by Bill Vance

The Second World War interruption in automobile production from 1942 to ’45 created a pent-up demand for cars – a dealer’s delight in the immediate post-war years.

This attracted several newcomers to the automobile business. Such names as Tucker, Bobbi Kar (later Keller), Playboy (not to be confused with the earlier Jordan Playboy), and Kaiser-Frazer made their appearance.

While each had its special attributes, by far the most interesting was the Davis, the idea of Glen Davis who established the Davis Motor Car Co. in Van Nuys, California in 1947. The Davis’s unusual feature was that it had only three wheels: one in front and two at the rear.

While never popular, three-wheelers flitted in and out of automotive history. The world’s first recognized motor vehicle, the steam powered artillery wagon built by French engineer Nicholas Cugnot in 1769, had only three wheels. And Karl Benz’s little internal combustion engine powered machine of 1885, accepted as the world’s first practical motor car, was a three-wheeler. Also, the English Morgan became famous for its three-wheelers.

The Davis layout was based on a car constructed by California sports and race car builder Frank Kurtis in about 1941. Glen Davis bought it in 1945 and his engineers used it as the basis for the design of the Davis. Most components would come from outside sources.

A Hercules engine was used first, then replaced by a Continental; both were small, side-valve, four-cylinder units. Located in the front, drive went to the rear wheels through a Ford clutch, transmission and rear axle

The Davis had a conventional channel steel frame, and its single front wheel was mounted on a yoke and suspended on two coil springs, aircraft style, reflecting the Davis engineers’ aircraft industry background. Rear suspension was by semi-elliptic springs, and a built-in hydraulic jack was fitted at each wheel.

The sleek body, also aircraft inspired, was constructed of aluminum because of its light weight, and because it was more readily available than steel at that time.

The headlights hid behind small doors, and by admitting cooling air through a slot under the bumper, a grille could be dispensed with, allowing a smooth, unbroken prow. The removable steel top was claimed to be strong enough to withstand a rollover.

With a wheelbase of 2,743 mm (208 in.) and over-all length of just under 4,877 mm (16 ft), the Davis was no midget. Davis claimed four-abreast seating for the single 1,626 mm (64 in.) wide seat. A seven-passenger plaster mock-up was built and used for publicity shots, but apparently didn’t reach the prototype stage.

The Davis was introduced on November 12, 1947 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. It was enthusiastically received, although with some misgivings about the stability of a three-wheeled vehicle.

Glen Davis enthusiastically demonstrated the Davis’s manoeuvrability and resistance to roll-over by performing spins, slides and fast figure eights. This was confirmed by an outside judge, car tester Tom McCahill of Mechanix Illustrated magazine.

Tom was apparently one of the few writers to drive the Davis, although his August, 1948 “test” seemed to be confined to zipping around inside the factory. It did, however, convince McCahill that the Davis was very stable.

An advantage of the three-wheel layout was that the front wheel could be steered 45 degrees off centre, providing a turning circle of only 7.9 m (26 ft). Parking was a breeze, requiring a space only 305 mm (a foot) longer that the car, making it an ideal urban runabout.

Top speed was claimed to be as high as 187 km/h (116 mph), a figure that McCahill couldn’t accept, opining that 161 (100) was probably closer to the truth. More realistic estimates by the Davis engineers put it at approximately 121 km/h (75 mph).

The claimed 30 to 35 mpg fuel economy was probably realistic, given the small engine and good aerodynamics. The target price of the Davis was to be under $1,000.

The Davis was toured around the country and close to 200 dealers and distributors paid almost $1 million for the privilege of selling it. Alas, it was not to be. Like all upstart auto companies Davis suffered from a lack of capital.

The company struggled through 1948 and into ’49 managing to build a total of 17 Davises before the doors were finally shut in May, 1949.

By this time Glen Davis’s staff was suing him for close to $200,000 in back wages, and there was other litigation concerning his rights to the original Kurtis design.

Although the Davis seemed to have good potential, particularly if the $1,000 priced could have been achieved, the struggle to get up and running was just too great.

It therefore remains a tiny chapter in automotive history, joining the many other nameplates that flashed briefly onto the scene, and then disappeared forever.

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