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He's king of Motor City's paparazzi

Jim Dunne, spy photographer, is perched in his Chevy sedan above a test track where General Motors Corp. puts its latest prototype cars through the paces. He is quiet, a hunter waiting for his prey.

For secrecy, the track is surrounded by a formidable wall topped with barbed wire. But Dunne, 60, has a few favorite spots like this hilltop, where his long lenses can catch a glimpse of the autos of the future.

A small white car zips through a curve _ then disappears _ all in barely more than a flash. Dunne misses the shot.

"Damn, there he goes," shouts Dunne, gunning the '89 Caprice into a series of sharp turns outside the track, tires squealing. He stops a minute later at another "hot spot" where he hopes the car will reveal itself again.

"Let's see what that little guy is," says Dunne, a 25-year veteran of this cat-and-mouse game. "It looks like a Trofeo."

But the white car is nowhere to be found. Instead, a red Buick sedan drives slowly by Dunne's car, the driver talking on a cellular phone. GM security. The Motor City paparazzi has been spotted. It's time to move on.

"There's always another day," Dunne says with a shrug.

Adrenaline-fueled chases and run-ins with security are all in a day's work for Dunne, who is Detroit editor for Popular Mechanics magazine and dean of a small cadre of Motown's spy photographers.

Dunne likes to say he is first a writer. He has written an automotive column for 30 years. Dunne says he's not a "car buff," that he likes to "write for people who see cars as something to get you from Point A to Point B."

Yet Dunne concedes his reputation is not for the columns or the local radio show on cars he hosts, but for stalking new car designs with his powerful lenses.

"I take some fuzzy pictures, and I'm a celebrity," he says.

The level of interest among the public in new cars varies from year to year and model to model. This month marks the beginning of the 1993 model year. But hobbyists have a steady demand for the latest designs, which they seek out in the pages of Popular Mechanics and the so-called "buff" magazines like Automobile, Motor Trend and Road & Track.

Spy pictures are notorious for being badly composed and grainy because they are taken from a distance, generally while the cars are moving. But blurry is pretty much the rule even from masters like Dunne and German spy photographer Hans Lehmann.

As a Popular Mechanics staffer, Dunne's obligation is to offer his best pictures first to his employer. But he then can sell them to other magazines, which pay anywhere from $150 to $3,000 for each.

Spy photos can irk the automotive executives, who like to keep new cars under wraps for competitive reasons. The marketing people particularly like keeping new designs secret so they can have splashier unveilings. And dealers don't want anyone to think about 1994 cars until they sell their '93s.

But sometimes, a spy picture can be an effective trial balloon for a novel and potentially controversial design. Or, as in the case of Chrysler Corp.'s LH sedans introduced this fall, a photo from Dunne helped drum up excitement and early demand.

So everyone plays a game, and the effort to conceal cars can seem half-hearted. Cars are disguised by paint, tape, fake panels or vinyl covers called bras, though these diversions do little to obscure designs from trained eyes.

Partially disguised prototypes often are driven on public roads in Michigan and in Arizona, where the auto companies have proving grounds. The cars are easily discovered by well-informed journalists like Dunne.

And once GM caught on to one of Dunne's hiding places outside its Milford site, crews planted 60 evergreens now known as Dunne's Grove. Yet the foliage has only diminished _ not eliminated _ the value of the vantage point.

Dunne is a native of Detroit. He graduated from the University of Detroit with an industrial management degree and became a technical writer for Chrysler's aerospace division. He soon got a job with an automotive trade magazine.

"I couldn't stand anyone beating me to a story," Dunne says. "It really grinds you. So I thought, "How can I have news everyone else will be carrying three years from now?' It satisfies my competitive nature."

Dunne is tall and lean, with an intense gaze. His short-cropped white hair is thinning. He looks like a Detroit bigwig, and he knows it. Dunne's typical disguise is a dark suit and tie with a starched dress shirt.

"We're headed to the ad building," Dunne says sharply to a security guard at Chrysler headquarters in Highland Park, using the accepted abbreviation for the administrative tower. The guard waves him through.

"Intimidation is a technique for me," says Dunne, who is known for his dour manner and acerbic questions at news conferences, in marked contrast with his mostly fawning colleagues.

"He cultivates the image of Jim Dunne, spy photographer," says Thomas J. Kowaleski, Chrysler's manager of product and marketing public relations. "He's a nice guy, but he can be real off-putting, as if to say, "Be wary of me or I'll shoot your cars.'


Kowaleski says if he knows Dunne has spy pictures, he will sometimes release official photos of new Chryslers just to burn the intrepid photographer. "It's sort of a fun thing," Kowaleski says.

Dunne says his most satisfying assignment was capturing the redesigned Chevrolet Corvette for Car and Driver. The magazine had requested the shot. Dunne found the car, then trapped it against a snow bank.

"It was a brilliant winter day, there was lots of light and the car was stopped in its tracks," Dunne says. "They ran it on the cover. That really paid off."

As a pro, he respects a clean defeat. Dunne says he was once outfoxed by a female model when he caught a crew shooting pictures of a new Chevrolet Monte Carlo for an advertising campaign. The woman ripped off her skirt and draped it across the front of the car, making any picture unpublishable on two counts.

Dunne's method of finding cars is to keep moving. He drives into the parking lots outside Big Three design and development complexes, scanning for bras, odd paint jobs or the unfamiliar shape of a prototype.

"The key to fishing is to find out where the fish are," says Dunne, whose other favorite hobby is stalking bluefish and striped bass. "You don't sit still with a pole hoping the fish come along."

When he is stopped, Dunne's policy is to tell the truth _ but he walks a fine line. For example, Dunne once told a security guard he and a colleague were with "publications, downtown."

In a sense, that was true; they represented magazines that have offices in the city. But they were allowed in because it sounded to the guard like they were from the in-house public relations department at headquarters.

Dunne, who is divorced, put seven children through school. "I'm sometimes kidded by the executives, "Haven't your kids graduated yet? Do you still have to take pictures?' "

Dunne infuriated GM executives several years ago when he caught a prototype of the redesigned Caprice Classic. GM executives believed Ford Motor Co. was emboldened by the pictures in pushing ahead with its own Crown Victoria.

Indeed, executives readily admit they conduct industrial espionage by going to the newsstand. At a Chrysler news conference, Dunne asks an executive how effectively the company's minivans could compete against new Ford vans.

Tom Gale, vice president for design at Chrysler and general manager of the minivan program, says he is not concerned about the Ford products. "We checked it out from your pictures," he says.

Sometimes, Dunne says, he gets carried away with the chase. He once was pursuing a Corvette around Death Valley in California, and realized his rented sedan would never keep up.

So Dunne hired a helicopter and flew ahead of the car. He got the shot when the Corvette driver came to see what was kicking up all the sand and dust. "I don't know if I paid off what the helicopter cost," Dunne says. "But boy, was it fun!"