Photos courtesy Steve Buggy.
For now, it might very well be a “dirty car that looks like an old shoe,” but the 1947 Davis three-wheeler prototype that just hit the market may be the most significant remnant of one of the more audacious automotive con jobs of the postwar era.
In the late Forties, Gary Davis lived high on the hog. His new automotive company paid him $1,000 a week, enough for a house in the hills, for his wife to wear a mink coat, and for him to afford multiple luxury cars. He posed opposite a Hollywood starlet from one of his Davis three-wheelers, he had one grace the holiday displays of high-end department stores, and he even drove one in the 1948 Rose Bowl parade.
Except it was all an illusion. The cars he’d promised his investors and franchisees never showed up, and he never paid his employees the double wages he’d swore they’d make once production began in earnest. Davis claimed in an interview decades later that he’d only sold the right to sell cars, not the actual cars itself, but one car in particular (not to mention his actual conviction for fraud and two-year prison term) shoots holes all through Davis’s excuse because that one car, painted different colors at different times, served all the roles mentioned a paragraph above.
In fact, Steve Buggy, the owner of that prototype Davis, which early on earned the nickname “Baby,” said he believes that at least part of Baby’s chassis came from the Californian – the 1945 three-wheeler that Frank Kurtis built for Joel Thorne and that Davis “borrowed” from Thorne only to wreck it and subsequently convince Thorne to sell to him for $50.
“He made it disappear and later all these other Davises show up,” Buggy said. Indeed, as Jim Donnelly wrote in the April 2005 issue of Hemmings Classic Car, Davis never once mentioned Kurtis, Thorne, or the Californian during his 1947-1948 publicity blitz for the Davis. Instead, he managed to get his name in newsreels and on the tongues of Americans already dreaming of the jet age and eager for their first postwar car.
Whether Davis ever intended to build the tens of thousands of three-wheelers he promised is unlikely, but the designers, engineers, and metalworkers who he enlisted to work for him did turn out two prototypes, 11 production cars (most of which had suspiciously large and hardly serialized serial numbers) and three military jeep prototypes, and they did refine the design of the car, particularly its chassis, for production efficiency.
Baby, on the other hand, used a tubular space frame atop which its body panels were bolted or welded as well as a front suspension fork welded together from multiple pieces. A Hercules four-cylinder engine powered it rather than the more ubiquitous Continental in later cars. It wore no badges or even a serial number.
The prototype never sold, and in the court-ordered liquidation of the Davis company, Baby went to a Chicago-area investor as a sort of make-good for the money lost to Gary Davis. No record appears to exist of it from then until it showed up in 1965 on a used car lot in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. A collector of oddities then bought it and kept it beside a Tucker in his yard in Milwaukee until sometime in the late Seventies or early Eighties, when he sold it to another collector in Argyle, Wisconsin.
Buggy, who grew up in the Milwaukee area, said he recalls seeing the Davis and the Tucker as a youth and, with that memory sticking with him, he later tracked down both the Milwaukee- and Argyle-based owners of the car. Not until five or six years ago, he said, did he convince the latter to sell the Davis to him.
Since then, Buggy has documented Baby in particular and the Davis in general, “but I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never done anything with it. I’ve never even tried to fire it up.”
Of the 13 Davis cars built, all but one still exist, according to the Davis Registry, though Baby is one of several that have yet to be restored. Baby has been listed on Hemmings.com for an undisclosed price.