Featured: Selling the Future: The Story of the Davis Divan

Selling the Future: The Story of the Davis Divan

By Forest Casey
April 15, 2015
3 comments

Extraordinary things were happening 1946, after the close of the Second World War.

In Torino, Italy, Battista “Pinin” Farina made a seemingly-simple change on the Cisitalia 202 by turning its radiator grille 90º, allowing the car’s heart-shaped hood to rest beneath its twin headlamps, and opening a new dimension for stylists.

In Chicago, Illinois, Preston Tucker purchased a factory that was turning out engines for B-29 bombers mere months prior. Before the war, the facility built automobiles for Dodge. Within a year, the plant would produce the Tucker 48, a disruptive car designed to hit the Detroit manufacturers like a bunker buster.

In Los Angeles, equally-ambitious entrepreneurs were also scrambling to fill the gap left by the domestic automakers. During wartime, the General Motors plant in South Gate was too busy building M5 tanks to put together any new Cadillacs. Not that there were any new designs to build—two years after the war, the domestic automakers in America could only offer customers pre-war models. A 1948 Ford sedan looked and drove much the same as a Ford sedan from 1941.

And as thousands upon thousands of American soldiers began returning home from the Great War, the market for domestic automobiles was ripe for revolution. 

Enter: Glen Gordon “Gary” Davis.

Unlike Preston Tucker, Davis had no hands-on experience building cars. What Davis had was years of experience selling used cars during the war in his home state of Indiana. Like so many before and since, Davis migrated to southern California with dreams of fame and fortune.

Davis had been an outsider in the automotive world for long enough to learn what was selling and how to sell it. Even after the war was over, Detroit’s innovations debuted slowly—typically trickling down from flagship models to the rest of the portfolio.

True innovation sold itself, or so it was thought. For once, Gary Davis could sell true innovation, complete with his own name on the hood.

First, though, Davis had to buy a car. He spotted his target while it was driving on the city streets of Los Angeles—a three-wheeled boulevardier owned by a local privateer (and heir to the Chase Bank fortune) named Joel Thorne. Today, Thorne’s car looks “quirky” or “unusual.” Back then, it must have looked like a small plane had crash-landed, sheared off its wings, and proceeded to drive down Sunset Blvd.

Ironically, that almost exactly describes how Thorne would die—killing eight innocent people in the process. In 1955 he lost control while “stunting” his small plane, crashing it into a Los Angeles apartment complex. To be a playboy…

Anyway, Thorne’s odd three-wheeler had racing pedigree—its suspension system was designed by Frank Kurtis, who worked in Thorne Engineering’s metalworking shop in Burbank. Kurtis’ true talent lay in building racecars for the Indy 500, though he also laid the foundation for the Muntz Jet and would go on to found Kurtis-Kraft in 1949.

Kurtis titled his creation for Thorne, “The Californian,” and the millionaire proudly drove the one-off around town and to the racetrack. At least, until 1945, when he sold the car to Gary Davis for $50.

The circumstances around the sale are difficult to verify, but one report hints that Davis concocted a scheme to crash the Californian and then offer Thorne a pittance to take it off his hands. At any rate, the little three-wheeler seemed a bit accident-prone: Hemmings’ account of the story mentions that Thorne was so happy with his car, he “drove it through the end of the war despite wrecking it several times.” However shaky the start, Davis was in business.

Now that Davis had a car to reverse-engineer, he needed to hire some engineers. From a desk at the Santa Monica branch of the Douglas Aircraft Co. came Peter Westburg, who became Davis’ chief engineer because he had “a bit” more experience than the other recruits. As Westburg described it later, there were a “half dozen” engineers, all of them promised double their existing salaries if the project succeeded “and nothing if it failed.”

In the basement of Davis’ West Hollywood-based storefront, the new hires got to work building a 1/4-size model of the car from green-colored clay. The car’s chrome bumpers were fashioned from buffed aluminum; the steering wheel, seats, and windshield were added artificially in the darkroom, once the model had been photographed. The photos were published in an issue of Hollywood Citizen News on the 22nd of July, with Davis claiming that he was gearing up to produce 50 cars per day, all at the low price of $995; cheap, even for 1947.

As with many fledgling automakers, Davis’ first important sale wasn’t for a car, it was for a car dealership. A member of the Bendix family, flush from building warplanes for the U.S. Government, flew out from New Jersey to hear Davis’ pitch. Ever image-conscious, Davis borrowed the office of a nearby designer named Raymond Loewy to try and woo his potential investor. Whether it was Loewy’s opulent office or Davis’ clay model, the gambit worked: with an initial investment of $2,500, the Davis Motorcar Co. was officially in business.

With the investment, Davis rented space at a Van Nuys hangar and tasked his engineers with building a car. The shop staff and parts suppliers were promised a similar deal, according to Westburg—“double pay if the project went over, nothing if it didn’t.” Their deadline was set: Davis’ car was scheduled for a public unveiling in early November of 1947 at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Blvd.  

Showcasing his true talent, Davis arranged all the publicity for his car’s big debut. He hired an ex-reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Express named Jack Adams to manage P.R. for his company. Davis also hired “a curvaceous Hollywood starlet” named Cleo Moore to pose with the car for promotional photos and mingle with the press during the unveiling.

In the Ambassador Hotel’s front courtyard, Davis piloted his eponymous car with great skill, turning circles in front of his invited guests.

Before the event, Davis practiced with his company’s first prototype (nicknamed “Baby”), burning rubber in the Van Nuys hangar and leaving circular tire marks from his car’s front wheel on the shop floor. The circle’s circumference measured 13 ft.—still impressive today—though Davis upped the ante, claiming that his car could navigate a full-lock u-turn at 55 mph.

Davis was quick to mention the car’s aluminum body and removable, fiberglass top—both true innovations. Though his car’s footprint was scarcely larger than that of a paddleboat, Davis hired four American Airlines stewardesses to cram side-by-side on “Baby’s” bench seat, proof of his car’s capacity. The event seems reminiscent of modern press junkets; according to Westburg, “At the party that evening, Davis made certain there were plenty of free drinks to go with the hors d’oeuvres.”

All of the positive publicity worked. Davis dealership sales soared, paying for a cross-country promotional trip. “Baby” was re-painted and shipped to a high-end department Philadelphia department store just in time for the holiday shopping season, then re-re-painted for Pasadena’s Rose Parade on New Year’s Day, 1948.

On the parade, Davis again wheeled his car “from side to side in the street and spun it in circles,” in front of the gathered multitudes. Some amateur footage of the parade does exist, though the Davis is sadly not featured. (Also, for those interested, the University of Michigan absolutely destroyed USC in the football game that followed, 49-0).

Back at Davis’ factory, the mood was a bit more anxious. As Westburg describes it, “It was a busy time with devoted men working late, sometimes staying 72 hours at a stretch and sleeping in a house that Davis rented.” With Davis busy selling his car, production duties were left to another new hire, Bob “Pinky” Howells. The production numbers advertised by Davis sounded too good to be true – prospective dealers were told they would have their cars within 90 days, with the increase in demand to be fulfilled by a leased plant in Fort Worth, Texas.

Howells did everything possible to meet those deadlines, ordering a drop hammer press to stamp the car’s body panels and two gas furnaces to fire them. Howells and Westburg approached a tool-and-die maker in Pasadena, and they soon were crafting kirksite dies out of lead on nights and weekends.

Howells was eager to show off his progress, but what happened next was unusual. As Westburg tells the story, “When Davis returned and saw the activity going on, he went into a rage. He fired Howells because he had spent $45,000 of company money…on production.”

Not that company money was strictly off-limits. Davis had recently purchased an estate in Benedict Canyon near Beverly Hills for $30,000, and was paying himself a salary of $1,000 per month.

It wasn’t like the company’s coffers were empty—Davis raked in a sum of $1,200,000 by selling 350 dealerships to eager investors. Very quickly, these would-be dealers started demanding a return on their investment. Finding less and less satisfaction in Davis’ claims, the dealers began arriving at the Van Nuys factory unannounced, pressuring the on-site engineers to give them an accurate delivery date.

Finally, the dealers had enough, and in early 1949 sued Davis for breach of contract. His employees followed suit, leading to an investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney. Two years later, a jury of ten women and two men convicted Gary Davis on 20 counts of fraud. Because he claimed he couldn’t repay the debts to his dealers, Davis was sentenced to two years at a minimum security “work farm” in Castaic, CA.

According to Leslie Kendall, the curator of the Petersen Automotive Museum, Davis, “steadfastly maintained his innocence for the remainder of his life.” 

Now, in spite of Davis’ claims (or, perhaps, because of them), the story behind this car is worthy of re-telling. It has all the elements of a great con story: a captivating central figure who never admits wrongdoing, selling a product too good to be true.

As always in these stories, it’s tough to figure out who to feel the most sorry for: The shortchanged dealers or the overworked employees. Surely it isn’t the beleaguered entrepreneur, who usually claims they were undermined by agents of the Big Three.

The story of the Davis is the story of Tucker and De Lorean. For whatever reason, in the automobile business, you’re either Henry Ford or you’re a fraud—you either produce a return on your initial investment or you’re a pariah. There seems to be no middle ground.

And it’s a story that repeats, in the three-wheeled Dale from 1975; in the yet-to-be-released three-wheeled Elio. This story repeats in every “revolutionary” product rushed to market, with every app whose introductory features don’t quite measure up to the promises of their producers.

You’ve likely heard that the Petersen Museum has started a crowdfunding page in order to restore the collection’s 1948 Davis, the fourth car that left the factory in Van Nuys. The mission of the museum is centered around presenting the history of the automobile in general, and the history of the automobile in Los Angeles specifically. Though SoCal has long been a nexus of car culture, so few cars are actually designed and produced here that every one of them is important. The Petersen’s Davis, for instance, is one of only 17 cars built before the company dissolved.

We’re asking for $30,000. Enough to paint the car a correct shade (the current color choice, a royal blue, isn’t correct for the period), and some light body and mechanical work.

I know it can seem a bit odd for a nonprofit institution to ask for a handout to restore one of its artifacts, but in the case of this odd car, it just seems to fit.

So, I’m going to put my money where my mouth is – half of whatever I make on this article, I’m going to donate to the cause. I do hope you join me. 

Image Source: Peterson Automotive Museum

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Samir Shirazi
Samir Shirazi

great story, I had never heard that before!

Mark Ernest
Mark Ernest

After the war my father was still living in San Diego and put a down payment for a Davis. I still have the brochure he got, similar to the one in the article. Wonder if it’s collectible value is equal to his down payment? ^_^

Andrew Salt
Andrew Salt

What an incedible looking machine! I’d love to own one and take it to a few shows here in the UK. I’m sure it would get surrounded by people wherever it went.
Brilliant feature Petrolicious – as always. Thank you.