Original Auto Spy Photographer–the Zany World of Jim Dunne

The photographer that virtually invented the art of shooting spy photos of cars not released to the public died this week at 87 years old. Jim Dunne was recognized throughout the world as the leading new-car spy photographer.

For Fun and Profit

We’ve all seen those long-lens shots of vehicles zooming down a dusty desert road with crazy black and white-patterned disguises or velcroed covers. Dunne was usually the one who found and then shot those cars and trucks. While he relished the hunt and discovery, you know that car companies hated finding their closely guarded secrets displayed for all to analyze in the latest enthusiast magazine or online post. 

Cagey, Patient, Adventurous

You have to be cagey, patient, and adventurous to spend your time making money finding things companies do a great job of hiding from the public. Journalists knew they could go to Dunne for a juicy shot of the next-gen Corvette or Mustang zooming along a test track or caught testing in the wilds of Michigan and beyond. 

Here’s nine quick stories about the crazy life of Jim Dunne and his offbeat profession.

Dunne would shoot photos of cars the manufacturers refused to admit they were developing, even when he showed them the photos. 

He was able to purchase property that was actually inside of the Chrysler Arizona proving grounds. Talk about a great perspective for tests being conducted on unseen future cars. It took years before Chrysler figured this out and built a fence to thwart Dunne’s cunning. The photos Dunne sold from that property paid for it many times over. Legend has it he eventually sold it to Chrysler for a handsome profit.

Over 50 years ago at the John R restaurant in Detroit, he started the “Predictions Lunch” where auto journalists came together once a year to make crazy predictions about what would happen in automobile production for the coming year. Mostly it was a goof, but some of those wild predictions actually came true.

Disguised as a Chrysler engineer with narrow tie and pocket protector for his short-sleeved white shirt, Dunne once faked his way into an assembly plant to take shots of pilot models being assembled in supposed secret.

Dunne knew all of the warm, dry places in Detroit allowing him to hunker down and wait for the next unseen model being tested. Buildings backing manufacturers’ test tracks were especially prime to find him paying them a visit. 

In many auto company security shacks there were “Wanted” posters of Dunne because he had the knack of strolling onto company grounds like he worked there, blending into the day-to-day ebb and flow of many companies. He always tried to look like he belonged there from how he dressed to stopping and chatting with people along the way.

During the Korean War Dunn served in the Army as a reconnaissance specialist. This surely must have helped him in his later unconventional profession. After the war he graduated from the University of Detroit. From there he worked as a journalist for Popular Mechanics before doing spy photography full time.

GM named a hill overlooking their Milford Proving Grounds test track after Dunne because GM security would frequently have to chase him away from that spot.

He had seven children, paying for all of their college educations from the spy photos he shot. (He also has 12 grandchildren)