December’s Cars From the Vault vehicle has its origins in the hands of last month’s Miller-Ross Page Special, namely Frank Kurtis, the guy who designed/metalcrafted them both. Despite who crafted them, the two cars couldn’t be more different, one built for Indy and the other built as a one-of-kind roadster for a gentleman racer named Joel Thorne. The later was dubbed the “Californian” and driven around the Los Angeles area during WWII years by Thorne.
Next enter Glenn Gordon “Gary” Davis who had a run in with Thorne and ended up walking away with his "Californian". In the years just after the war, demand for new vehicles was high and the “space age” was dawning. Davis got stars in his eyes and decided the Californian was his ticket into auto manufacturing. Envisioning it as the car of the future - chock full of safety features and touted for economy – Davis planned on revolutionizing American’s ideas about automobiles.
Image at left courtesy of Petersen Automotive Museum | Photo at right courtesy of Davis Registry
Petersen Museum curator, Leslie Kendall tells it, “The whole thing was supposed to be really revolutionary. Keep in mind that WWII just ended and everybody was looking to the sky for inspiration – and that car resembled a jet.”
With all-aluminum construction, disc-type brakes, hidden headlights, a removable hardtop, and the 4 abreast seating which the “Divan” name came from…oh, and of course who can miss three wheels instead of four!
The Davis’s three wheels were supposed to give better fuel economy, more stability, less money spent on tires, and a great turning radius. While it does indeed "turn on a dime," or about 15 feet, its safety and stability are highly questionable.
Davis, a used-car salesman, called the Divan the “Car of Tomorrow “ and churned up a marketing machine and started taking on investors and dealers. A factory was borne in a deserted aviation hanger at the Van Nuys Airport and eventually production began.
As so many car companies that tried to hatch themselves during the post-war years, the Davis Motor Car Company stopped short of their goal. Too many un-met commitments and not enough resources to pull the deal off, Davis Motor Car Company was shut down in 1949 and Gary Davis was later found guilty of fraud, serving two years in a state penitentiary. Afterwards Davis had a helping hand in re-designing a Dodgem bumper car, which has a clear resemblance to the Divan.
Only 17 Davis Divans were ever made, and Petersen Automotive Museum’s survivor features the original 4-banger engine…
…which you’ll have to look far enough under the hood for! Many of the components from the car would have been taken from available manufactured parts of the day, rather than made from scratch in the Davis Motor Car factory.
It’s headlight doors differ from the pop-up hidden headlights that we’re used to seeing. These doors articulate inward to reveal set-back headlights – I don’t think I’d want to depend on these lighting my way down a dark road!
Regardless of the company’s demise, the Davis Divan was a good attempt at being different and thinking outside the box. Something that Mr.Kendall notes in an article for the museum’s quarterly publication, “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.”
At any rate, the Davis is currently on view during the Petersen Automotive Museum’s vault tour and is a great snapshot into our collective automotive history.
Photos: Tim Sutton | Words: Kristin Cline