A drive in troubled waters

Following the unveiling of a technologically advanced high-speed amphibious sports car, a national paper ran a story on its ‘sinking’. Ben Hargreaves finds out what went wrong.

At the end of the summer in London’s Docklands the press was given the first demonstration of what was widely regarded as one of the most exciting engineering projects in recent history: the unveiling of Gibbs Technologies’ high-speed, amphibious sportscar, the Aquada.

A sleek, stylish car that transforms at the touch of a button into a boat with a top speed of over 30mph, the Aquada was meant to mark a departure from previous attempts at such vehicles.

The project had been a decade in the making, cost tens of millions of pounds and received the input of scores of top engineering firms – in short, UK industry at its innovative best.

Unfortunately for the company, another story detailing the advanced engineering project that sank without a trace was soon broken by The Mirror when it reported the Aquada’s sinking on Lake Windermere in October. ‘Here’s the James Bond-style speedboat-car they called unsinkable at its launch, er sinking,’ the paper told its readers – and Gibbs was faced with an unenviable PR problem. So, after the summer event in Docklands what went wrong?

On the weekend of 11-12 October, the Gibbs team was in the Lake District testing for an attempt on the world water speed record for an amphibious vehicle. On the first day of testing, and in what Neil Jenkins, Gibbs’ managing director, describes as ‘less than clement’ weather and choppy conditions, the Aquada took on too much water.’We decided the boat had taken on more water than was safe and took it back to shore. As we were emptying it out the picture was taken that accompanied the story,’ said Jenkins.

In fact, the same Aquada craft was able to go on testing over the course of the weekend. And on Monday 13 October – again in severe weather conditions – it broke the record set by Charles Burnett III in 1996.

‘The Mirror didn’t even ring us to find out what happened, and our PR agency was inundated with calls from other papers checking facts,’ said Jenkins. they were given the facts – we were practising for our record attempt, and like Michael Schumacher you have the odd hiccup. I just wish the Mirror had called us before it published.’

In fact, the Aquada broke the record by over 23mph, clocking up a speed of 32.8mph on the lake. This was possible thanks to Gibbs Technologies’ high-speed amphibian (HSA) technology, whose key innovation lies in the way the craft retracts its wheels. Previous amphibians have been dogged by the problem of how to effectively retract the wheels to cut drag in the water, which reduces the speed of the boat.

The Aquada’s key innovation is its wheel retraction system which raises the wheels while they remain connected to the driveshafts.

Having developed the Aquada, Nuneaton-based Gibbs Technologies is now working on a four-wheel drive vehicle, as well as focusing on licencing its technology to other companies wishing to develop their own amphibious vehicles. Gibbs’ founder Alan Gibbs said that the technology is applicable to all kinds of vehicle and could revolutionise the transport industry. ‘In 20 years five per cent of the world’s motor vehicles – from trucks to buses – could be amphibious,’ he said.

Jenkins firmly believes that Gibbs is on track with its plans. ‘I was blown away when I first understood what Alan was on to with HSA technology. What I saw in the project was the ultimate engineering challenge, because nobody had tried to do it before. The problem with developing new vehicles in car companies is that the whole thing has become a process – there’s no creative engineering in it any more.

‘With the Aquada, you couldn’t apply a process to it: nobody had done it before, and you had no idea what the process should be.’

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