There may have been a few surreptitious shots of future cars that appeared in a few newspapers before Jim Dunne came along, but it was Dunne who made a business out of it.
As such, Dunne virtually invented the art and small business of automotive spy photography, hiding out where he knew some future prototype wrapped in camouflage would be cruising past, then firing off as many frames of 35 mm Kodachrome as he could as fast as he could before the car was gone.
Sometimes he’d be discovered, and there were a few stories about Dunne outsmarting various security guards or lighting up the tires of his Chevy Caprice in bold escapes.
Dunne, who died Monday at home in Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., at age 87, was one of the few people to make a bona fide living taking spy shots of cars, and his execution was often as precise as a military maneuver.
A little background on spy photography: Car manufacturers don’t want the public to know about future models before the marketing, advertising and production departments are ready to release them.
The reason for that is strictly profit. If potential buyers see that a new and better model is coming, they might wait for it instead of buying something from the brand’s current offerings. This would cost the car company millions of dollars or more. But at the same time, carmakers have to test and refine new cars on real roads in the real world. So, they take a risk, wrapping the new models in camo and hoping no one will see the new car.
Spy photographers like Dunne knew this and knew where carmakers went for hot-weather testing (Death Valley in the summer) and cold-weather testing (northern Minnesota and Canada).
Sometimes Dunne didn’t have to travel quite so far.
“I know the Milford Proving Ground quite well,” he once said on a video posted by LeftLaneNews. “I’ve told drivers in the past, 'When you drive down the north-south straightaway, please smile because your picture will probably be taken.' ”
Dunne was known for sitting on a hill that overlooked a portion of GM’s Milford Proving Ground, outside Detroit, waiting for prototypes to drive by. GM security took to calling the spot “Dunne’s Grove.” He knew what to shoot and what to let go.
“You see (a car camouflaged in) black and white driving down the street, everybody’s looking at it. Is this supposed to hide the car or say, ‘Here I am. I’m new. Take my picture'?”
His most brazen move was to buy land that abutted what was then Chrysler’s proving grounds in the Arizona desert. It was quite a while before Chrysler realized what was going on and put up a big fence. By that time Dunne had more than paid for the cost of the land and even, legend has it, sold it for a tidy profit to Chrysler. (That was the legend; the truth was it went to a land developer, but Dunne still made a heck of a profit on it.)
It’s true there were “Wanted” posters of Dunne in several car company security offices. But he was treated more as a gentleman bandit than a serious danger. While he shot spy photos for over 50 years, Dunne also worked full time as an automotive journalist, first at Popular Science and then at Popular Mechanics.