Pioneer of Automotive Spy Photography Jim Dunne Dies at 87

Dunne reportedly had spots on proving grounds named after him and "wanted" posters up in the security offices of multiple OEMs.

Jim Dunne, the man widely credited with popularizing the concept of automotive spy photos, died on Monday at the age of 87. 

If you’re a regular reader of The Drive and outlets like it, you’ll likely be plenty familiar of what spy shots are all about. Manufacturers working on future product don’t want the public to know what those products will look like but have to test them in real-world environments so they’re covered up in cladding or an eye-scrambling wrap. The mission of the spy photographer is to get photographs of these test mules and sell them to automotive media outlets like ours so we can pontificate about what the car underneath might be. 

In the case of Jim Dunne, he had a notable relationship with General Motors in particular, having been known to sit on a hill overlooking the company’s Milford Proving Ground in Michigan waiting for passing prototype cars. That specific spot was apparently known as “Dunne’s Grove” to GM security staff. Dunne was the man who delivered shots of then-yet-to-be-revealed cars like the C5 Corvette to the media before anyone outside of GM’s garden walls were supposed to see it. 

In a video he appeared in for LeftLaneNews several years ago, Dunne said, “I know the [GM] Milford Proving Ground quite well. I’ve told drivers in the past when you drive down the north-south straightaway, please smile because your picture will probably be taken.”

Other Jim Dunne stories include him buying up a piece of land adjacent to Chrysler’s Arizona desert proving grounds and “wanted” posters of Dunne being posted in the security offices of multiple OEMs. In addition to the photographic escapades, Dunne also worked as an automotive journalist writing for both Popular Science and Popular Mechanics while continuing to deliver valuable spy shots to a wide swath of auto publications.

While Dunne retired just as cameras started appearing in the pockets of absolutely everybody, his legacy lives on. Today, spy shots are an integral part of automotive journalism, media, and PR with entire YouTube channels dedicated to spotting pre-production performance cars being tested on the Nurburgring and manufacturers finally resorting to publishing “spy” shots of their own.

R.I.P., Mr. Dunne.