worse, the men all smoked as they were filling it up with aviation fuel. They survived the trip, and Gibbs was stunned by the beauty of the Bamiyan area — steep hills, layered with different coloured sands, terraced fields farmed for centuries. The valley’s two famous colossal Buddhas had been destroyed by the Taliban in March 2001, but the New Zealanders were now free to poke around a multitude of little caves where Buddhist places of worship had survived.

The highlight of the trip, however, lay further to the north, in the Mazar-i-Sharif region. Pelton had earlier interviewed General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who had once been funded by the Americans during the war against the Taliban. Travelling into a grey wasteland they searched for his compound. Gibbs tells the story:

Having driven a couple of hours, we came to a high wall enclosing about 20 acres. At a side gate were half a dozen armed guards. Pelton asks for a guy who was the warlord’s right-hand man. He comes out, ‘Hi, great to see you,’ and invites us in. Inside the walls, it was like the Garden of Eden. We stayed for four days and the experience was just absolutely off this planet. The warlord had a visitors’ compound and at some point they’d had a New York interior decorator come through so that the rooms were all lavish and over-the-top, though strangely they were thick with dust. Emma’s room was covered in hearts and roses.
This was Eid ul-Fitr, a time of year when Muslims go and visit each other’s houses to celebrate the end of Ramadan, so the warlord sat there all day receiving delegations of elders from different tribes. He had an amazing building for entertaining which was about 15 metres high, all glass-fronted, like something out of Arabian Nights, but in the worst possible taste. The roof and columns were covered with tiles encrusted with broken mirror glass, causing the whole place to shimmer. One night we were invited to dine with him alongside his vast indoor swimming pool. At that dinner was the richest man from that part of Asia, who was courting the warlord. He’d brought a three-person rock band, a magician, a raconteur and about a dozen varieties of vodka. Also we had the ambassador from Russia, the ambassador from Turkmenistan and the ambassador from Uzbekistan . . . and us. It was so medieval; so macho. But when the rock band played, the guys all danced with each other because there were no girls; the magician took my watch off me brilliantly.

The second or third day we piled into jeeps and roared off to a wedding — the couple were related to one of Dostum’s high supporters and he was paying for it. The first thing we encountered was a game of buzkashi where they’re all on horses and the object is to get hold of a dead goat and deliver it from one end of the field to the other. It was an incredible free-for-all, with dozens including this warlord and his lieutenants playing. There were literally thousands of men watching but not a single woman. I couldn’t work out what was happening, but the warlord seemed to score most goals. It was extremely funny and dangerous as hell.

After the buzkashi game we went to the wedding proper. As usual there were no women where we were sent. The bride was nowhere to be seen, and the men concentrated on eating. The basic dish in this part of the world is rice and raisins, with a tiny bit of meat, all eaten with your hands. But in these high-class feasts they dispense with everything but the meat, and they served every sort you could think of: deer, sheep and pigs, and every kind of bird. It was very well cooked. I thought I’d had more than I could ever eat and they’d bring out another carcass to tear up. And, of course, they’re not supposed to drink but at this level men were drinking vodka like water. Again, there wasn’t one woman in any context, serving or anything else. Once more the guys all danced with each other.

But of course, I had Emma along. This was a seriously fundamentalist culture. The most liberated woman I met in Afghanistan, a very intelligent 40-year-old who spoke very good English, wouldn’t shake my hand because if she did she mightn’t be able to get married. And here’s Emma with her shocking red hair and uncovered arms and legs. She was Jezebel. I said, ‘Pet, they’re going to stone you.’ Well, it was unbelievable. The whole time she never covered up and they treated her with huge curiosity. She went to the game and everywhere she went about a hundred guys followed her, but nobody touched her. At the dinner she went off somewhere else with the women.

After dinner this warlord put on a contest, their local mixture of kickboxing and wrestling, in a big amphitheatre with a huge crowd of men. Emma sat with the warlord and I sat just behind them. The fighters would kick the hell out of each other for 10 minutes, then the warlord would declare the winner and Emma would hand them the purse.

Gibbs was clearly impressed. Later, they visited a prison for Taliban that was overflowing with inmates. Alan and Emma wandered up to the side and struck up a translated conversation with a guy poking his nose out through the barred windows. The following day a widow whose husband had been killed by the Taliban showed them around a local town. In Emma’s telling the visit followed a regular pattern whenever her father was involved:

This girl took us to visit these widows, who survived on alms they received from their fellow Muslims. Every house has a complete wall around it to prevent people looking in. We went in one to meet a woman, whose biggest problem was that part of her wall had been knocked down, and as a result she couldn’t go out into the garden without someone seeing her. Since this was forbidden she couldn’t get basic things done. Dad immediately paid for it to be fixed. In fact, that’s what he spent most of the day doing — distributing cash wherever he went, for new buildings, for an orphanage, books, etc.

In an interview with the New Zealand Herald soon after the trip, Gibbs said he didn’t recall hearing a shot fired during the whole time he was there, and never felt in danger other than from ‘the crazy style of driving and the appalling state of the roads’

Afghanistan had been a nice diversion. Back in London, however, not everything was going according to plan for the Aquada. The cars were being built, and the invention had received numerous golden accolades. Time Magazine named it as one of the ‘Best Innovations of 2003’. A feature on design in the New York Times highlighted the car.19 Leader writers fought over good lines to tell the story. The Daily Telegraph alighted on ‘Drink Driving — could Aquada be the ultimate plaything?’20 But Gibbs’ basic business plan, to wow the world and then find a car manufacturer to make it under licence, wasn’t coming off. To his great annoyance every company they approached said that he hadn’t demonstrated the size of the market, therefore they couldn’t measure whether there’d be a return on their investment. They also worried about the effect of US product liability laws on such a radically new product. On reflection Gibbs concedes, ‘Quite naturally, people were sceptical as hell; would it work in salt water, could it handle rough conditions, would its complexity frighten customers, was it too expensive?’ Jenkins laments, ‘Our licensing idea fell on stony ground at that point; we needed someone with the balls to create the market and no one materialised. So Alan had to do it himself.’21

It was just another setback in a long and difficult campaign. Gibbs agreed that they’d manufacture 100 cars, offering them at the full £150,000 price to a small clientele of customers. They’d call it the ‘Bond series’. In that way they’d test the market. It meant more investment by Gibbs, more staff — still at about 100 — and the development of a serious marketing effort. They found a bus that Ferrari had used for touring demonstrations, repainted it with the Aquada colours and images and, while Gibbs returned to New Zealand for the summer, the marketing team hit the road.

In January 2004 Gibbs’ team hit the London Boat Show in the Docklands area. Richard Branson had long wanted to take an Aquada for a test drive and while the show was in town asked Neil Jenkins if he could come down and have his turn. To Jenkins’ astonishment, Branson arrived the next day with two busloads of 50 journalists. He says:

That was the first shock. It was pouring with rain, but Branson drove around the dock by himself and he has a natural flair for PR. At one point he put an umbrella up, which the photographers lapped up and we got a phenomenal response in the newspapers. Then he got up and declared to the assembled media that ‘we’ll break the cross-channel record for an amphibian this summer’.

The bus then went to a car show in Geneva, where Vicky Butler-Henderson from Fifth Gear took it for a road test. By then Steve Bailey had coined the phrase ‘The Gibbs grin’ to describe the response that inevitably came when an Aquada passenger got into the car for the first time and it drove into the water and powered off. By the time Gibbs was back in the United Kingdom in March 2004, his team were preparing for the British Motor Show, which opened in Birmingham in late May. This was a massive event, with all the car companies showing off their latest wonders, but Gibbs’ offerings, now including a larger off-road vehicle which he called the Humdinga, attracted plenty of attention.

The first Humdinga.

The drama of the Humdinga’s launch had scarcely died down when the next saga unfolded. In early June 2004 it was time for Branson to attempt his crossing of the English Channel. As launch time approached, Jenkins recalls that things were getting tense:

Branson had wanted to do it on the anniversary of D-Day, which didn’t go down well with the French. Since it was best to do it first thing in the morning, when the water was calm, we had a narrow window with the best tides. We plumped for 14 June. But the day before we were set to go, my friends in the Special Boat Service rang to say that the French had welded a barricade across the ramp at Calais. It was unbelievable, because we had a letter from the Mayor of Calais granting us the freedom of the city. We jumped in a RIB [rigid inflatable boat] and shot over the Channel to see if it was true and yes indeed they were welding girders across the ramp. There was no way we could cut them off and there were few other places to go. The only solution was for us to arrange a crew to start work at 2am the next morning to build a temporary ramp that ran up the beach using scaffolding and particle board. When the French awoke the next morning it would be too late, because we’d be on our way over.

In the event, as the television pictures around the world showed, when Branson reached the shore, the tide had dropped a little too low and he needed a lift from some bystanders to get the back wheels on to the ramp. It was only a problem because we’d been held up by two things. First, he and I had taken off in the Aquada when I took a message on the radio to tell Richard that some guy called John, evidently a journalist, wasn’t on the flotilla. ‘Oh, we can’t go without him,’ Branson said. So we stopped and floated around in the harbour for 20 minutes waiting for this guy to arrive from London. Then because it was the twentieth anniversary of Virgin Atlantic and Branson had taken possession of his first Boeing 777, he wanted a photo of the plane swooping above the car. We reached the precise spot using GPS coordinates, but there was no sign of the plane. It had been delayed by air traffic control. That left us waiting another 20 minutes or so for it to fly by.

Gibbs, meanwhile, was hovering overhead in his helicopter, watching as Branson, who was supposed to be driving cautiously in the smooth part of the wake of a large boat they had arranged for him to follow, was instead leaping up and down over the ship’s wake like a schoolboy. To make matters worse, Emma was with Gibbs in the chopper and had just taken a call from Noel Lane in New Zealand to say he was watching it live on television. The whole thing was getting out of control. Gibbs recalls:

Richard had been requested to get the boat carefully to Calais and instead he yahooed around, roaring up any wake he could find and leaping from the water. I could see our poor Aquada smashing down from waves with huge walls of spray stretching out before it. Neil, who had fully tested it in such conditions, was obviously confident, but I still can’t believe Branson didn’t break it. When I finally caught up with Richard in Calais and upbraided him — ‘What were you doing?’ — he casually replied, ‘Oh, I wasn’t worried; you get much more publicity the second time you try things!’

They’d made it and the Aquada attracted worldwide media coverage. ‘It’s a great beast,’ Branson declared. ‘It drives fantastically well on land and then it turns into the most remarkable record-breaking boat on water.’

Glamour and publicity now followed Gibbs at every turn. He had a new girlfriend, the beautiful French Tahitian Sandra Baker, and was enjoying life. A great story on the car appeared in the August 2004 edition of Top Gear magazine, based on an interview with Paul Walton in Monaco. ‘Splash and Dash’ was the headline. ‘Making an entrance at the Monaco Grand Prix gets trickier every year,’ Walton wrote. ‘The Ferraris, the yachts, the helicopters — it’s all so depressingly uninspired. But the amphibious Gibbs Aquada, now that’s a toy that’ll get them rubbernecking.’ Driving through Monaco, Walton observed that the Aquada received more attention ‘than all the resident super-cars put together’.

These reports could not have been more encouraging. But behind the smiles and enthusiasm some big decisions were going to have to be made. By September 2004 the production line was up to SIA 25. The major difficulties had been overcome and they reached ‘Job 1’, the first production vehicle ready to deliver to a customer. They had a number of deposits and once the first were out in the market attracting attention everywhere they went, Gibbs could realistically expect to sell out the first series of a hundred. Jenkins had drafted letters to the initial customers calling up the balance of their purchase price and saying that the Aquadas would be delivered in the next few weeks.

But Gibbs never sent the letters. After a series of soul-searching discussions with Jenkins, they decided not to sell the cars. Instead, they refunded the deposits, with interest, and took the Aquada off the market. What happened? The primary issue concerned the Aquada’s engine, the Rover KV6. Jenkins had picked up on rumours within the industry that Rover was about to go bust. That placed huge pressure on Gibbs, since, as we’ve seen, changing an engine and its drive train was a complicated, time-consuming and uncertain process. Gibbs explains:

The car was completely designed around the engine, which was now seriously in doubt. I said to Neil, if Rover goes bust we’ve got an orphan business here. Our technology would be out in the public for anyone to copy, and we’ll have to service a limited number of orphan cars, which would inevitably have ended up spread all over the world, with future access to parts in doubt and endless headaches. In the meantime, it would take us at least two years to build another Aquada with a new engine.

This was a heavy blow. Still, it’s arguable that many other businessmen in his position would have pressed on. Tens of millions of pounds had been spent; the Aquada had successfully gone through the regulatory hoops. One approach would have been to buy as many KV6 engines as one could, get the cars out and hope for the best. But that wasn’t Gibbs’ style. For a start he wasn’t under financial pressure. He didn’t have to sell anything if he didn’t want to.

However, just as importantly, the decision reflected Gibbs’ dedication to perfectionism. The loss of the engine pushed him over a line above which he was already hovering. Revolutionary as the Aquada was, deep down he knew it could be better, particularly if it was lighter and if some of its systems were less complicated. Was it the best possible vehicle they could produce as the flagship to introduce Gibbs’ technology to a sceptical world? It was very close, but now with their engine supplier threatening to go bust, the best thing to do was go back to the drawing board and build something even better. Since they’d purchased the components to build at least another 25 Aquadas, Gibbs decided to finish the initial run. The last one, SIA 46, would be completed midway through 2005, leaving Gibbs with a personal fleet of vehicles that would make the Sultan of Brunei proud.

It had been one of the most painful decisions in Gibbs’ life. His colossal effort to have the Aquada designed and engineered to the standard that it reached — the world’s only planing amphibian with the regulatory approvals to go on the road and the water — had not produced the results that he’d wanted. In the space of 12 months since the Aquada’s golden launch in September 2003, he’d been on an emotional rollercoaster, riding to the top, and now into a slump of frustration.

Senses and her extra toys, including the Aquada, which could be driven onto the boat up a ramp.

Gradually they reduced the workforce at Nuneaton, retaining only an engineering and technical core, while he and Jenkins regrouped. Meantime in Auckland a team at Buckley’s Engineering under Noel Lane’s and Andrew Wall’s supervision had started work early in 2004 on an amphibious quad bike. The idea looked very promising, but would require a huge programme of development.25

Through this difficult period Gibbs had a helpful distraction. In October 2003, just after the Aquada’s public launch, he’d bought a boat in partnership with Douglas Myers. No ordinary boat, Senses was a 59 metre, 1000 ton ship, equipped with two helipads, one helicopter and a flotilla of small craft, including a charming 12.8 metre Nelson tender and a Halmatic Atlantic 24, a high-speed rigid inflatable favoured by the British military. Senses had a crew of 14. Senses was designed to be equally at home in the Arctic or Saint-Tropez, and best of all, for Gibbs, it had a ramp at the stern up which he could drive an Aquada. With the helicopter, Aquada and other boats, Senses was really a luxury base for exploration. When cruising up the coast from Barcelona to Nice it was possible to fly into Perpignan for a bistro lunch, or drive the Aquada in.

Gibbs’ and Douglas Myers’ boat Senses on the Amazon, 2005.

In a sense, it had been a spontaneous purchase. Gibbs had been flirting with buying a big boat for years but suspected it would be more trouble than fun. On a whim one evening he took a brochure of Senses to a dinner with Douglas and Barbara Myers. While having drinks, he passed it to Douglas and said, ‘Let’s buy this.’ Much to Gibbs’ shock, his friend thought about it for a few minutes, couldn’t think why not, and said, ‘OK.’ Years later Myers described the impulse as that of two men in their late sixties realising that life is short and every moment is precious.

Myers and Gibbs worked out a cruising plan and took turns with the boat. There was only time for a quick expedition to Tunisia before winter set in at the end of 2003. The following summer they explored the Mediterranean. Having taken in the Monaco Grand Prix in May 2004, Gibbs cruised down the western coast of Italy in June and July. In August, at the time of the Athens Olympics, they sailed the Greek islands and then the southern coast of Turkey, exploring inland in the helicopter as they went. At the tail end of summer, Gibbs cooled his heels in the Balearic Islands.

Emma, meantime, had fallen in love with the Senses’ Kiwi helicopter pilot, Richard Garard. They were married at The Farm in February 2005. In a brilliant piece of choreography for the ceremony, Emma and her father appeared over a ridge and walked 70 metres down the grassy hill to the colourful cubes of the Leon van den Eijkel sculpture on which Richard and the wedding party stood.

To the astonishment of the crowd of friends and family, as Emma descended her white train of silk continued to unfurl from the top of the ridge so that by the time she reached the bottom she’d left a 70 metre long streak of white across the landscape.

Gibbs with his daughter Emma (left) and his then girlfriend Sandra Baker after Branson’s arrival at Calais.

While the Gibbs clan summered in New Zealand from January to March 2005, Senses sailed to the Caribbean in preparation for a season of exploration in Central America. Gibbs joined the boat in Belize in April 2005. As it cruised south towards Panama, Gibbs flew with his daughter and new son-in-law to towns throughout Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In Panama, they visited their friend Johnny Pigozzi, the son of the founder of the French car maker Simca. He’d developed the Liquid Jungle Lab, an ecological research outpost there. Gibbs and Pigozzi wandered about discussing butterflies and the infinite variety of nature in a steaming jungle.

For the next excursion, Garard flew commercially to Caracas to gain a permit to fly the helicopter into Venezuelan airspace. While he suffered low-level harassment for his troubles, Gibbs and his guests cruised from the Netherlands Antilles towards a Venezuelan port. Suddenly, a military helicopter appeared over the horizon, bearing down on them at high speed before banking sharply and settling into a circling pattern above the boat. Soldiers leaned out the sides, pointing machine guns. Tense discussions over the radio indicated that the Venezuelans were convinced that Senses, with its helicopter parked on the back and its impressive-looking satellite kit, was an American spy ship. The skipper had no choice but to retreat to Bonaire in the Netherlands Antilles.

Eventually they were allowed into Venezuela. After time spent visiting a buffalo farmer on Paria Peninsula, where Gibbs’ new girlfriend, Karen Tapper, was bitten by a monkey, they choppered into some remote areas in the Orinoco River delta. There the local people had just abandoned a nomadic lifestyle so their children could attend school; they lived in huts with no furniture whatsoever.

While Gibbs was back in London wrestling with the next stage of the amphibian project, Senses was taken hundreds of miles up the Amazon River to Manaus, a city of more than a million people in the middle of the jungle. Since they were thought to be amongst the first foreign private cruisers up the river since the murder of the New Zealand yachtsman Sir Peter Blake outside the violent river town of Macapa at the end of 2001, they’d taken the precaution of having an armed Ghurkha on board. Gibbs arrived in August 2005, and they prepared to travel up the Negro and Solimoes arms of the great river system upstream from Manaus. The Negro runs black but clear, like tea, while the Solimoes flows brown and muddy. When the two rivers meet at Manaus the currents and eddies produce elegant black and brown swirls that from the helicopter looked like works of art.

Gibbs and his party nosed up the Negro in the ship’s tender, for many hours exploring the jungle and remote tributaries with their local guide ‘Carlos the Jackal’. They came across a small shack on stilts amongst the trees and went inside to converse with the locals, who they presumed were hunter-gatherers. When they discovered a bunch of kids watching Charlie’s Angels on television, they felt distinctly short-changed.

After only a couple of years with the boat, however, Gibbs had worked out that cruising didn’t suit his personality. The plan for Senses in 2006 had been to sail down the coast of South America to Antarctica, but he realised that most of the journey, with the exception of the area around Rio de Janeiro, was ‘likely to be boring’, whereas the real interest for him lay inland. He’d found he was deriving most of his fun from the helicopter, taking three- or four-day excursions over hills and down valleys, seeing something new and stimulating every 10 minutes, sleeping in local hotels and dining at local restaurants.

So, in the sweltering heat of Macapa in September 2005, he proposed to Myers that they go their separate ways; Myers keep the boat and Gibbs take the helicopter. Myers was annoyed at the sudden change of plans, but on reflection was not surprised. ‘Alan,’ he says, ‘doesn’t like to be pegged down. His idea of fun is to turn up at an airport, see where the next plane is going to and jump aboard. With Senses, by contrast, you can’t just go where you want; you’ve got a crew, a big organisation, another owner — it is the antithesis of freedom.’

Over the next nine months Gibbs, Richard and Emma flew 26,000 kilometres in the helicopter from Macapa all the way south to Tierra del Fuego and back up the west coast of South America, and then north to Monterrey in Mexico. In Argentina they traced the foothills of the Andes all the way from Salta to the south. Gibbs was in his element: ‘There’s nothing like it, seeing the world at 500 feet and being able to stop wherever you want.’

They’d drop down to a vineyard for lunch, or in the middle of nowhere to visit a small village. Further south, at San Carlos de Bariloche, they visited British billionaire currency trader Joe Lewis in his colossal Miami-style palace, set on a 14,000 hectare ranch. When they landed, an honour guard of 10 gauchos, horsemen wearing red capes, arrived to usher them to the house. Inside, the foyer featured two symmetrical spiral staircases, at the top of which stood Lewis wearing a smoking jacket. He greeted them warmly in a broad East End accent and took them to see his collection of large Picassos.

Weather-bound in Tierra del Fuego, Gibbs, Emma and Richard drank and played cards with the local policeman; around the Cape in Chile they flew for miles over vast fields of intricate crevasses, then through deserts and up windswept beaches all the way to Santiago. There, through Mont Pelerin Society connections, they dined with Jose Piñera, the Chilean free-market economist, best known as the architect of the Chilean private pensions plan during the Pinochet era. He was freshly returned from a visit to Russia where he had been advising Vladimir Putin. He passed on some good stories.

Just as interesting was their visit to see Carlos Cardoen, originally a mining explosives maker, who earned international notoriety for supplying the Cardoen cluster bomb to Iraq in the 1980s. In the early 1990s the US government had put out an arrest warrant for him.28 Secure and popular in Chile, he’d bought a town south of Santiago, near Santa Cruz, restored a steam railway in it, and filled his private museum with the best collection of pre-Columbian artefacts anywhere.

After summering in New Zealand in January and February 2006, they carried on from Santiago in March 2006, north through Chile’s Atacama Desert, Bolivia and Peru, and on to Mexico. One evening in Guadalajara, the home of tequila and mariachis, the traditional Mexican bands, Gibbs encouraged a raucous competition between two local bands which ended untidily. A couple of credit cards were swallowed by the closest ATM machine, after pin numbers had been bungled, before they extracted sufficient cash to pay the bill that evening. After Mexico they started a grand helicopter tour of the United States.

This was all good fun, but the big question that gnawed away at him, whether sniffing around a fish market on the banks of the Amazon or dining with a former arms dealer in Chile, was what to do next with the amphibians. Gibbs’ thinking changed many times through 2005 and 2006. Walking around the large Nuneaton plant, with its dozens of Aquadas and great stores of engines and other parts, dismembered Range Rovers, three-wheeler bikes, quad bikes and all manner of other pieces of machinery, was enough to give any normal man the stitch. The capital requirements were vast.

There were, however, some intriguing leads. United States Navy representatives had rung several times since the Aquada’s public launch in September 2003, wanting to look at the technology. Various branches of the US military had been trying for decades to produce high-speed amphibians and the sentiment they expressed to Gibbs was ‘if it could be done, we would have done it’. However, they were keen to investigate his machine with a view to using something like it for reconnaissance and intelligence missions.

Gibbs had eventually agreed and in early 2005 a team from the US Navy took a couple of Aquadas for some initial sea trials off the South Wales coast. Having been thoroughly impressed, they returned in April 2006 for further trials at Lymington, on the English coast near the Isle of Wight. As a next stage, in June 2006, the navy group found Defence Department funding to take some vehicles to Virginia, USA, for extensive trials. Jenkins went with the vehicles and was greatly encouraged because they took everything that the testing group threw at them over two weeks; on and off the backs of boats, in different water conditions, at high and low speeds.

Gibbs on the new Quadski at one of the lakes on The Farm.

After the trials, Gibbs and Jenkins took the Aquadas and Humdinga to a large multi-agency military conference. They had with them also a prototype of the Quadski, the quad bike/jet ski style amphibian put together by a small team in New Zealand. This had just created a lot of interest worldwide when they released a video of it in action on YouTube.30 At the military conference they received a ‘phenomenal’ reception. Gibbs told Jenkins, ‘Bugger it, let’s start again and develop new vehicles in America.’

Gibbs’ renewed enthusiasm was bolstered further at the military conference when he heard and appreciated fully for the first time the scale of the US military’s efforts to create high-speed amphibians. While his Aquada had gone through testing in Virginia, the US Marine Corp had been testing its Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) nearby. Gibbs heard reports that it had failed many of its tests. The Marines had poured billions of dollars into the project since the early 1990s. The EFV was more than a decade behind schedule and well over budget.31 The scale of their efforts put Gibbs’ difficulties with the Aquada into a more reassuring context. Engineering a successful high-speed amphibian was incredibly hard; and yet Gibbs’ little team in Nuneaton had made more progress in many vital respects than the US military and in a much shorter space of time. (As a footnote, the US government would eventually admit defeat and cancel the EFV project in January 2011.)

Extracted from Serious Fun - The Life and Times of Alan Gibbs, by Paul Goldsmith (Random House; Kindle edition here)

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