WaterCar owner Dave Marsh crosses his fingers before embarking on a 30-mile test drive off the California coast earlier this month. (Kevin Sullivan / MCT)
Dave March takes a sip of his coffee and looks through the windshield of his car, which is idling in the water in Newport Harbor, 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 $135,000 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, Calif., to Catalina Island.
The only problem is he has never tested the car on open water, and 30 miles 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 60 mph 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, including an episode of the current season of “The Bachelor.”
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 in Newport Harbor, 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. His unruly blond hair falls on either side of his gray-blue eyes. He has the confident smile of a man who can afford expensive toys.
March is particularly well-positioned to build a successful amphibian. He owns Fountain Valley Bodyworks, an auto repair shop that fixes 500-600 cars a month. He also is 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.
“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 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 $300,000 into a Hydra Spyder, from another made-to-order amphibian maker.
“It did go 55 mph, 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.”