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Auto Spies

For car mags and web sites eager to get the goods on the latest models, espionage is the name of the game
Paul A. Eisenstein
From the Print Edition:
Morgan Freeman, Mar/Apr 2005

Sitting just over the Nevada border, a gunshot from California's barren Mojave Desert, the Sourdough Tavern has the dank, seedy feel of a Wild West saloon. It's the sort of border barroom where rustlers, wranglers and lawmen alike once would have gathered, gulping down shots of cheap Bourbon and beer, and risked their wages on all-night rounds of poker, watching to see whether the guy on the other side of the table had an ace—or a derringer—hidden up his sleeve. l These days, the risks remain high. If you wander into the Sourdough, you're still likely to be left guessing about the guy at the next table, because the folks that hang out at the old saloon don't often talk about what they're doing there. Oh, they may complain about the heat and they might even discuss politics and religion. But if you really want to get people mad, ask them what brought them to this desolate stretch of sand, rock and asphalt.

You'll get a clue by checking out the walls. Back when patrons rode up to the Sourdough Tavern on horseback, they'd have hung up a buffalo head or steer's horns. These days, they drive, and the furnishings are curiously automotive. There are hubcaps and engine covers, even the remains of a Mercedes-Benz SLK left behind by a couple of former customers with unmistakable German accents. Get too close, and the bartender's likely to blow the horn using a remote control, or squirt water in your face from the windshield washers. That decorative detritus is a good hint as to why the Sourdough is so busy, and what routinely draws such a big crowd to the middle of nowhere.

A sound like thunder echoes off in the distance, faint at first, but soon it's rumbling loudly enough to clink the glasses on the bar. The folks at one particular table look up suddenly, eyes sharp, as they reach for the weapons slung over the backs of their chairs. Jim Dunne, Brenda Priddy and Hans Lehmann dash to the door just in time—not to see a cattle stampede roll by, but a convoy of moving vans, their precious cargo carefully concealed inside. The three race out the door, jump into their cars and, separately, give chase. If they're lucky, this could be the moment they've been waiting weeks for out in the brutal desert heat. In a sense, Dunne, Priddy and Lehmann are modern-day bounty hunters, but they're chasing metal, not outlaws. And their weapons fire film, rather than bullets.

A few weeks later, Dunne is back home in the tony Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe Park. Eager to show his visitor a trophy from that afternoon's hunt, he plops down behind an out-of-date desktop computer. It's a critical tool of the trade, but at age 73, the onetime Army reconnaissance officer isn't all that fond of technology, not unless it moves on four wheels. "I know I have it somewhere on this damned thing," he grumbles. As he pecks at the keyboard with one hand, the other slides slowly across the top of his bald head, a trademark move that is, for Dunne, the calming alternative to 15 minutes of meditation. "Ah, there it is," he proclaims proudly. Another click on the mouse and an image pops onto the screen. It's a slightly blurry shot of a new Cadillac, the 440-horsepower STS-v that General Motors was planning to reveal at the upcoming Detroit auto show. But Dunne has his own timetable, and within a matter of days, pictures of the sedan will start showing up in the various publications for which he freelances as well as in Popular Mechanics, where he's a full-time staff member.

Dunne is one of a small legion of automotive paparazzi who shoot spy shots of tomorrow's cars and trucks. He's also a member of an even smaller group who make a serious living out of their efforts, his fees helping put seven now-grown children through college.

Like so many of his colleagues-cum-competitors, Dunne got into this curious business almost by accident, using a borrowed 35mm camera to snap shots of an unreleased model that happened to drive by. He mailed the prints to a New York magazine, not sure if he'd even get a reply. "Jim, the pictures are electrifying," the publisher wrote back. "Send more." The words were encouraging, and so was the check that accompanied the note.

On the prowl
Until a few years ago, Brenda Priddy would have listed "housewife" as her occupation, but these days she's one of Dunne's toughest competitors. A dozen years ago, she innocently snapped a picture of the next-generation Mustang, a coup her auto enthusiast husband, John, immediately recognized. Like Dunne, the Priddys were stunned when Automobile magazine offered "a lot of money" for the rights to publish the shots. As one local paper noted in a profile, Priddy, now 45, was "the mother with the babies in the back seat who beat out the pros."

The babies are grown up these days, though her son occasionally comes along to help out. It takes youthful energy to keep up with Priddy, a woman in near perpetual motion. You'll occasionally find her at auto shows and press previews, but more often, Priddy is off on her own, quietly fading like a chameleon into the environment in one of the many places she's discovered where automakers like to test future products.

Various proving grounds are scattered around the United States and abroad. Some are winter driving centers, located in northern retreats, such as Arvidsjaur, Sweden, and Michigan's Sault Ste. Marie. Lehmann, 65, who got into the trade with pictures of a VW Beetle, in 1963, often frequents these cold-weather sites. He moves around on snowshoes or by snowmobile, wearing high-tech clothing over his long johns to protect against frostbite, using pocket heaters and Styrofoam wrappers to prevent his camera from freezing, as he says, "into complete malfunction."

Priddy, on the other hand, prefers warm-weather locales. Based in Phoenix, she has purchased a small apartment near the Mojave, where she spends several months each year. It's a good venue because numerous automakers set up camp there to conduct hot-weather testing, mercilessly racing prototypes up and down the sizzling tarmac to see how they hold up. After a day's testing, the engineers usually retreat to the Sourdough, where they're likely to share a beer with the spies—as long as no one turns the subject to work.

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