Meet the Man Who All But Invented Serious Car Spy Photography ""

By | December 27, 2017

Meet the Man Who All But Invented Serious Car Spy Photography

From the December 2017 issue

Jim Dunne modestly dismisses the idea that he is the father of automotive spy photography, noting that various newspapers in the 1950s had printed snapshots of development prototypes from time to time before he elevated the game to a professional level. But in 1964, Dunne and modern spy photography got serious.

Employed at the time by Popular Science as its Detroit editor, Dunne had been augmenting his reports with photography of new cars as they were rolled out at official press previews. Dunne’s shots of the second-generation Chevy Corvair were different; they were snapped from a covert vantage point overlooking the fence of the secured General Motors proving grounds in Milford, Michigan—a hideout later dubbed Dunne’s Grove. The car was months away from its public reveal.

Dunne sent the shot to his Pop Sci editor and waited for a reaction. The editor wrote back: “Jim, it’s electrifying. Can you send us more?”

Dunne was off and running. During his career with Pop Sci and later with Popular Mechanics, he expanded his client list and range of lurks. From standing hip deep in snow near Bemidji, Minnesota, in the middle of winter to enduring triple-digit heat in the Arizona desert, Dunne chased engineering drives and prototypes with dogged determination. To make his life a little easier, he acquired a parcel of land abutting Chrysler’s Arizona proving grounds with a convenient view of the test track. It took a while before Chrysler caught on and erected a fence.

Since trespassing is against the law, if Dunne was confronted while working his camera in a place he couldn’t legally shoot from, he avoided arrest by beating a hasty retreat. Dunne admits that he received occasional tips from carmakers as to where certain cars might be. But the tips were rare. Within the industry’s public-relations operations, he was regarded as a sort of charming nuisance, tolerated but somewhat less than revered. GM captured the nature of this relationship with a jokey “Wanted” poster of him in the ’80s.

While spy photography was always a professional sideline for Dunne—he never thought of leaving his day job as an editor—it became an exceptionally lucrative one. Dunne claims his extracurricular snapshots helped him put his seven kids through college.

It’s rare for any successful new enterprise to continue as the sole province of its creator, and spy photography was no exception. After a few years, Dunne found himself surrounded by competition. And today, a smartphone makes anyone an amateur spy photographer. Now retired, Dunne, who turns 86 this month, still gives his cameras occasional workouts. But his days of hiding behind bushes, climbing trees, and being harassed by security guards are behind him.

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

Shooting prototypes requires the patience to wait in the cold and heat. Dunne’s reward for spotting a disguised 1984 Corvette outside GM’s Milford proving grounds was our June ’81 cover. Here’s some of the big game nabbed by Dunne:

1984 Chevrolet Corvette

1984 Chevrolet Corvette

1997 Jaguar XK8

1997 Jaguar XK8

2004 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren

2004 Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren

2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe

2015 Cadillac ATS Coupe



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