Driven to pioneer amphibious rides

JORDAN ENGLAND-NELSON
Last updated 05:00 27/01/2014

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Dave March takes a sip of his coffee and looks through the windshield of his car, which is idling in the water next to his 65-foot yacht.

"This has been a dream for 10, 15 years," he says, his gaze fixed toward Catalina.

"Every time I see that island, I think, 'Oh, it's not that far.' "

March, 58, has spent more than a decade developing the high-speed amphibious car he is about to take to market for US$135,000 (NZ$162k) apiece. He has taken deposits from the Prince of Dubai, tycoons in Silicon Valley and millionaires from around the world.

On this day, he hopes to prove the car's mettle by driving it from his WaterCar headquarters in Fountain Valley, California, to Catalina Island.

The only problem is he has never tested the car on open water, and 48km is a long way to swim.

March has been building and testing amphibious cars, or amphibians, for years.

He filed patents for his first amphibian in 2003. Six years later, he set the Guinness World Record for fastest amphibious car with the Python, which has a 450-horsepower Corvette engine and can hit 96kmh on the water.

The car that March is test-driving to Catalina is the Panther, a smaller, off-road amphibian that is the entrepreneurial fruit of 12 years of trial and error and hundreds of thousands of dollars in research and development.

Ever since he posted a video online of the Panther driving on the freeway, scaling sand dunes and impressing scantily clad ladies at a lake, March's phone hasn't stopped ringing. The car already has been filmed in three reality shows.

He also has received a deluge of emails from buyers around the world.

The embassy of the United Arab Emirates has ordered one, and Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, the crown Prince of Dubai, has ordered six.

Two of the most powerful men in Silicon Valley each have sent deposits - with nondisclosure agreements to prevent their names from appearing in the media. Nascar drivers are knocking at his door.

"I've got guys that are throwing money at me," March said.

"It's a fun position to be in."

Back on the water, March points his Panther toward the horizon. He's surrounded by three powerboats, which are carrying friends, family and a case of champagne, which March's wife hesitates to put on ice, for fear she might jinx the crossing.

He steps on the gas, and the Panther slowly rises up out of the water. As he passes the other boats, he waves to his family, fingers crossed. The morning sun is still low, and the water is like undulating glass as the Panther cuts across it.

As March moves into deeper water, dolphins leap up around him. The shore disappears from view, and a whale comes up for air. The grin on March's face is so large you can see it from the deck of his yacht.

"It's running nice," March's voice comes in over the radio.

 "If it weren't for the swells, I'd kick it up a notch."

"We're at 13.5 miles," March's partner, Fred Selby, radios from his boat before the halfway mark.

"This is the point of no return."

Muscular and gnarled from years of working with fiberglass and steel, March's hands are like those of a carpenter.

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His unruly blonde hair falls on either side of his gray-blue eyes. He has the confident smile of a man who can afford expensive toys.

March first got into amphibians in 1999, after he and his son Chad turned on the TV and saw Huell Howser driving an Amphicar, the first amphibian mass-produced for the general public.

Chad, who was 12 at the time, was captivated by the floating car, and March thought working on one might spark his son's interest in the family business.

The father-son team spent a year restoring a 1961 Amphicar they bought in Hawaii. But when they finally took it out on the water, they learned firsthand why the Germans made only about 4000 of them.

"It was cool driving in the water, but when you pressed the gas, it was just like 'putt-putt,' " March remembered.

He started looking into other amphibians on the market and was not impressed with what he found.

Cars, boats and planes had all been pushed to the limits of possibility, March said, but there was a "missing link" between the road and the water. Maybe he could be the one to bridge that gap.

March is particularly well-positioned to build a successful amphibian. He owns Fountain Valley Bodyworks, an auto repair shop that fixes 500 to 600 cars a month. He's also an avid boater.

March's goal was simple: Build a car that could drive on the freeway but also keep up with a boat on the water.

Like so many great ideas, March's first water car was born in his basement, which he flooded to see whether his prototype would float. But the real challenge wasn't waterproofing. It was getting the car up and out of the water when he pressed the gas.

"Anyone can build a car that floats," March said.

"It's a lot harder getting it on a plane."

March's first prototype in 2003 looked like a small Camaro. When it was switched to boat mode, the tires retracted and hydraulic metal plates covered the wheel wells. March posted a video of it online, and the clip went viral.

"What blew everybody's mind is that it had a cool look," March said.

"And we realised there was a market."

March also realised that a lot of the people interested in WaterCar lived in parts of the world where a Camaro-like sports car, amphibious or not, just wouldn't be practical.

"You could tell they wanted more utility ... to get them from point A to point B," he said.

"They didn't care if it was all sexy-looking."

March took what he had learned from building his first prototype, which was far from perfect, and the Python - which was perfect, save for the US$300,000 (NZ$360k) price tag - and applied it to the more economical Panther.

The idea was to build a car that would be simple to produce and simple to maintain.

"We want to be the Henry Ford of amphibious cars," March said.

WaterCar has gotten around manufacturing regulations because the company sells the car as a kit. Buyers purchase the body but must pay a third party to install the engine, which, on paper, means the buyer - not WaterCar - built the vehicle. The owner then must register it as a boat and as a car.

WaterCar's first customer, an electronics manufacturer from Pennsylvania named Peter McIlroy, is scheduled to receive his Panther sometime in February.

March said it's taking a bit longer than usual to produce because McIlroy wants his Panther to be gunmetal gray with a red interior, to match his Bentley.

McIlroy said he has been trying to buy from WaterCar since he sunk US$300k (NZ$360k) into a Hydra Spyder, from another made-to-order amphibian maker.

"It did go 55mph (88kmh), but then it caught fire," McIlroy said by phone.

"It was a total disaster."

McIlroy, who test-drove the Panther, said it is "head and shoulders above" anything he has ridden.

"They waited (to sell) until they identified all of the problems that I had with my amphibious car," McIlroy said.

"A very wise decision."

Catalina Island was a foggy blur when March idled into the harbour.

An hour and 10 minutes after leaving Newport Harbour, March stood at the back of his yacht in Avalon Bay and popped a champagne cork into the water.

"I never thought we'd make it the first time out," March said as his friends and family raised their glasses.

A decade earlier, the billionaire entrepreneur and adventurer Sir Richard Branson broke the Guinness World Record for the fastest crossing of the English Channel in an amphibious car. The Panther cut Branson's time in half.

"This is our English Channel," said March, who has visited Branson at his home in the British Isles and actually bears an uncanny resemblance to the British knight.

After the thrill of crossing the ocean wore off, March wanted to drive the Panther into town. But the tide had complicated a land approach. The Panther is designed for cement loading docks and relatively smooth shores, not the steep, rock-strewn banks of Catalina at low tide.

"It loves a sandy beach," March said. "(But) I'm out here to learn what I can."

With former Fountain Valley Mayor Larry Crandall riding shotgun, March drove onto shore. But the grade was too steep, and March was forced to reverse the jets, which sent a barrage of small rocks up into the underbelly of the car. It wasn't until later that he realised a wheel fastener had been damaged.

March was visibly upset that he was not able to fully consummate the Panther's maiden voyage to Catalina, but he was glad he found a weak link. He plans to replace the snapped part with an aircraft-grade version that is much stronger.

"Each time you break something, you learn something," March said.

"That's what it's all about."

- MCT

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