Remembering Car Spy Photographer Jim Dunne Michelle Krebs, director of automotive relations for AutoTrader.com, tells NPR's Scott Simon about her late friend, automotive spy photographer Jim Dunne.
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Remembering Car Spy Photographer Jim Dunne

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Remembering Car Spy Photographer Jim Dunne

Remembering Car Spy Photographer Jim Dunne

Remembering Car Spy Photographer Jim Dunne

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Michelle Krebs, director of automotive relations for AutoTrader.com, tells NPR's Scott Simon about her late friend, automotive spy photographer Jim Dunne.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

You could find Jim Dunne slinking around Death Valley in peak heat, perched on a tree limb in Milford, Mich., or shooting through chain-link fences and barbed wire in Arizona. Jim Dunne is credited with maybe inventing the art and business of automotive spy photography. He died this week at the age of 87.

Michelle Krebs, his friend and director of automotive relations for AutoTrader.com, joins us from studios of WDET in Detroit. Thanks so much for being with us.

MICHELLE KREBS: Oh, well, thank you for letting me talk about Jim.

SIMON: Well, how did he get into this line of business - spy photography in the auto industry?

KREBS: Well, like many of us, it was a lot of things that came together. He was in reconnaissance in the Army in the '50s. He got his degree in industrial engineering here at Wayne State University. And then he had seven kids he had to put through college.

And so he invented this thing called spy photography. He realized that he needed a competitive edge against different magazines. He was at Popular Science and then Popular Mechanics. And he thought maybe taking pictures of these cars that the automakers don't want me to take pictures of would be a business.

SIMON: What are some of the things he'd do to gain access, as they say these days?

KREBS: Well, one of the amazing ones was that he would dress up with a short-sleeved white shirt, a skinny black tie, a pocket protector and a (laughter) - and a clipboard and just march into the Chrysler plant, where he knew that they had secret models hidden inside - out in the back part of the plant. And he could take pictures of them there.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. And people fell for that 'cause he was so convincing.

KREBS: They fell for it. He almost got caught one time.

SIMON: What happened? Do you know that story?

KREBS: Yes, I do. So he - as he tells it, the suits spotted him and approached him. And he said - he didn't lie or anything, but he said, I'm from the publications down the street, and I'm in a rush. I got to go. And they said, oh, good thing 'cause last week, we had someone in, and they took photos of the vehicles out back.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. I understand he briefly became a land baron in Arizona to get a good shot.

KREBS: That's a great story. So Chrysler's proving ground was out in Arizona. And he noticed that there was this little jut of property that wasn't Chrysler's, but it was for sale. So for $24,000, he bought that piece of property so he could...

SIMON: (Laughter).

KREBS: ...Take photographs of all the cars going by on the Chrysler test track. I mean, he called it the ranchette (ph), and we had a wonderful time hearing those stories.

The best part is - well, obviously, Chrysler was onto him after a while and put up the fence. But then the Great Recession hit. Chrysler had to sell that - had a great offer. I think at the time it was the biggest land deal in Arizona history. And they bought the property, as well as Jim Dunne's property. And he made almost $600,000 on it.

SIMON: Oh, mercy - and was generous with the proceeds, I gather.

KREBS: He was. As - I don't think many people know, but he donated it.

SIMON: Yeah.

KREBS: Much of it.

SIMON: To a convent.

KREBS: To his sister's convent.

SIMON: I gather Jim Dunne was a great father.

KREBS: He was a great father. And - yes. And he has two sons that are in the automotive business. And yeah, he was a terrific father and a wonderful grandfather as well and a great friend.

SIMON: Yeah. You're going to miss him.

KREBS: I'm going to miss him. I'm going to miss - he also was wonderful for - he held lunches at some of Detroit's divier (ph) places. And you know, I'm going to miss when he'd call up and say, hey, we're meeting at Buddy's Pizza (ph) at 12:15. Be there. I wish I'd said yes more often.

SIMON: Michelle Krebs, a friend and colleague of the late automotive spy photographer Jim Dunne - not a job title you run into a lot. Thanks so much for being with us.

KREBS: Thank you for letting me talk about Jim.

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