He's Not Clowning Around

The circus came to town, providing an entertainment diversion for hard-hit metro Detroit. Around the same time Barnum et al. staged a matinee at the Palace arena, Gibbs Technologies, a half-mile away, hosted the opening of its global headquarters and product-development center in Auburn Hills, MI. No acrobats or animal acts were there. But attendees included state and local officials thankful to see

The circus came to town, providing an entertainment diversion for hard-hit metro Detroit.

Around the same time Barnum et al. staged a matinee at the Palace arena, Gibbs Technologies, a half-mile away, hosted the opening of its global headquarters and product-development center in Auburn Hills, MI.

No acrobats or animal acts were there. But attendees included state and local officials thankful to see an industrial facility open in a region that has seen so many of them close.

Gibbs employs 80 people at the non-descript 37,500-sq.-ft. facility. That's small compared with sprawling factories and high-rise automotive headquarters. But a grand opening, any grand opening, is welcome in an area that lately seems to be performing without a safety net.

So if a rich guy from New Zealand picks metro Detroit for the realization of his offbeat vehicular dream, well, how many laid-off workers do you want, mate? We've got plenty in a state with 9.3% unemployment.

Alan Gibbs, who made his fortune in, among other things, auto dealerships, plans for his namesake company to build amphibious vehicles that travel on land and water.

Others, including Porsche and Ford, have tried it before. “But the compromise between land and water was never resolved,” Gibbs says. “Typically, they went 7 mph in the water and a bit faster on land, but 7 mph in the water is not fun when people are whizzing by you.”

The vehicles he intends to take to market would travel up to 40 mph in the water and 110 mph on land.

“No one has ever cracked the code of making a vehicle that is fast on land and water,” he says. “They thought it couldn't be done, so they didn't try. That was the main problem.”

Pointing to a prototype, he says a big technological advancement involved developing a way to raise and fold the wheels while they remain connected to the driveshaft, as the vehicle converts from land to water use.

The vehicle sits on a complicated computer-run suspension system that must do many different things, often at the same time. Designing that was tough for Gibbs and business partner Neil Jenkins, a Brit who is chairman of the firm.

Plans are to introduce three models:

  • The Quadski, looking like a jet ski or an all-terrain vehicle depending on whether the wheels are up or down, is planned for introduction in 2010.
  • Preproduction on the Aquada, a 3-passenger sporty car, is scheduled for late 2010.
  • An early-responder vehicle, designed for rescue and emergency use, is slated to be ready for customer evaluation in a year.

The firm plans to open a manufacturing plant somewhere in the U.S. Gibbs invested $13 million in the headquarters and development center, aided by a state of Michigan 10-year tax abatement. Michigan hopes to get the factory, too.

Government officials usually give dull speeches at ribbon-cuttings. But at the Gibbs Technologies opening, State Rep. Tim Melton, son of auto workers, spoke from the heart about the need for his state to make up for lost ground.

So forgive the once-mighty Detroit if now it's wooing the impending maker of specialty vehicles with the prospects of limited production.

On the other hand, Gibbs and Jenkins think their versatile vehicles will catch on in a big way, and not just with fun seekers. They say the amphibious car has a practical side.

Like for commutes. Midtown Manhattan traffic backed up? Well, hop on the East River with your Aquada. “If you look at major cities of the world, they are all on water,” Jenkins says.

Gibbs says he and Jenkins have invested millions of their own in this venture, “and fortunately we have a lot of money left.”

That will get Detroit's interest, more than any 3-ring circus ever could.

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