Nearly Dunne, never forgotten

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Dunne courtesy Michael Dunne

Forty-eight years in this business has put me in touch with thousands of interesting men and women, only a handful of which became true friends. Jim Dunne, who excelled as both a writer and photographer until his 2006 retirement, tops my shortlist of fellows I’m proud to have met along this long, dusty road.

Now 88 and in failing health, Dunne is universally considered the best spy photographer ever known. While I concur with that assessment, I must add several other accomplishments to his achievements list. With wife Janet, he raised five daughters and two sons. At the end of the Korean War, he served three years in the U.S. Army as a reconnaissance specialist, rising to the rank of E5. After graduating from the University of Detroit in 1958 with a degree in Industrial Engineering, Dunne fearlessly commenced his journalism career on the staff of Popular Mechanics magazine.

An agile leap across the aisle to Popular Science in 1962 (no small feat) joined Dunne’s car evaluation insights with the brilliant engineer and author Jan Norbye. Together the two created the Norbye-Dunne report, the most in-depth car review available to consumers. Well ahead of the mainstream enthusiast books, PS conducted interior noise level measurements with a calibrated sound meter and acceleration and braking measurements using an accurate fifth wheel. Their handling assessments were based on both over-the-road driving and runs through slalom cones and high-speed lane change maneuvers.

Residing in Detroit, Dunne applied his determination and military skills to outfox the limited security measures that existed in the 1960s. One of his first ‘kills’ was the second-generation Chevrolet Corvair shot through perimeter fencing of GM’s Milford, Michigan, proving grounds months before its public introduction for the 1965 model year. The emboldened Dunne soon thereafter waltzed into local Chrysler manufacturing plants like he owned the place to grab spy camera shots with minimal interference. When challenged, he concocted preposterous excuses for his presence, never breaking face.

Dunne soon tracked test cars around the country to capture them on film during hot weather tests in Arizona and winter evaluations in upper Michigan and Minnesota. Eventually catching on to his predatory nature, manufacturers posted ‘wanted’ posters of this mole in their security offices and began dressing their prototypes in camouflage. In truth, that made it easier for Dunne to spot his prey and provided magazine editors with sure-fire cover subjects.

By the early 1980s, Chevy’s third-generation Corvette was long of tooth. Knowing that a radically reengineered C4 model was coming, we at Car and Driver informed Dunne we’d kill for a shot of any legitimate prototype. In the dead of winter, he snared a sleek but radically disguised experimental Corvette two full years before introduction. Combined with our speculative guesses, the resulting June 1981 cover story topped our newsstand sales charts for years.

While visiting Phoenix suburbs to track hot weather test subjects in the 1990s, Dunne added Chrysler’s Wittman, Arizona, proving grounds to his regular recon itinerary. During his visits, his mere presence would bring test traffic to a halt as soon as he was spotted by drivers and security agents. That didn’t inhibit friendly conversations through the chain link fence.

One anomaly Dunne noticed was a jog in Chrysler’s fence line to accommodate a 100×200-foot notch into their property. Investigating through local realtors, he found that this 4.4-acre plot was part of a pending estate sale. Moving fast, Dunne made a buy offer, negotiated a second mortgage on his Detroit-area property to raise the needed funds, and purchased this spit of land for $24,000.

What Dunne called his Arizona ‘Ranchette’ not only provided a 180-degree view of test traffic running within 30 feet of his incursion, it proved to be an astute investment. In 2004, pressed by the crunch of Phoenix land development, Chrysler sold its facilities to move to an ex-Ford hot weather test facility in Yucca, Arizona.  Dunne seized the moment to sell his tiny plot for $574,600, roughly 24 times what he’d paid for the land.

From the day I met him, Dunne’s rare combination of military bearing and sense of humor have always impressed me. When fresh automotive secrets came within our reach, I’ve enjoyed watching him weigh risk versus reward like a battlefield commander. Jim’s color photos brought life to my war stories.

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