Detroit. Kenosha. South Bend. Van Nuys? Maybe the latter doesn’t seem like a car-making town, but it was. For a brief two years, Van Nuys, CA, was home to the Davis, a three-wheeled automobile-cum-sofa.
The Davis story starts with a man named Frank Kurtis, an erstwhile racing car designer and builder of “The Californian” , a three-wheeled roadster commissioned by Southern California racer and banking heir Joel Thorne. It was this car that inspired former Indiana used-car salesman Glen Gordon Davis to create a namesake convertible that would incorporate many features of The Californian.
After moving to Southern California in 1945, Davis purchased the car from Thorne, paying just $50 for it. After purchasing The Californian, Davis hired a group of engineers to reverse-engineer it. Eventually they built a quarter-scale model of the car, which they then photographed for a July 1947 Hollywood News Citizen story, in which they claimed to be able to produce 50 of the cars a day. Later that year, Davis formally created Davis Motorcar Company with a $2,500 investment from the Bendix family; ever conscious of his name and his project’s image, he had borrowed local designer Raymond Loewy’s office to make his successful pitch to Bendix for support.
A former aircraft factory was acquired to house an assembly line, and Davis began cranking out prototypes. The first two-door prototype (“Baby”) had one 15-inch wheel up front and two 15-inch driven wheels out back. Power (such that it was) came from a 47 hp Hercules L-head four-cylinder engine (production cars used a 63 hp, 2.7-liter Continental four) mated to a Borg-Warner three-speed manual. A removable fiberglass hardtop completed the (projected) $995 package.
(To capitalize) on the booming post-World War II American car market, Davis obtained significant coverage for his new car in prominent magazines such as Business Week, Life, and Parade as well as in a period newsreel and a syndicated television crime drama, The Cases of Eddie Drake.
A public introduction was held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in November 1947; During the event, Davis had four American Airlines stewardesses hired for the occasion sit side-by-side across the car’s single bench seat to demonstrate its ability to carry four adults. For additional promotion, “Baby” was repainted and displayed in a Philadelphia department store for the holiday shopping season, after which it was repainted once more in preparation for participating in Pasadena’s Rose Parade before the 1948 Rose Bowl.1
Thanks to a massive publicity effort, which included a nationwide promotional tour featuring The Californian, Davis was able to raise in excess of $1,200,000 from 350 prospective Davis dealers, which allowed the company to finance a nationwide promotional trip, during which Davis touted the Divan as “the ultimate car of the future”.
The production Davis Divan measured 183.5 inches in length with a wheelbase of 109.5 inches–unusually long for a three-wheeled vehicle. Height was five feet even, and weight was 2,450 pounds without the removable hardtop in place. Width was 72 inches, wide enough for a single bench seat that sat four passengers abreast. The steam iron-shaped body featured 11 body panels made of aluminum and zinc; also on board were 15-inch wheels, disc brakes, and hidden headlights. The finished car boasted jacks built into each of its corners, which allowed for easier tire changes.
Davis Divans were soon in the news, and were often featured in periodicals and newspapers. More franchise agreements were signed, yet Davis had oversold and underfinanced his futuristic aluminum-bodied car. Worried investors soon began demanding a return on their investments, and began arriving at the company’s factory unannounced to press the engineers for accurate delivery dates. In early 1949, prospective dealers sued Davis for breach of contract; company employees did likewise later that year, since many of them had not been paid after accepting an offer from Davis that promised them double pay after production began if they worked for free during the pre-production phase.
After a Los Angeles County District Attorney investigation, Davis was convicted on 20 counts of fraud and eight counts of grand theft by a jury in 1951. While the Davis Motorcar Company’s assets were liquidated in order to pay back taxes, Davis himself claimed that he could not repay his debts and was instead sentenced to two years at a “work farm” labor camp in Castaic, California 2.
Oddly, Davis’s legacy would not be as the father of the Divan, but rather as the creator of the Dodge-’em bumper car, which bore a strong family resemblance to the Divan and became a popular attraction at amusement parks. Davis died, of emphysema, in 1973.
Of the 13 Divans actually produced, 12 are still known to exist, including one in the permanent collection of the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles…
and this tan one, at the Lane Motor Museum in Nashville, TN, that Paul shot when he was there.
1,2 Source: Wikipedia
Great storytelling, Imperialist! Van Nuys residents surely knew it as a car town, as it was also home to a large General Motors factory for decades. Van Nuys Assembly opened in ’47 and produced numerous models, closing when Firebird/Camaro production ended in ’92.
Yes. Now there is a Home Depot in the spot. And a multiplex.
I don’t know why, but from the various pictures I’ve seen of these cars, I always assumed they were: built with fiberglass bodies, were shorter, narrower, and lower slung than the measurements suggest they were. And seating for 4?
I also have to admit that for all the pictures of Davises I’ve seen, I’ve never seen a scruffy looking Davis. Were they all that well built?
Right; these do seem a lot bigger than I imagined. I was picturing something along the lines of a Nash Metropolitan, maybe.
I’ve seen the one at the Lane museum and it is surprisingly large in person.
Definitely interesting but the gentlemen in the promo photo don’t look very comfortable, I imagine the stewardesses had an easier time. I’m also guessing that with a single bench seat the best choice was to have the person with the longest legs do all the driving.
The other question is why a car with a wheelbase that long only has one row. Why seat 4 abreast when it would probably fit 6 better in two rows?
The two in the middle look especially stiff and immobile; maybe they were formed out of plastic for the occasion. Or possibly they’re just mortified. 😉
I know, right? Can’t put your hands anywhere that might touch someone’s thigh…
“Introducing the new, 1947 Mazda 3-ata!”
Nice story on a car I’ve always wanted to sit in. It does look well put together. However, using the word, “erstwhile” to describe Frank Kurtis might be understating his accomplishments juuuust a bit.
Judging by the photo, the 4 fellows fit inside the Davis in the manner of OJ’s hand in that glove. It’s not easy to work a 3-on-the-tree with 3 across seating, let alone 4!
Good point about the shifting; ow. “Sure, Bob, you can sit beside me. Just know that I’ll be punching you in the face every time I change gears.”
72 inches isn’t really all that wide, when you compare it to cars that were seriously broad of beam like the ’60 Mercury, the 1958-60 Lincolns, and some Imperials, that measured 80 inches wide or maybe even a bit more. I’ve gotten four people in the back seat of a ’74 Buick in a pinch, but some of them were kids.
A very interesting read. I remember reading about these from an old issue of Special Interest Autos that I borrowed from a friend’s father in the early 70s. When had our CC meet in Detroit last summer Terry Boyce was at dinner and shared his memory of being there manning the camera when the car rolled on its side while trying for an action picture of the car handling a curve. Before hearing that story I had not thought of the Davis in 40 years or more.
There is apparently a Davis Registry (http://www.suarezweb.com/davis/davislst.htm) and it was Car No. 11 that was rolled in the SIA photo shoot. It was repaired and lives in PA now.
Given my sometimes humbling experience with three-wheel ATVs, the Davis looks frightening to drive at high speed. Davis planned a range of models including a wagon and a pickup…
…plus probably the only ever three-wheel, seven-passenger coupe.
That wagon design looks pretty nice actually. Add 2 proper front wheels and you’d have a winner.
I don’t know what it is about the Davis Divan, but something about it makes me smile every time I see it. I can remember seeing drawings of these things in those old Tad Burness books. I guess because it looks like it has a smile (and not that weird perma-grin the Mazda 3 had a couple of years back… Creepy…)?
Jay Leno’s garage spotlights the Davis at the Peterson Museum in this video. https://youtu.be/eCcqQOFayFU
Ever since I cut the cord, I’ve been watching more and more of his content on YouTube; I think this is one of the best episodes he’s done. And I really do smile every time this car is on camera.
The headlights on these look a lot like torpedo tube doors; I sense a possible collaborative effort with Amphicar.
So what about the Davis that Wayne Carini featured a few years back, with the Ford V8 motor. Was this another factory prototype or the Hercules car with a later conversion ?
Kurtis’ original Californian that the Davis was based on had a Mercury flathead V8
I saw the green one (and a Davis military vehicle!) at the Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti, MI several years ago.
I have no idea how they drive, but i think they look cool.
Back in the day, one of the rationales of a three wheeler was less chassis flex when going over a bump. Hit a bump and you always had two wheels, in a straight line, on the ground. Do the same on a four wheeled vehicle, and you had three wheels on the ground, not in a straight line, thus you’d get a lot of chassis flex.
With today’s unibody cars, that doesn’t seem like much of an issue, but it was back then.
I wonder why it had three wheels in the first place? Today some small electric cars like the stillborn Aptera and the newly funded Arcimoto are three-wheelers to avoid all the federal regulations and testing required of four-wheeled cars. But there were no such laws in 1948.
Because… the future, Mike.
I too get a lot of my entertainment from U tube. I first saw this car in the TV series that the author mentioned, The Cases of Eddie Drake a few years ago. I thought I was seeing things at first, but went to Google and found out about them. The Muntz I knew about but the Davis no. Good to find it written up here.
A few more related images (thanks, eBay):
And this sedan-delivery drawing:
Lastly (August 1950):
Excellent post on a car I knew very little about. Has a tinge of Tucker in the storyline, doesn’t it? Except Tucker was acquitted…
This site is so educational! Four abreast seating is quite odd, and three-wheelers don’t really make the grade in the US, do they? Also, isn’t a “Divan” a type of bed? Why would you name a car that?
I believe a divan is a kind of sofa, though I agree that it’s an odd choice of name for a vehicle. “Divan! The car with the driving excitement of your living-room couch!”
My shack was in Van Nuys and one of the distributors I worked with for my job was on the complex site where the Davis was built.
People stored their small personal one seat planes in the lots there, still.
That always made the trip there to do business kind of special.
In addition to our tan one, the museum has just purchased “Baby”, the unrestored prototype. We’re excited at Lane Motor Museum to soon have the largest Davis Divan collection in the world. 🙂