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By Ben Selby
Just so you are aware, this is a car, not an oversized shoe. Say hello to the Davis Motor Car, one of automotive history’s greatest oddballs.
With retractable headlights, four seats and the kind of styling usually seen on artillery shells being built a few years prior to its creation, Davis sought, like so many ambitious automakers, to change the future of the automobile, but it was not to be.
The Davis can trace its origins back to the late 1930s. Its inception was the result of a meeting between two men, Joel Thorne Jr and Frank Kurtis. Thorne Jr was keen on all things involving fast machinery, which led him to create Thorne Engineering Ltd.
Through this company he and his tightly knit team were able to design and build cars to contest the Indy 500. He was also the air to the Pullman Family Fortune, so he literally had buckets of cash to throw around.
Frank Kurtis worked for Thorne Jr as a foreman at Thorne Engineering and was dead handy when it came to designing unique vehicles. Thorne Jr approached Kurtis and handed him a simple task, “make me a car which looks like nothing else on America roads.”
Kurtis rose to the challenge and just before the outbreak of WW2, Kurtis presented Thorne Jr with his creation. Called the Kurtis Californian, it sported a three-wheel layout, two seats, and was powered by a flathead Mercury V8.
For Thorne Jr, it was love at first sight, and during wartime, he got plenty of use out of it, tearing up and down his native Van Nuys in California.
After the war, Thorne Jr decided to sell the Californian to a friend and former car salesman Glen Gordon Davis. Davis, or “Gary” as he was most commonly referred to was smitten by the Californian, and could see the potential of mass producing it for the American market.
With the War over, the American public was hungry for new things. They wanted the latest technology and the latest cars, and with the American economy actually faring better than it did before the war, the country was full of driven and bright entrepreneurs determined to make their mark.
Davis fit this image like a glove, he could visualize the Davis Motor Car Company as changing the automotive world. His vision for his car was simple. It would have three wheels, bench seating for four, the ability to consume 50mpg, and would cost punters no more than $1,000US.
The Davis PR machine went into overdrive, Gary Davis was a natural showman and could sell ice to Eskimos. Ads for the Davis were appearing in countless national publications like Life and Parade magazine.
A new prototype was constructed by a group of Aerospace engineers. Called the Baby, it attracted attention where ever it went. People were clamouring to find out more about the Davis. How can I buy one? Can I be a franchise dealer? Investors were throwing wads of cash at Gary Davis, allowing him to set up a purpose-built factory on an airfield in Van Nuys.
Rather than the V8 of Thorne Jr’s California, the Davis, now called the Divan, was powered by a Continental four-cylinder engine producing 63 hp and mated to a three-speed gearbox. Drive went to the rear and a bend seat arrangement meant that four adults could all enjoy the Davis experience.
The body was originally crafted from aluminum and it featured a tubular spaceframe chassis, however the production Divan was made from less expensive steel. The Divan also featured a bespoke jack which raised the car up so owners could change a tyre without needing to hack into the bodywork.
All in all, just 16 cars left the Van Nuys factory before Gary Davis’ dream came crashing down. Davis might have been a natural salesman, but he didn’t seem to walk the talk. Davis pocketed a lot of the money he had taken from investors and neglected to properly pay his employees.
Also, those aforementioned aerospace engineers designing the prototype did their work for free on the proviso they would get a big pay-out when the car became a success. Many franchisees who had paid for the right to sell the Davis Divian never received any cars either.
In 1949, Gary Davis, amid charges of fraud and embezzlement, tried a last-ditch attempt to save his company by designing a three wheeled combat car for the army. This was a failure.
By late 1949, the Davis Motor Car was liquidated. In 1953, Gary Davis went to prison for a period of two years. Upon released he spent the rest of his life designing cars of different sort, bumper cars for amusement parks. Gary Davis died in 1973.
The sad thing is that during the whole Davis saga, there was never any mention of the man who created the car which inspired it, Frank Kurtis. Kurtis went on to become one an icon of the Indy 500, designing many iconic racing and custom cars, including the legendary Belond Special which won at Indy in 1957 and 1958. Joel Thorne Jr was sadly killed in a plane crash in 1955.
All but one of the 16 Davis Divans built survive. One is residing in the famed Petersen Automotive Museum in LA, and another, believe it or not, is on display at Southwards Car Museum in Paraparaumu.