Desert, tundra braved for 'spy' photo of cars

DEARBORN, MICH. — DEARBORN, Mich. -- Jim Dunne slams on the brakes, U-turns his white Chevrolet and takes off in pursuit of a truck carrying Ford's newest weapon against General Motors.

Mr. Dunne's mission: hunt down and shoot Ford Motor Co.'s new four-door sport-utility vehicle that is being developed for 1996 to take on GM's successful Suburban.


Thanks to Mr. Dunne and a handful of other spy photographers in Europe, many of the cars unveiled at last week's Paris Car Show may not have been as stunningly new as automakers would have liked.

A proliferation of car magazines has made shots of future models a lucrative business, particularly in Europe. A snap of a new model can fetch a few thousand dollars in the United States. Catch Mercedes-Benz's 1995 replacement for the E-class, and some European magazines could offer $6,000 or more.


"I can get from $150 to $1,000 for a picture, depending on the car and how good the shot is," Mr. Dunne said, adding that a "clean" shot, or one of a future model without any camouflage, fetches more.

"I get about $3,000 for a cover shot if it's really good," he said.

Mr. Dunne, at 62 perhaps the auto industry's top veteran "spy" photographer, has the dubious distinction of having a wall named after him. The wall, surrounding Chrysler Corp.'s test track, was erected expressly to keep Mr. Dunne and his ilk from sneaking photos of new models before they're formally released.

Mr. Dunne, who writes for Popular Mechanics, gives his magazine first crack at any pictures he gets. But while his spy activities are a sidelight, he doesn't dispute he can earn up to $40,000 a year selling his pictures to other publications.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Mr. Dunne and German photographer Hans Lehmann almost single-handedly supplied worldwide demand.

As Europe developed, Mr. Lehmann added assistant photographers, and now he has competition from France's Abaca press agency and staff photographers at Germany's Auto Bild.

"Lehmann is the pope in this business," said an Abaca photographer who, like most of his colleagues, prefers anonymity. "But demand is there for others to specialize in this, too, although I also shoot famous people to make a living."

Mr. Lehmann declined to be interviewed.


"The last thing he needs is publicity," said his wife, Christina, who acts as his agent.

A low profile can be a big help in the global game, in which automakers use fences, dogs and electronic sensors to fortify the walls that encircle their test tracks.

As a result, photographers often stalk their prey in Death Valley or the Canadian tundra, where carmakers go to test their cars under extreme weather conditions.

"Even foreign automakers love to test here because the U.S. has terrific weather for it," Mr. Dunne said. "They also like long U.S. roads where one can drive for hours on end at a steady speed for emissions testing. And there's good hotels and service here."

German automaker Mercedes-Benz AG will often rent hotels in an area for a month or more while testing new models, he said. Acting on tips, photographers try to get to the desert or tundra first, sometimes camping out for weeks, waiting for their prey.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," said Christophe Bonnaud, an editor at France's L'Auto-Journal, who awaits spy pictures before going out and getting the facts on the cars.


Less trying for spies is to lurk around research and test centers, as Mr. Dunne does.

Dressed in a business suit -- "it's the best disguise because no one questions you," he said -- Mr. Dunne was prowling recently through Dearborn in his 1989 Chevrolet Caprice sedan.

At his side is a satchel with a Nikon 8008 with a 35- to 105-millimeter zoom lens, an automatic zoom, a 500 mm telephoto lens and a "doubler" that converts it to 1,000 mm in a flash.

"If I get a good picture once every two weeks I'm happy," Mr. Dunne says as he keeps one eye on the road and another peeled on Ford's myriad parking lots, mostly full of current-model Fords in various states of emissions or durability testing.

"Protect our sources"

The cars often have vinyl "bras" around the front and rear in order to not be too revealing, but with the latest computerized imaging, auto spies now have the capability to "enhance" a photo of a future vehicle, even to the point of removing any camouflage or actually grafting two cars together.


"We'll often change the color and license plate of the car to protect our sources," said Agnes Lasbarreres, photo editor at Auto Plus, a weekly owned by Germany's Axel Springer Verlag AG.

Carmakers don't like seeing their secret progeny revealed ahead of time.

If the car is about be rolled out with hoopla, a "scoop shot" tips consumers that a replacement to a model they're looking at is in the offing, and may ward off some buyers.

If the picture is of a model slated for two or three years down the road, competitors can counterattack. Just that happened when the first pictures of Chrysler's LH cars were published.

Charles Jordan, head of GM's design staff at the time, hung them up on the studio wall and told his designers that this was the shape of things to come, according to one Chrysler insider.

"Maybe that's why some new cars look similar," Mr. Dunne said. "They seem to share a central design theme."


But not too good

Although amateur photographers increasingly are aware of the market and keep a keen eye out for new cars, most magazine photos are taken by professionals. However, even professionals have to make their shots look slightly amateur.

"If the picture is too clean, readers think it's just a normal picture," said Auto Plus' Mr. Lasbarreres. "It's better with a tree branch, or a slight blur."

Best of all are models with worldwide appeal, such as the Mercedes E-class replacement or 1997 Chevrolet Corvette, the first all-new Corvette design for in 13 years.

"I was told by one magazine that they would kill for a shot of the new Corvette [in the early 1980s]," Mr. Dunne said, savoring the memory like a war veteran, "and I was able to deliver."