Auto Spies

For car mags and web sites eager to get the goods on the latest models, espionage is the name of the game
| By Paul A. Eisenstein | From 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.

For spy photographers, some of the best shots seem to come along almost by accident—Dunne snapped pics of the newest Corvette when a fleet of them drove by and stopped at a light. Still, being a successful spy photographer isn't easy. "The competition is extra tough because we all go to the same places," Priddy laments. So the photographers who consistently score big are those with a ready supply of patience, gut instinct, luck and good connections. Like a scene from a film noir, a call will come in: be at a particular intersection just before nine. If all goes right, you'll have a couple hours to get there, and a few seconds to snap off a burst of shots. If it doesn't, you'll burn, or freeze or soak your butt waiting and waiting, all for nothing. "You're out there in the heat or in the freezing cold," says Joe DeMatio, the senior editor in charge of spy photos for Automobile magazine. "I kind of admire the people who do it. They must get a huge feeling of satisfaction for getting the shot."

Priddy recalls receiving a mysterious call from an anonymous source last August just as she was boarding a plane at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The tip sounded convincing enough for her to cancel her flight, jump into her car and drive all the way to Laughlin, Nevada—a 240-mile trip. "All the test cars were there, everyone they told me about," she says, still pleased. Priddy even got the complete story by innocently chatting up a couple folks involved in the testing. They blithely told everything they knew to that housewife from Phoenix.

A battle of wits
To get really early shots of prime products, Dunne has been known to enter the lion's den. He recalls one day when he put on a white dress shirt, slipped in a pocket protector full of pencils, carefully concealed a Minox micro-camera and brazenly charged into one of the design studios at the General Motors Technical Center, in Warren, Michigan. When a security guard challenged him, he put on the face of a taciturn nerd, grunted incoherently and kept walking. In an empty studio, he found what he was looking for, a partially completed concept vehicle. He snapped a few exterior shots, then opened the door and slipped inside. Moving quickly, he wound and snapped the Minox. Then, suddenly, he saw a head pop up in the rearview mirror. Realizing it was one of the company's public relations executives sitting in the backseat, he thought, "Shit, I'm busted." Then he saw another head pop up. A secretary's. Dunne didn't say a word. He shot a few more pics, got out of the car and went home.

Nobody bothered him about those shots, but the automakers aren't always that indifferent. They've been known to try friendly persuasion to keep some shots from getting published, and if that doesn't work, some have reportedly pulled their advertising as a way of punishing magazines. But the publications are usually willing to accept the risks because of the payoffs, says AutoWeek editor Bob Gritzinger. The right spy shot on the cover can sell an awful lot of copies.

That fact isn't lost on the manufacturers. "It can be good publicity," says Ford spokesman Dave Reuter, enhancing the buzz about an upcoming product that might need a little push. Automakers insist they don't tip off the spies, and the photographers are simply shocked, shocked, when asked if they've ever let a car company clue them in. But intentional leaks likely happen regularly (as I myself have discovered on occasion, most recently when a pre-production Thunderbird was conveniently parked directly in front of me just as I drove off Ford's test track in Dearborn, Michigan).

On the whole, though, manufacturers have tightened security. To get into some design studios is now almost as difficult as entering Fort Knox. You'll be scanned and searched and ushered through a one-person security door that can lock down an unauthorized intruder. A couple years back, Dunne was briefly detained when he tried to sneak into a room where GM was holding a consumer clinic. He was eventually released—but not before a cop who recognized his name asked for an autograph.

Nick Twork, now a PR man at Ford, briefly apprenticed for Dunne. At 15, he would bicycle to the GM Proving Grounds, outside Detroit, peering over the security fence and snapping photos as cars went by. The fences have been raised now. And most of the time when cars go off-property, they're wearing sophisticated camouflage designed to make it difficult to figure out what you're seeing in a spy shot. "The car companies love to play games with us," says one longtime photographer who now prefers to represent German-based Lehmann's work in the United States. They'll tape on false headlights, cover over windows—even glue on the nameplate of another manufacturer to keep things confusing. Priddy admits she's also been tripped up by decoys, old cars with light camo used to draw her off while the new models headed off in the other direction.

If all else fails, there's always physical intimidation. When Priddy caught a camouflaged Dodge Durango one day, an engineer chased after her, shoving a camera into her face. She's had engineers block her inside a phone booth she was using for shelter, and spin tires to shower her with stones. "But I'm pretty stubborn," she says with pride, "and I usually wear these people out."

Tools of the trade
Dunne's Second World War—vintage Minox can still earn its keep, but these days, auto spies have gone high-tech. Like most of the competition, Dunne recently traded in his old camera for a new Nikon digital model that is able to snap off 3.5 frames a second. Digital photography "has made it fast and simple," says Lehmann's agent, who asks not to be identified. A photographer can get a shot in the morning, and by noon, he explains, it may be sitting in a client editor's e-mail box. Digital photography has also made it easy to practice the controversial art of "cleaning up" pictures, using programs like Photoshop to "erase" camouflage, or even take shots of older models and project what they might look like in newer form, perhaps taking a sedan and transforming it into a rumored convertible.

"But digital technology has also made it fast and simple for people to steal your work," he adds. Most magazines now host Internet sites, where spy shots are a particularly strong draw, but in the world of spam and viruses, there's also a general disregard for copyrights. Priddy spends several hours a week searching the Web to see if her shots have been pirated, and routinely fires off e-mail demanding that offenders remove her work or pay a royalty. That usually works in the United States and Western Europe, where pirate sites are as likely as not to be run out of a car fan's college dorm. But in other parts of the world, she's usually ignored.

The Internet is proving even more nettlesome for the manufacturers, as General Motors discovered over the Christmas holidays, when pictures of its 500-horsepower Corvette Z06 leaked out. It's routine procedure for manufacturers to hold "long leads" far enough in advance for automotive journalists to accommodate the long production cycle of the monthly magazines. But with increasing frequency, photography that the manufacturers provide is winding up in the hands of "blogs" and other small Web sites that ignore embargo dates. After seeing the Z06 all over the Web, AutoWeek decided that the embargo had been broken and put the shots on its cover. The incident may change the way GM handles media previews in the future, a company official warns.

Yet the automaker had only itself to blame for another leak late last year. It had planned to launch two new versions of its Pontiac G6 model at the Detroit auto show. But several industrious spies found shots of the new coupe and convertible in a brochure that a California dealership was inadvertently handing out. It took only a couple minutes and a scanner, and the shots were all over the Internet.

The ease with which digital photography can turn any amateur into a "spy" has created a competitive nightmare for longtime photographers. "Everyone with a camera seems to be heading out to the Mojave," complains Lehmann's U.S. representative. That, in turn, has held down the sometimes enormous, but usually modest, prices even the best-established shooters can command.

Yet if you ask them, Dunne, Lehmann and Priddy have no intention of hanging up their lenses. If it's not the money, then it's the thrill of the chase, the "gotcha" when they snap that blurry picture of a fast-moving new sports car that the world doesn't yet know about.

Paul A. Eisenstein publishes an automobile magazine on the Internet at