Note: Another post by my buddy Tony LaHood. Republished with his permission. -TK
Detroit. Kenosha. South Bend. Van Nuys? Maybe the latter doesn’t seem like a car-making town, but it was. For a brief two years, Van Nuys, CA, was home to the Davis, a three-wheeled automobile-cum-sofa.
The Davis story starts with a man named Frank Kurtis, an erstwhile racing car designer and builder of “The Californian”, a three-wheeled roadster commissioned by Southern California racer and banking heir Joel Thorne. It was this car that inspired former Indiana used-car salesman Glen Gordon Davis to create a namesake convertible that would incorporate many features of The Californian.
After moving to Southern California in 1945, Davis purchased the car from Thorne, paying just $50 for it. After purchasing The Californian, Davis hired a group of engineers to reverse-engineer it. Eventually they built a quarter-scale model of the car, which they then photographed for a July 1947 Hollywood News Citizen story, in which they claimed to be able to produce 50 of the cars a day. Later that year, Davis formally created Davis Motorcar Company with a $2,500 investment from the Bendix family; ever conscious of his name and his project’s image, he had borrowed local designer Raymond Loewy’s office to make his successful pitch to Bendix for support.
A former aircraft factory was acquired to house an assembly line, and Davis began cranking out prototypes. The first two-door prototype (“Baby”) had one 15-inch wheel up front and two 15-inch driven wheels out back. Power (such that it was) came from a 47 hp Hercules L-head four-cylinder engine (production cars used a 63 hp, 2.7-liter Continental four) mated to a Borg-Warner three-speed manual. A removable fiberglass hardtop completed the (projected) $995 package.
To capitalize on the booming post-World War II American car market, Davis obtained significant coverage for his new car in prominent magazines such as Business Week, Life, and Parade as well as in a period newsreel and a syndicated television crime drama, The Cases of Eddie Drake.
A public introduction was held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in November 1947; During the event, Davis had four American Airlines stewardesses hired for the occasion sit side-by-side across the car’s single bench seat to demonstrate its ability to carry four adults. For additional promotion, “Baby” was repainted and displayed in a Philadelphia department store for the holiday shopping season, after which it was repainted once more in preparation for participating in Pasadena’s Rose Parade before the 1948 Rose Bowl.1
Thanks to a massive publicity effort, which included a nationwide promotional tour featuring The Californian, Davis was able to raise in excess of $1,200,000 from 350 prospective Davis dealers, which allowed the company to finance a nationwide promotional trip, during which Davis touted the Divan as “the ultimate car of the future”.
The production Davis Divan measured 183.5 inches in length with a wheelbase of 109.5 inches–unusually long for a three-wheeled vehicle. Height was five feet even, and weight was 2,450 pounds without the removable hardtop in place. Width was 72 inches, wide enough for a single bench seat that sat four passengers abreast. The steam iron-shaped body featured 11 body panels made of aluminum and zinc; also on board were 15-inch wheels, disc brakes, and hidden headlights. The finished car boasted jacks built into each of its corners, which allowed for easier tire changes.
Davis Divans were soon in the news, and were often featured in periodicals and newspapers. More franchise agreements were signed, yet Davis had oversold and under-financed his futuristic aluminum-bodied car. Worried investors soon began demanding a return on their investments, and began arriving at the company’s factory unannounced to press the engineers for accurate delivery dates. In early 1949, prospective dealers sued Davis for breach of contract; company employees did likewise later that year, since many of them had not been paid after accepting an offer from Davis that promised them double pay after production began if they worked for free during the pre-production phase.
After a Los Angeles County District Attorney investigation, Davis was convicted on 20 counts of fraud and eight counts of grand theft by a jury in 1951. While the Davis Motorcar Company’s assets were liquidated in order to pay back taxes, Davis himself claimed that he could not repay his debts and was instead sentenced to two years at a “work farm” labor camp in Castaic, California 2.
Oddly, Davis’s legacy would not be as the father of the Divan, but rather as the creator of the Dodge-’em bumper car, which bore a strong family resemblance to the Divan and became a popular attraction at amusement parks. Davis died, of emphysema, in 1973.
Of the 13 Divans actually produced, 12 are still known to exist, including one in the permanent collection of the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles.
1, 2 Source: Wikipedia