O.K., admit it; you’ve never heard of a Davis automobile. Well, neither had I until a visit to the National Truck Museum in Auburn, Ind., a couple years ago.
After World War II, during which no new automobiles were built for civilian buyers, there was a huge hunger for new cars and many manufacturers gave the auto business a whirl, although most didn’t last long.
One of these was Glen Gordon “Gary” Davis, a California promoter, who took a design by Frank Kurtis, designer of many sleek race and concept cars during the 1940s and ‘50s, and sold it as the Davis, a low and wide three-wheeled car, whose 1,385-pound aluminum body looked like nothing so much as a bathtub flipped upside down.
The first one or two cars had a tubular steel frame, but a more conventional channel steel frame was substituted, while all three wheels were suspended from coil springs with hydraulic shock absorbers.
When the Davis was introduced in 1947 it featured several advanced features besides its body and three wheels: for instance, a four-point vacuum-operated jacking system, push-button door release, a curved, one-piece windshield and rear window, recessed and covered headlights, and disc brakes, although later models had conventional drum brakes.
A four-cylinder Hercules 60 HP, 133 cubic inch engine provided excellent acceleration through a three-speed manual transmission and 4.10:1 rear end gears. The thing had a 12.7-foot turning circle, weighed about 2,500 pounds, and had a 140 mph speedometer, which was undoubtedly for show.
The aluminum top could be easily lifted off by loosening four toggle bolts, although there was no way to store it on board.
The single, 64-inch wide seat had room for four adults and the rear trunk was quite roomy. The vinyl upholstery was fastened with snap fasteners so it could be easily removed.
An article in the September, 1948 issue of Hot Rod Magazine says Davis planned to make a seven-passenger car, a station wagon and a panel truck in the future. These never materialized, but three prototype military jeep-like personnel carriers were built. It’s unclear if the U.S. Army ever actually tested the Davis jeep, but with only rear wheel drive, and that easily bogged single front wheel, it would have been no match for a four-wheel drive vehicle.
Gary Davis was a skilled advertising man, relentlessly promoting the car at every opportunity. At his behest, Business Week did an article and Life magazine ran a photo spread. The car appeared in a newsreel in movie theaters and the detective hero of a nine-episode TV show named The Cases of Eddie Drake, drove a Davis.
Prospective dealers signed on, for a fee of course, and Davis established a small factory at Van Nuys, Calif., to build the car. He hired engineers and designers, but persuaded them to work for nothing until the money began pouring in, when he promised to pay them double.
A few cars were hand-built, one led the 1948 Tournament of Roses parade, and Continental engines replaced the Hercules. But dealers who had paid for franchises and received no cars began to complain, and in May, 1948, the employees sued for back pay. The Los Angeles County district attorney became interested and started an investigation into Davis’ business practices, which included a $1,000-per-week personal salary while paying his employees nothing.
He also bought fancy cars and a big house during this time, causing the D.A. to charge Davis with grand theft and fraud. All the assets were confiscated and sold to satisfy creditors and pay back taxes, while Davis was convicted in early 1951 and served two years in a county prison. The employees never got their double pay or much of anything for that matter.
It appears maybe 13 Davis cars were built altogether and a surprising number have survived, although in various states of repair. Only one is known to have been destroyed and it had been shipped to England in an attempt to solicit dealers and then destroyed according to British law.
A couple of them are in pieces, while others are in the hands of collectors or in museums, and a few have been repowered.
Tom Wilson of Ypsilanti, Mich., owns a car and a jeep and loaned them to the NATMUS Museum in Auburn.
Oh, there was another Davis car — and it was made right here in Salem, Ohio. In 1900, Del Davis was superintendent of the Salem Electric Light and Power Company and built a car for himself. A story in the Salem News described the “Trial Trip of Mr. D.L. Davis’s Horseless Carriage.”
The new auto had a wheel base of 54 inches and the 40 battery cells were mounted below the axle line, “doing away with that clumsy and top-heavy appearance so common to [other] electric vehicles.”
The steel spoke wheels had pneumatic tires, and a single spring on each side was “directly beneath the passengers,” making “the vehicle exceptionally easy riding.” A one-horse power electric motor drove each front wheel and the car had auto-type steering instead of the whole front axle pivoting in the center “as in the case of ordinary vehicles.”
The brakes were mounted “stationary and the rear wheels [were] drawn up to the brake spoons on either side.” Reversing the current to the drive motors also applied the brakes.
The reporter wrote: “The trial trip was eminently satisfactory and the vehicle … was greatly admired by the crowds that gathered whenever stops were made.”
An existing photo shows a dapper and mustachioed Davis, wearing a straw boater hat, piloting his car on a brick-paved Salem street with the steering tiller in his right hand.
The photo and some of the artifacts from the car can be seen at the Salem Historical Society.
The charming Miss Nancy is improving every day and, although she still has a way to go, we’re quite hopeful. Thanks to all of you who have expressed concern and inquired about her.