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Speed merchant

Adventurer sets amphibious vehicle record

Sir Richard Branson has broken the record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel in an amphibious vehicle. The British entrepreneur and Virgin Group chairman completed the 22-mile crossing from Dover, England, to Calais, France, in less than two hours.

Branson, 53, previously had set records for trans-Atlantic crossings in a powerboat and a hot air balloon.

He made the June crossing in a Gibbs Aquada, a gray-and-black sports car built by Gibbs Technologies of Warwickshire, England. The amphibious car seats three and reaches speeds greater than 100 mph on land and 30 mph on water, according to the company.

Branson’s time of 1 hour, 40 minutes and 6 seconds toppled the previous record of 6 hours set by two Frenchmen in the 1960s. In the only other attempt, Englishman Ben Carlin in the 1950s set the original amphibious vehicle record of 7 hours and 33 minutes.

The Aquada is powered by a 2.5-liter 175-hp Land Rover Freelander V-6 engine. Aside from the engine and the Jatco 5-speed automatic transmission, Gibbs designed almost all the Aquada’s other components.

The Aquada converts from a rear-wheel-drive car to a jet-powered boat at the press of a button. The wheels fold into the wheel wells, the power steering switches to control the jetdrive, the rear axles are disabled, and trim tabs are set.

The process is said to be seamless. It takes five seconds to complete and won’t begin until the on-board computer determines that the wheels are fully dropped and there is water in the jetdrive.

Branson wore a dinner jacket and bow tie for the Channel crossing, which marked the 20th anniversary of Virgin Atlantic Airways trans-Atlantic flights. Branson plans to launch Virgin domestic airline service in the United States next year, according to published reports.

“He bought a vehicle the day we announced it in September,” says Gibbs Technologies founder Alan Gibbs, a New Zealand native who first built a fast amphibious vehicle in 1995.

Gibbs Technologies recently cut the price of the Aquada in half — it now retails for $115,000 — due to increased production resulting from the amphibious car’s popularity, the company says. The manufacturer also launched a 4-wheel-drive concept amphibious vehicle called the Gibbs Humdinga, which seats five.

Sealegs, a New Zealand company that makes an 18-foot, 4-inch rigid-hull inflatable with retractable wheels, recently announced that it would challenge Branson’s English Channel record. The Sealegs vehicle reaches a top speed of 40 mph on water and 6 mph on land, according to the company.; n