My Friend Jim Dunne

In some circles he was considered an outlaw, but as a hired gun he took the best spy shot I ever saw. Jim Dunne sitting in the driver’s seat of what was likely his deliberately bland white Chevy Caprice took a photo off of his outside mirror of a line of cars undergoing testing on a public road. In focus in the lead car was Dave Hill driving, then chief engineer of the Corvette, followed by a line of prototype Corvettes. (I hope this photo re-emerges as people remember his passing yesterday.)

It had it all – Detroit Royalty surprised, hot cars, and a globally saleable glamour shot. Yes, Jim Dunne had it – he was the sine qua non of an entire category of journalism – automotive spy photography.

Here’s typical Dunne back in 2013 in AutoInformedPony Car Wars – 2015 Mustang Mule Posted on 30 April 2013 by Jim Dunne:

Though covered to the extreme, the photo does show some of Mustang’s plans for the 2015 model.

 “It takes from two to four years to develop a completely new car for production, and automakers like to pretend they can do it faster than others can. The process takes place in steps, with early prototypes using selected future-car chassis parts and body sections in current model mules. Later, as full body metal is developed and approved, finished cars – fully disguised by paint patterns or canvas – appear for testing.

 “The 2015 Mustang caught in this photo is in what you might call the late “pupa stage” – completely developed but not quite ready for testing on the road.

Ford had plans more than a decade ago to use a common rear-drive platform for the Australian Falcon and the Mustang, but never pulled it off.

“Though covered to the extreme, the photo does show some of Mustang’s plans for the ’15 model. Those high-mounted headlights are a departure from today’s recessed-in-the-intake scoop locations.

 “At the rear, the taillights also appear set higher in trunk lid. That split five-spoke wheel design could be a new feature too. In addition, is that an air exhaust port on the top left of the front fender? Note that the production bumpers are missing both front and rear.

Here’s the rumored IRS on a prototype.

“We cannot quite see the rear suspension, but reports have it that the new model will ride on independent rear suspension for the first time to counter the Camaro.

 “This chrysalis Mustang is expected to emerge in full elegance – undisguised – sometime in late 2014, but you can bet Ford will release a variety of teaser photos before then.”

Typical Dunne – witty, informed and accurate.

The first time I met Jim was on a blazing hot summer day at GM’s Milford Proving grounds that he knew better than the workers who tended it. I was working for a Hearst magazine – Motor –  as the Technical Editor I recall. I was traveling with Joe Oldham, then the editor and an expert in his own right on ‘Merican performance cars. Joe was buying a spy photo and Bob Lund our Detroit Editor and Jim Dunne decided to have some deadpan fun (I later found this out at a Rat Pack lunch). on Jim Dunne Spy Photographer

The Korean “police action.”

To get the spy shot, Oldham had to fold up the cash in large bills, drop it on the ground and step on it. Waiting thus, Dunne would appear with Lund who was handed an envelope. Oldham and Lund walked away. And feigning a dropped a press kit, Dunne picked up the cash and the PR stuff. It was a setup. And it worked, and I’m still laughing.

It was the beginning of my association with Dunne, one that intensified when I became the Detroit Bureau head of Road&Track thereby enjoying daily every drive fast, live large moment, sometimes aiding and abetting the master spy photographer who was doing the same at the front of the pack.

The stakes got higher when I became director of Product Development Public Affairs at Ford Motor. The first caper was a photo of a completely covered in canvass DEW 98 prototype  – the Lincoln LS – that I sent to AutoWeek, a regular Dunne outlet, with a notice to AutoWeek and especially Jim Dunne that public road testing was underway and Dunne had missed getting the car. AutoWeek ran the covered car on the entire back page with the surrounding desert in sharp focus with my challenge as the caption. Subsequently how Jim knew where and when to be idling camera ready shooting Fords and PAG prototypes, I’ll never know… on Jim Dunne Spy Photographer.

Above the Arctic Circle in Sweden. Dunne had a new antifreeze. I think it was called aquavit…

Things got complicated for our raucous Automotive Rat Pack. That always met with several “can you top this adventure stories.”  These weekly luncheons with an eclectic group of ink-stained wretches and renegade p.r. people continued even as the various businesses moved north.

Jim – a life-long Detroiter refused to travel North of Eight Mile, unless he was stalking something at the GM Tech Center or other secret car stuff. It also didn’t stop him from driving to the frozen UP or Minnesota for winter testing spy shots – some of the coldest days of my career when I was along – or haunting Death Valleys’ Furnace Creek Inn or another master coupe – visiting his hastily bought “ranchette” that was sliced out of part of Chrysler’s then Desert Proving Grounds in Arizona before Chrysler knew what was happening.

My Review of Dunne’s Car Spy Book on Amazon on Jim Dunne - Car Spy

Car Spy is a look at what is a rapidly fading automotive past, which I highly recommend.

Car Spy – an Inside Look at an Auto Culture Past  Ken Zino September 3, 2011

“Once upon a time the Detroit Three automakers were really the “Big Three” with potentially huge profits all hinged around the successful hyping and subsequent sales prompted by annual new model introductions. Along the way a new car spy photo business was created, which tried to reveal ahead of time the secrets due that fall when dealerships held gala debuts of Detroit’s latest offerings. This was the business that car spy Jim Dunne shaped and profited from.

“Great fortunes were made and lost by marketing small or big changes to move the metal – particularly after the mid 1950s when post war auto production finally caught up with demand. Huge efforts were made by automakers to keep “bold new grilles” or tailfins or V8 engines and automatic transmissions secret – as part of a whole “longer, lower, wider” advertising cliché dominated culture. This marketing method dominated the automotive business with its distinct selling seasons for decades. Veteran automotive journalist Dunne was there and not only recorded, but shaped its history.

In his new book Car Spy, the sometimes irascible, always hard working Dunne presents the photographic equivalent of an anecdotal talk about decades of Detroit’s triumphs, excesses and disasters. Car Spy is illustrated with more than 200 vintage black and white and color images of domestic and offshore brand cars in various stages of development and testing.

Car Spy is entertaining, funny, and sardonic. It captures the voice of Dunne – caveat here – whose adventures I sometimes participated in, whose photos I ran in various publications and still run in, and whose stories related in Car Spy I heard or participated in first hand.

Car Spy is a look at what is a rapidly rusting automotive past. I highly recommend it to anyone even remotely interested in the auto business. Auto manufactures now have largely co-opted the car spy business with their orchestrated reveals of new model names, sketches, concept versions, partial photos, background briefings, Facebook postings, and then – finally – the public intro of the production version of the car.

The upshot is the car spy photo business is, sadly, diminished and fading away. The collapse of automotive fan magazines, as well as newspapers, along with the blatant theft of creative work on the internet has made Car Spy a valuable reminder of an automotive industry that created jobs and wealth for millions upon millions of workers and their families before the great American Dream turned into the current deficit ridden and politically bankrupt nightmare.

Dunne says his favorite image in Car Spy is on the cover.

“What else gets the adrenaline pumping faster than seeing a future Corvette, modestly disguised, going through its early testing,” he told AutoInformed.

“The foreshortened image results from a 500 mm long range lens. The fifth wheel says `I’m testing.’ The pitot valve on the roof (no antenna, this) confirms. A slight tilt shows the car is entering a highly banked, high-speed turn. Going the wrong way (check the guard rails) imparts a private test road. All four tires show clearly, with the rears made even larger by the camera lens. Black covering on the hood says this car is a prototype, not ready for public view. Computer (cover on the passenger side windshield) is keeping track of the speed, fuel economy, braking distance, temperatures, engine revs…. Photo not sharp? That long range lens picks up a lot of atmosphere in its distance from the car,” Dunne said.

He also says the image could be better.

“I have a big disappointment in this particular (cover) presentation. The car appears as running on a level surface. That’s not a true image. Actually if you tilt the photo as you would in examining a strip of 35 mm film, you’ll see what’s captured on the original shot – the car slightly canted, but under control, as it heads into the high speed banking. More feeling of speed and action that way.”

Suggested Tombstone

Jim Dunne 

Sunday, December 13th, 1931 Tuesday, August 20th, 2019

I’m working on Global Warming Shots – the hottest story now – that governments don’t want you to see from somewhere in the universe. – Jim Dunne

About Kenneth Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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