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Book extract: Serious Fun: The Life and Times of Alan Gibbs

A major figure in New Zealand business and politics, Alan Gibbs began his early years as a lefty, a hippy of sorts, and a working diplomat, as Paul Goldsmith reveals in his new biography, Serious Fun: The Life and Times of Alan Gibbs.

Alan Gibbs biography Serious Fun

Goldsmith, who enjoyed free access to Gibbs, says: “It’s a book about a guy who has lived a very full life. It is exhausting just thinking about it. From cars, to finance, to political reform, to art ... back to vehicles.”

Gibbs is lately best known for his forays into the field of amphibious vehicles; his company Gibbs Technologies created the Aquada, which smashed the amphibious record crossing the English Channel with Sir Richard Branson at the wheel. And in this extract from Serious Fun: The Life & Times of Alan Gibbs, Goldsmith pieces together an account of the unleashing of the Aquada to the world in 2003.

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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.

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.

The Aquada production line at Nuneaton.

The Aquada production line at Nuneaton

Both he and [CEO Neil] 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’. 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.

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 percent were from the United States.

From Serious Fun: The Life & Times of Alan Gibbs, by Paul Goldsmith
Random House NZ, RRP $45, available from August 3