Editor’s note: Leslie Kendall is curator and historian at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
While many automobiles are interesting to enthusiasts because they differ in subtle, but desirable ways from thousands of other similar vehicles, others are noteworthy for their highly individual appearance resulting from their designers’ complete disregard for prevailing design and engineering trends. With their aircraft-inspired styling, aluminum body construction, and three-wheel configuration, the cars built by Glen Gary Davis fall squarely into the latter category.
Like Preston Tucker and dozens of other would-be manufacturers during the late 1940s, used car dealer Davis launched an automobile manufacturing enterprise during the strongest sellers market the automotive industry had ever seen. Derived from a prewar design by legendary race car builder Frank Kurtis, the Davis Divan was touted as the car of the future. Its single front wheel enabled it to make incredibly tight turns and its bullet-like shape was said to penetrate the air with great efficiency.
Convinced that his car would capture the enthusiasm of the motoring public, Davis raised enough money to establish a Davis automobile pilot production facility at a hangar at the Van Nuys airport and cars began to trickle out. Promotional literature claimed up to 50-miles-per-gallon fuel economy and a 100 mph top speed for a price of just $995. The press was eager and hopeful, but material shortages, a severe lack of capital, and other problems prevented Davis from realizing his dream of mass-producing his car.
Employees desiring back wages, investors, and impatient would-be dealers and buyers who had put deposits on cars they never received brought legal action against Davis. Though convicted of fraud and imprisoned, Davis steadfastly maintained his innocence for the remainder of his life.
Although sources report that 17 Davis vehicles were built before production was halted, just 13 passenger cars and two “jeeps” have been accounted for. Bearing serial number 482E49, the Petersen Automotive Museum’s 1948 Davis is the fourth passenger car built and one of very few with a continuous ownership history. Amazingly, it has never been modified and retains its original 60-horsepower Hercules four-cylinder engine, Ford transmission, and removable hardtop.
Driving the Davis is a memorable experience not because of its performance and handling — which are appalling — but because of its ability to attract the attention of motorists and pedestrians in a way that even a Ferrari or Duesenberg cannot. A Davis today proclaims one’s individuality in the same way that it did more than half a century ago.
Davis’ innovations speak volumes about his valiant effort against enormous odds and our automotive landscape is richer because of him.