From the archives: crashing the Monaco GP in the Gibbs Aquada | Top Gear
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From the archives: crashing the Monaco GP in the Gibbs Aquada

A throwback to 2004, when TG magazine turned heads in Monaco on Grand Prix weekend. Not an easy task...

Published: 25 Nov 2021
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“Good morning, McLaren International.” “Oh, hi. I was wondering whether you had any tickets for the Monaco Grand Prix?” Click. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Hmm.

“Good afternoon, Jaguar Racing.” “Hello there, do you have any tic...” Click. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrr. Damn. 

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“You’re through to Jordan Grand Prix. We’re sorry but we can’t afford anyone to answer the phone right now, but leave a message and...” Blast. 

OK, I admit it. Trying to blag my way into the most prestigious motor racing event of the year just a few days before wasn’t my most cunning idea, but there must be some way I can get in. 

“Why don’t you drive into the harbour?” someone suggests in the office. Oh ha-ha... hang on a minute. They might be onto something.

Gibbs Aquada Top Gear

Words: Paul Walton
Images: Michael Bailie

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“Good evening, Gibbs Technologies.” 

“Is there any chance I can borrow one of your cars?” I ask desperately. “This weekend. As in a few days’ time. In Monaco. To watch the Grand Prix.” Pause. “Please?” 

“No problem. Mr Gibbs is already there and has one parked on his yacht. I’m sure he’d love to have you as his guest.” Did she just say “parked”? 

The Gibbs Aquada made quite a splash when it was first shown last year. While the idea of an amphibious car isn’t new (others include the floating WW2 Jeep – or Weep – and the Sixties Amphicar), what makes this one special is not only is it a 130mph sports car on land but a genuine 30-knot speedboat on water. 

However, when the car was originally shown to the world it was in the closed confines of a reservoir, yet I’m about to drive it on the Mediterranean to sneakily enter Monaco harbour for a grandstand view of the race. So it’s a bit of a gamble – will it be up to the job, will it sink, will I need to bail out quicker than Noah after one of the llamas said “Hey, we want a swimming pool on our deck too”? Being ticketless, though, doesn’t leave me many options. 

Gibbs Aquada Top Gear

I meet representatives of Gibbs Technologies on the morning of the race, outside Monaco. The principality is a no-go area during the Grand Prix due to it having more closed roads than Baghdad and the fact that every rich, almost rich and wannabe rich playboy turn up in their Ferraris, Lamborghinis and Gibbs Aquadas and block the rest in their quest to look cool. So the plan is get as close as possible to the circuit by road then complete the journey by sea. Not something you’d say at Silverstone. Well, not unless you’re really, really lost. 

It’s bigger than you think, the Aquada, looking not unlike a large Mazda MX-5, but then Gibbs does use the Mazda’s unusually-shaped headlights. Yet it’s slender and shapely. And while it’s a slightly unusual-looking sports car, it’s not completely obvious it can turn into a boat. Not until you look underneath, that is. One of the reasons the Aquada works is because of its hull which, due to its keel-like shape, means it can plane over the water instead of pushing it aside like the flat-fronted Amphicar. 

I climb into the car (there are no doors because... hmm, maybe that bit’s self-explanatory) and get behind the wheel. With space for three, the driver sits in the centre, McLaren F1-style, with the two passengers sitting slightly behind. The controls are the same as on a car – steering wheel, gearknob for the five-speed automatic, brake and accelerator pedal – but nothing overtly nautical. The only item that points to this being a car that won’t go glug-glug as you drive into your neighbour’s pond is a small button on the dash marked ‘water/land’. 

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Gibbs Aquada Top Gear

I start the mid-placed Land Rover Freelander- sourced 2.5-litre V6 and set off for Fontvieille harbour, just around the corner from Monaco. Despite being centrally positioned, it’s perfectly normal to drive. And although it’s no Lotus Elise (the car is too high and the suspension too soft), it still handles better than any boat I’ve ever driven on land. Plus, the standard 175bhp V6 gives the car plenty of power and burying the throttle provides real pushed-into-your-seat acceleration. But even if it handled like a goat on skates, you’d forgive it because of all the attention you get. Although manufactured in Nuneaton (which is a very long way from Monaco in every sense) it still gets more attention than all the resident supercars put together. 

“Oui, oui” they all say “un voiture anphib!”

We reach the harbour and the slipway into the sea – this really is sink or swim time. I gingerly make my way down (getting some very odd looks in the process) and as I enter the water, I feel the car start to float, so I press the water/land button. The car, sensing it’s adrift, not only raises the wheels but also adjusts the balance at the rear so the front (or bow) now sits proud. 

The problem with other amphibious cars is the wheels, since they have all the slipperiness of a breeze block. So what the Aquada does is raise them into its hull by a hydraulic strut and then, as the front drive-shafts are decoupled from the engine, power is diverted to a rear-mounted impeller. A steering nozzle is connected to the normal steering wheel and is used to direct the jet of water. The transformation to boat is effortless and you have no indication of the process until a light appears on the dash telling you the change is complete. “Sacré couer!” I hear from the shore. It’s all very James Bond. 

Gibbs Aquada Top Gear

I edge my way forward, wary of crashing into the bigger yachts around me, as that would be more Norman Wisdom than Pierce Brosnan. The speed limit is three knots in the harbour, but since the Aquada is steered by a jet that needs power to squeeze through more water, you have to put your foot down to manoeuvre. It’s completely unnatural and I have one or two moments where I frantically dab-dab-dab at the brake pedal as I head for something solid before pressing the accelerator and turning the wheel, which spins the Aquada in an instant. 

Eventually, we reach the ocean. Despite being a beautifully sunny day, those waves look suspiciously big. And dark. And scary. Yet once I get the engine up to 5,000 revs, the car planes across the water and I go in search of those 30 knots. 

To drive the Aquada on the sea is akin to off-roading, since I’m constantly correcting the steering as it’s pushed off course by the current, or as I try to find the shortest, easiest route over the waves. A few times I get it wrong and as the bow dives into ocean, it brings up a Roman bath’s-worth of brine that’s unceremoniously sloshed over the windscreen and onto me. Apart from now being wet, the little car does very well and it never once feels like it’s going to capsize. 

By train or car, it would have taken me the best part of a morning to reach Monaco’s main Condamine Harbour. By sea, I’ve done it in no time at all. And just in time too, because even from here I can hear the cars making their way to the grid. The harbour is busier than the M25 on a bank holiday Friday, so I painstakingly make way to the middle, despite causing a bigger commotion than if Michael Schumacher was to crash in the tunnel (but what are the chances of that happening, eh?). But that’s it, I’m here. I’ve bypassed Bernie Ecclestone and the Automobile Club de Monaco yet still sat in the middle of the action where I can see... Nothing. Zip. Alas, the harbour walls are too high and the Formula One cars too low for me to see anything. But then part of the reason for attending a race is for the atmosphere. And despite being in the harbour as opposed to just being near it, I still soak up as much as if I’d been sat in Prince Rainier’s private box guzzling down Bollinger. 

Gibbs Aquada Top Gear

It’s not long before people on the yachts begin to take notice and head-by-head, yacht-by-yacht, grandstand-by-grandstand everybody’s attention is no longer focused on Sato’s barbecuing BAR but a floating car with me grinning at the wheel. 

With the race over, it’s time to head off. Normally at this point it’s a long, hard fight to exit the circuit, but not today. I put the car in drive, floor the accelerator and as I turn the steering wheel hard, the Aquada spins 180 degrees on itself. Once you get the knack of using the power in a tiny space, the car is immensely manoeuvrable. 

I was asked when I’d finished showing off to return the car to Mr Gibbs’ yacht. 

“How will I know which is his?” I asked. 

“It’s obvious” came the reply. “His has the helicopter parked on top and the dry dock in the rear where you’ll park.” “Oh” I say. “Obviously.” 

Out at sea, I spot a large yacht that does indeed have a helicopter parked on it. I feel like an extra from The Spy Who Loved Me as I speed towards this towering monster, especially when I see a ramp being lowered beneath the helicopter pad, one of two on board. “My friends need somewhere to park,” Mr Gibbs explains later. Funny, mine just use the driveway. As I get closer, I lower the wheels, nail the engine and as the tyres touch the ramp, drive is returned and the Aquada is a car again. I later discover this is a dry dock for the yacht’s tender – the 42-foot Nelson – that Mr Gibbs has covered (or rather his staff have) with boards so he can drive on and off. 

Gibbs Aquada Top Gear

With this set-up, I’m expecting a James Bond-style villain (“No, Mr Walton, I expect you to dry!”) but Mr Gibbs is a well-mannered New Zealander in his sixties who looks nothing like a multi-millionaire. Of course, other than not looking like me, I have no idea what a millionaire should look like, but his easygoing style wouldn’t be it. As we sit on the world’s 76th biggest yacht, the Senses, he comes across as a man who’s completely at ease with himself. 

He got the idea for the Aquada at his farm in New Zealand where, due to his lake’s long shoreline, he couldn’t be bothered to tow a boat. After developing a way to raise the wheels whilst still being connected to the drive shaft, Alan moved to Detroit in 1997 and employed a small engineering team that set about perfecting the ultimate amphibious vehicle. 

Two years later, Neil Jenkins, a British motoring engineer who has worked with Jaguar and Aston Martin, heard of the project and persuaded Alan to move to the UK. 

Gibbs Aquada Top Gear

“For a low volume car manufactured from composite, the UK is the place,” says Neil. Premises were bought in Nuneaton and four years later – after much development – the car was shown to the public. The pair have big plans for their HSA (High Speed Amphibious) technology and the Aquada is just the start.

“I predict that in 20 years’ time,” Alan says, “one fifth of all vehicles will be amphibious”. He isn’t joking either, and I refrain from making a smart-arse comment because: a) he’s bigger than me, b) we’re a long way up and c) if somebody had said that about the four-wheel-drive market 30 years ago, you’d have thought the same. 

Sure, it’s a rich man’s toy (although he also announced the original £150k price will be halved), but because this system works so well maybe it could become an accepted part of the automotive market. 

Time is pressing on and I need to get to the airport, though my Bond-like day wasn’t over yet. “We’ll give you a lift in the chopper, if you’d like,” Mr Gibbs says. As we take off, I look across to Monaco, down at the yacht, down at the car I’ve had the most fun with ever and finally down at Mr Alan Gibbs and think ‘you lucky, lucky bloke’ before flying away. 

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