Glen Gordon 'Gary' Davis was a master car salesman and marketer in Southern California. Immediately after World War II, he saw a three-wheeled special that the legendary Frank Kurtis built for his current employer, Joel Thorne. This car, dubbed the Californian, had innovative suspension and a bullet-shaped aluminum body.
Accounts vary on how Davis came to acquire the Californian from Thorne. Once he did, he used it as a basis to start his own auto manufacturing company to produce a futuristic, safety car. He set up shop in an empty military factory in Van Nuys, California but like most start-ups was underfunded and closed after only seventeen examples were built. Production lasted from 1947 through 1949.
After construction of two prototypes in 1947, Davis embarked on an aggressive publicity and promotional campaign for the car, which included numerous magazine appearances, a lavish public unveiling at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, and a promotional trip across the United States.
Despite raising $1,200,000 through the sale of 350 dealerships, Davis failed to deliver cars to its prospective dealers or pay its employees promptly, and was ultimately sued by both groups. Assets were liquidated in order to settle back taxes, while Davis was eventually convicted of fraud and grand theft and sentenced to two years at a 'work farm' labor camp. Only 13 Divans were ever built. Novel features include aircraft-inspired styling details, disc brakes, hidden headlights and built-in jacks.
The Davis Divan (also dubbed the Californian) was debuted in 1948 and though it is commonly believed that 13 models were every constructed, there lies some suspicion whether there were more, or possibly even less ever created. Advertised as 'the car of the future', this was certainly an unusual vehicle with aircraft-inspired styling, aluminum body construction, three-wheeled car. At a time directly following World War II, automakers were attempting to catch the eye of the public; Gary Davis unveiled a particularly odd vehicle. Though the effort never reached fruition, Davis did raise enough money from investors to construct 17 of these unique three-wheelers.
Gary Davis started the Davis Motor Car Company in 1946 in Van Nuys, California, immediately following the war. Davis had been selling cars since he came to Southern California in 1938 and when he saw a one-off roadster by Frank Kurtis in 1945, inspiration struck. Throughout the 1950s, Frank Kurtis created Kurtis-Kraft roadsters that dominated the Indy 500. Kurti built this three-wheel configuration for millionaire playboy Joel Thorne who regularly drove it through the L.A. area, which is where Davis first viewed the unique roadster.
Davis ended up with the vehicle, though the story is unclear how this occurred and by 1945 Davis began promoting the 'Californian' as the prototype for an all new automobile venture. With very limited backing, Davis put together a small group of bright young engineers with only the promise of twice the normal salary once the company reached prosperity. The Californian was used continuously and quickly fell into disrepair which prompted Davis to begin on the new concept that would be only 'loosely' based on the original Kurtis creation.
Interest surrounding this concept began to grow, and a former aircraft assembly building was acquired to now house engineers and a future assembly line for the new Davis Motor Car Company. The new prototype was dubbed 'Baby'. 'Baby' was powered by a 47 hp Hercules 4-cylinder engine, still rolled on three wheels, featured Borg-Warner 3-speed transmission, Spicer rear end and four-across seating. This prototype was the basis behind all of the claims of production. Enthusiasts couldn't wait for this car to reach production and orders poured in at first of 50 cars a day, eventually leaping to 1000 a day believing production of the new Davis 'Divan' Sedan to begin in 1948.
Soon after Baby, a second prototype emerged called 'Delta', followed closely by a third prototype known as 'model 482'. Unfortunately during the time that the cars were slowly completed for both testing and promotion, the hardworking staff of the Davis Motor Car Company was not being paid. Lawsuits began pouring in from both investors and dealers. Gary Davis was estimated to have raised $1,200,000 with more than 300 franchises ready in place impatiently waiting for the first shipment of Davis cars.
May of 1948 Davis underwent investigation by the L.A. District Attorney's office for fraud while 17 ex-employees filed suit for back wages. The Davis plant was shut down soon after and by November, the D.A. had raided Davis Motor Cars and had seized all company records and began developing a case.
Right before the plant was closed, Davis, aided by a very limited crew produced a variation of the 482 design for the military called Model 494. This model was a Jeep-live version of the Divan that featured an open body. Three of these Model 494's were constructed in under a week and two of them were shipped to the Army for testing at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland.
All of the assets of the Davis Motor Car Company were sold for tax clams in May of 1950. Davis was anything if not a survivor though. 16 franchise holders formed the Delta Motor Car Company in an effort to salvage the Davis, owning only car #5 and some tooling. Delta attempted to have Reliant Engineering Company in Staffordshire, England manufacture the vehicle, but unfortunately investor funds ran out before any real progress could be made. English custom officials had Car #5 scrapped for non-payment of duties.
Davis was brought to trial on 28 counts of Grand Theft and ended up being found guilty on 20 counts of fraud (4 counts of not guilty were found, and 4 counts were dropped). Even though franchisees had signed contracts that stated no guarantees, the court ruled that purchases had been based on Gary Davis's integrity and word, regardless of the wording of the contract.
Though his conviction was appealed, Davis was sent to a low security prison for two years at Castaic. In 1954 upon his release, Davis went on to find success aiding in the development of the Start-O-Car and Dodge-em bumper car amusement park ride in the late 1950s. After retiring to Palm Springs, CA, he eventually opened a small consulting firm called Engineering Associates, he looked for investors to construct a three-wheeled safety vehicle dubbed the Interceptor. The car incorporated a 360-degree rubber bumper. Gary Davis died in 1973 from emphysema and the innovative dream of a three-wheeled Davis Divan reaching production unfortunately died with him.By Jessica Donaldson