Chicago designer aims to soup up hovercraft with a 'sports car' feel

For engineer, a boyhood hobby could turn into a business

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Michael W. Mercier, CEO and Co-Founder of Mercier-Jones, discusses the prototype of his hovercraft. (E. Jason Wambsgans/ Chicago Tribune)

Chicago engineer and product designer Michael Mercier has his sights set on manufacturing the Bugatti of hovercraft, a vehicle that can traverse land, water and ice, with a base price tag of $75,000.

It looks like the Batmobile floating on a black inner tube.

"The industry itself has been stuck on one path without much progress," Mercier said. "I really wanted it to feel more like a supercraft, more like a sports car, than anything a conventional hovercraft would offer you."

One catch: It's not street legal. It's ideal for someone who enjoys off-roading or boating, or who maybe wants to fly across frozen Lake Geneva from one mansion to another.

"You can't just take it out on a freeway, yet," Mercier said. "That's because of the lack of maneuverability on older models. Since they were like an airboat, with one big fan in the back, you're constantly fish-tailing to try to go in a straight line. Nobody has done anything like ours, where you can actually take that direct heading where you want to go. It's a huge step forward into the street-legal area, and we also have the reversing or braking, so you can actually stop. On an older hovercraft, you have to power down or flip the whole thing around" — just like a boat.

Mercier, 27, is a mechanical engineer by training who has long had a passion for hovercrafts. He started building them as a teenager; this is his fifth iteration. He previously designed products for Radio Flyer, the Chicago-based children's wagon designer, and office products manufacturer Fellowes Inc. Chris Jones, his cousin and co-founder, lives in Oklahoma.

"On nights and weekends, on my train commute to my day job, I was working on this," said Mercier, who has been working full time on the hovercraft since August. "We got enough money to rent our first little shop and started building the hull with $3,000 in the bank account. We eventually found an angel investor, who has gotten us this far." Mercier declined to name the investor.

Hovercraft 0000, a demonstration/test-drive unit, is set to arrive at Mercier-Jones' Near West Side garage in three weeks, and Hovercraft 0001 has been ordered, with delivery expected in May.

It will float about 7 inches over any surface, resting on a black tube skirt made of waterproof and abrasive-resistant polyester. The skirt keeps the air contained under the hull and doubles as the vehicle's suspension system.

"This can take a lot of damage before it's not working," Mercier said, comparing it to a car tire. "Small waves, rocks, you really don't feel them because it gets taken by the suspension."

The hovercraft's engine is gasoline-powered. It's less environmentally friendly than a car but far cleaner than a boat.

Mercier hopes the next version of the craft will be electric. They are hoping it will break the hovercraft land-speed record of 56 mph with a cruising speed around 40 mph. The exterior is made from carbon fiber.

James Toland, who is leading sales, said he's fielded a lot of calls from overseas.

"We see ourselves as a luxury item, and we're initially going to try to penetrate that market using personalized features," Toland said.

Reach Melissa Harris at mmharris@tribune.com. Newsletter at tinyletter.com/MelissaHarris. Twitter @chiconfidential

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