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Backward Glances - 1949 Davis 494X “Jeep”

Posted in Features on June 30, 2016
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just too interesting to forget. Case in point: the Davis 494X. Never heard of it? It was a reasonably well-executed take on an utterly flawed concept created by a guy who had trouble delivering on his promises. But it was neat!

It all started late in 1945 when a flamboyant SoCal car salesman named Glenn “Gary” Davis acquired a custom three-wheeled car built some years earlier by legendary race car builder Frank Kurtis for an eccentric millionaire. This exotic custom instilled Davis with an unstoppable urge to fill the world with three-wheeled cars, and when Davis was enthusiastic, he was contagious.


How does the old saying go? “Quacks like a duck”? Well, this ain’t no duck! Or a Jeep. The military appearance was strictly to attract military interest. Amazingly, the bodies were designed, built, and assembled in a short period of time. Most sources state these rigs were built by a small crew, including Davis himself, in just a week on already-assembled car chassis. The Davis 494X sits on a 108-inch wheelbase, and the single front tire is suspended with coil springs. The rear uses traditional leaves. The ride is downright plush, even over the dirt roads of the LaPerriere ranch in Sedalia, Colorado. Four Wheeler was able to give the Davis a short test run when these images were shot some years back and there was little to complain about.


Davis soon claimed the Kurtis custom as “his” pilot model to garner interest. By 1947, Davis had corralled some budding engineers to design two new prototypes, got them built, and went into hyper sales mode. In short order, Davis had 300 dealers signed up, a bunch of orders, and more than a million bucks in the bank. However, in 1948 it all fell apart, and the money strangely had evaporated. The factory workers were not being paid. The dealers had not received cars. The government wasn’t getting its cut. Vendors were howling for payment and to hold Davis accountable. It went to court, of course—first in civil court and then criminal. Davis did a couple of years in the pokey for fraud, all the assets of the Davis Motor Car Company were liquidated, and that was that. A total of 18 vehicles had been built, including the two prototypes, but now we are a little ahead of the story.

In 1948, just before the last of the workforce stormed off and as the pitchfork and torch-carrying mobs were assembling outside the factory, Davis built three Jeep-like military vehicles on the standard David three-wheel chassis. No doubt, the hope was a government contract for a small utility rig could save the company. Two of the three rigs, first dubbed the 484X and later the 494X, went off to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in April 1949 for government testing. Some of the test was filmed, and it was comical to watch the three-wheeler try to keep up with an M-38 Jeep in the dirt. All in all, though, the Army was reasonably satisfied with its on-road performance, economy, and utility features. It could do 70 mph, carry up to 900 pounds, got low 20 mpg fuel economy, and used largely standardized components. In theory, it could have made a decent utility rig for around the post, but there just wasn’t a place for it in military livery that couldn’t be filled by something already in production. Further, there wasn’t sufficient justification or motivation to make a place for it. During summer 1949, the two Davis rigs were returned and the other was damaged in a rollover during testing, with a detailed test report and a polite, “no thanks.”


The standard cargo capacity was 750 pounds, about the same as the military Jeep of the day, with an overload capacity of 900 pounds. It had a little more volume capacity than a Jeep due to being a little wider. If Davis had built this more as a pickup and not a jeep-clone, he might have had better luck selling it to the government as a light utility. Many of the economies he touted about “three-wheeling” were plausible, including only having to buy three tires.


Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Davis was facing down an army of creditors, tax agents, and the District Attorney of the County of Los Angeles who had him up for 28 counts of fraud. By the early part of 1950, the Davis company assets had been sold to pay back taxes and Davis was tap-dancing—unsuccessfully in the end—to avoid jail time. There were a number of aborted attempts by Davis and others to restart the company, with one as late as 1968 but they went nowhere. Gary Davis spent his last years in Palm Springs, California, and died there in 1973. The question of whether he was a split-tongued crook or an overenthusiastic visionary has never been settled.

Amazingly, 16 of the known 18 Davis vehicles built are still around, including all three of the 494X “Jeeps” and one of the prototype cars. To weird to scrap, eh? Two of the three 494Xs have been restored. The one you see here is the second military prototype (one of the two that was tested at Aberdeen) and is owned by Fred LaPerriere from Colorado, whose collection of military vehicles is legendary. He purchased it in the ’90s from the family of one of the swindled dealers who won a court case and acquired some of Davis’ assets, which included the Davis as compensation. It was in largely original condition, and Fred restored it to look like it did when under test by the military. It has been frequently exhibited at various military vehicle shows where it never fails to raise eyebrows.

The engine compartment is unrestored and the engine has never been opened up. Small wonder since the mileage was under 10,000 when this was shot. The Continental F4162 was a relative of the Continental Red Seal engine that became the Jeep Super Hurricane six-cylinder in 1954. The four cranked out a modest 62 hp at a low 3200 rpm and was fed by a 1 1/4-inch bore Stromberg one barrel. This was a very popular industrial engine and only recently went out of production.

No, it’s not powered, but it was actually a decent design. There have only been a handful of three-wheel cars produced, and there was only so many ways to do this—this was one of the better ways. The Davis jeep had a turning circle of 12.7 feet, well under the M-38 military Jeep of the day, despite having a 28-inch longer wheelbase. Davis touted the ability for the cars to turn inside their own length. The downside of the single front wheel in soft ground was obvious: it sank! For snow, Davis supplied a ski for the front wheel but it was not tested by the military. That ski came with the Davis and was restored by LaPerriere, but when we saw the vehicle, he hadn’t tried it in snow.

Nothing remarkable here except for the embossed “Davis” in the dash. It’s noticeably wider than a Jeep. The column shift was typical for the era and was the source of some of the Army testers’ complaints for not being robust enough. The seats were the typical military “numbutt specials.” Since these photos were taken, LaPerriere has had a canvas top made. Fortunately, he had the original bows and photographic evidence as a guide.

The Details: ’49 Davis 494X
Owner: Fred LaPerriere
Estimated value: $25,000
Engine: 162ci Continental F4162
Power (hp): 62 @ 3,200
Torque (lb-ft): 122 @ 2,000
Bore & stroke (in): 3.44 x 3.38
Comp. ratio: 5.75:1
Transmission: Three-speed, Warner T96, Column Shift
Transfer case: NA
Front axle: NA
Rear axle: Spicer 23
Axle ratio: 4.10:1
Tires: 6.40-15 Firestone Ground-Grip
L x W x H (in): 156.75 x 65.25 x 59.75
Wheelbase (in): 108
GVW (lbs): 3,030
Curb weight (lbs): 2,280
Fuel capacity (gal): 16
Min. grd. clearance (in): 7.38
Approach angle (deg): 45
Departure angle (deg): 24
Ramp breakover (deg): N/A

Sources

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