• Jay Leno Reviews 1948 Davis Divan: Video

Do you remember the Davis Divan? That’s okay — neither does anyone else. "Produced" from 1947 to 1949, the Davis was one of many crazy post-war designs intended to feed America’s massively expanding automotive marketplace. Like many others, it relied heavily on war-era engineering and aircraft styling. Unlike most others, though, it had three wheels, seated four abreast on a huge bench seat, and its creator ultimately went to prison for fraud.

You might have heard a similar story before: small car companies in the 1950s were the dot-com startups of their day. A few succeeded, most failed spectacularly, and at least a few saw their owners indicted for defrauding investors. Most notable was Preston Tucker, whose ill-fated Torpedo had three headlights. Used car salesman Glen Gordon "Gary" Davis also favored the number three; as in three wheels and three first names. Additional Davis numbers of note include $1.2 million raised selling dealerships to investors, 20 counts of fraud and grand theft, 16 running cars produced, and two years at a "work farm" labor camp in 1951.

Davis himself maintained his innocence and pure intentions all the way up to his death, and did ultimately wind up doing pretty well in the small auto industry. Very small — his most successful venture was the Dodge ’Em bumper car, which you’ve seem at every amusement park and carnival in your life. In fact, the wrap-around bumpers on bumper cars were inspired largely by the one on Davis’ original automotive ventures — the three-wheeled rolling sofa called "the Divan."

The Car

In this episode of Jay Leno’s garage, Jay introduces us to a car he says was manufacturered five miles from his garage. Indeed, all the way up to 1992, Van Nuys, Los Angeles was a hub of auto manufacturing. The same year Davis went into business in the city, GM opened its own manufacturing plant right down the street. The fact that this plant produced the Impala, Corvair, Monte Carlo, Chevelle,, Firebird and Camaro played a big role in making L.A. a center of automotive culture for 50 years or so.

[...] it spent the majority of its life on a pole in front of an auto body shop.

But Three-First-Names Davis just wanted to make a three-wheeled car.

Culled from the basement of the Petersen Museum in L.A., the Divan Jay introduces today is one of about a dozen surviving examples, and probably the best all-original car. Thanks largely to the fact that it spent the majority of its life on a pole in front of an auto body shop. As Jay says later, "The fact that it runs at all is amazing."

The Petersen Museum on Wilshire Boulevard may have been founded in 1994, but its roots go way back. You might recognize Bob Petersen’s name as the one in the front of every Hot Rod Magazine produced until 2002. He effectively created the car-enthusiast magazine industry, which in turn spawned websites just like the one you’re looking at now. But, thanks largely to websites like this (sorry, Bob), the enthusiast magazine industry isn’t quite what it used to be. Now, the Petersen Museum is doing its best to crowdfund (a very reasonable) $30,000 to restore this incredibly rare three-wheeler.

Specs and Driving

Later in the video, Jay mentions a few interesting tidbits about its specs. It was based on a custom three-wheeled roadster called "The Californian," designed and built by future Indy Car designer Frank Curtis for millionaire racer Joel Thorne. The original car used a Ford flat-head V-8. Jay mentions how the front suspension was based off of WWII aircraft landing gear; specifically, the tricycle nosewheel of a P-38 Lightning.

But hey -- you try sitting on a pole for 50 years. See if you're still firing on all cylinders.

After the war, used-car dealer Davis bought the car from Thorne for a mere $50 — some say after deliberately crashing it during the test drive to drop the price. He enlisted the help of a few engineers to build a 1/4-scale replica, which they photographed. After shopping around, Davis secured a $2,500 investment from the Bendix family — yes, the same one that patented the Bendix drive in your car’s starter. Promising to build 50 cars a day and sell them for $995 each ($10,500 in today’s money), Davis was on his way to starting a car company.

Instead of a flat-head V-8, Davis installed a Continental four-cylinder making 63 horsepower. Continental was kind of the automotive Briggs & Stratton of its day, supplying engines for practically every automobile company that’s ever gone out of business. Today, they make engines for John Deere tractors.

In the video, Jay comments that the engine feels like it’s running on three cylinders, and that the timing feels retarded. But hey — you try sitting on a pole for 50 years. See if you’re still firing on all cylinders.

Davis originally claimed 100 to 116 mph for the Divan, which actually seems pretty reasonable given its size, power and aerodynamics. A lot more reasonable than actually doing 116 mph on a three-wheeled couch, anyway. Speaking of which: The Divan’s name literally means "sofa," a reference to its sort-of four-abreast seating.

[...] you probably wouldn't want to attempt a U-turn at 55 mph.

Questions linger throughout as to how prone the Davis was to flipping over; to be fair, it doesn’t seem Reliant Robin tippy. But you probably wouldn’t want to attempt a U-turn at 55 mph...as Three-Names Davis said the car would do back in 1947. But as Jay notes, that P-38 landing gear in the front does make the Divan an impressively tight turner; "the king of the U-turn," as he calls it. So, who knows? Maybe it would pull a 180 at freeway speeds...nobody’s ever tried. Or survived to tell about it, anyway.

As of right now, this original best of the remaining dozen Divans remains in Petersen’s basement, awaiting the refresh that will make it museum quality and roadworthy. You’ll probably never see another Divan again; but you can enjoy it in this video, contribute to its restoration, or drive around in a bumper car and tell yourself it’s the Divan’s long-lost cousin.

Just stay away from that U-turn.

Richard Rowe
Richard Rowe
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