Spy vs. Spy

The finer points of getting stealth shots of new automobiles
All photographs courtesy of Brenda Priddy

From James Bond movies and Robert Ludlum thrillers to the doings of controversial WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange, we’re enthralled with spies. And lately, newscasts have focused on the United States’ collection of European phone records, including allegations of listening in on the calls of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Here in Detroit, we’re mad about autos, and scooping the automakers’ next models has been a classic game of cat and mouse. We have a living legend here in Detroit, Jim Dunne. And there’s current spy Brenda Priddy of Chandler, Ariz., who got started in 1992, when she happened upon a 1994 Mustang prototype in an Arizona shopping center. We spoke with Priddy about the current state of the spy game (below) — and also asked former automotive journalist Ed Peabody (who now runs Hour Media’s Custom Publishing division) for his favorite Jim Dunne story (see story on page 2).

Q. Obviously, the legendary Jim Dunne is from the Detroit area. Have you ever had to do battle with him for a spot?

A. Jim Dunne is actually a good friend. We’ve been in the same automobile, shooting the same prototypes — and bickering the entire time. But at the end of the day we’ll share a few beers or a glass of wine and laugh about the adventures of earlier in the day.

Q. What’s the most danger you’ve ever put yourself in to get a shot?

A. Danger? I try to avoid that, but there have been some rock-throwing engineers over the years, and one who pushed my camera into my face and broke my nose. But the worst are the ones who drive on the wrong side of a two-lane mountain road with switchbacks — simply to avoid photos.

Q. You hosted a “spy camp” last July to share some secrets. Are you holding another?

A. Spy Camp was a fun experiment during the 2013 summer test season. Everyone that attended seemed to enjoy the experience. For 2014 I’m debating between another Spy Camp, or possibly — although not in the summer — a People-to-People type excursion to Cuba, focusing on culture, art, and the automobile culture. I just got back from my first trip there, and the experience — still indescribable and overwhelming — was very rewarding.

Q. What’s the most prized shot during your career, at least thus far?

A. I’ve been doing this for more than 22 years now. Sometimes the cars and photos are one big blur — especially when asked what my biggest score was. I tend to get excited about all my photos, from a little Ford Aspire years ago (hey, it was a great shot) to Mustangs, Corvettes, and Ferraris.

Q. Care to share your best and most secret locations?

A. I live in Death Valley (National Park) for four or more months every summer. Verified as the hottest place on the planet, car companies do lots of hot-weather testing right inside the national park. I live in a place that no other spies have access to, and I cover the region — I stay in the area — far longer than other spies.

Q. What sort of “rules” are there when you’re spying?

A. My ethical standards are very high and are not matched by others. Among other things, no laws are ever broken as we do our job on a daily basis. And safety is always number one, so we never engage in any dangerous driving or other activities.

For more details, visit brendapriddyandcompany.com


A Model of Respect /// Legendary Spy

Shooter Jim Dunne earned grudging admiration from auto companies

True story, swear to God. You know Jim Dunne, right? The spy photographer who takes pictures of prototype cars and sells them to the car magazines? Lives in Grosse Pointe?

Drives the auto companies nuts.

Anyway, back in ’84, a handful of auto writers from Car and Driver, Road & Track, Autoweek, and so on are on a weeklong press trip with Renault, the French car company. One of the days they spend at Renault’s proving ground somewhere outside Paris, where they get to drive a bunch of new cars around the test track.

Afterward, they’re taking a guided tour of the place when they stop at a big scale model of the entire facility, complete with miniature buildings, roads, fences, berms, and thick hedgerows and trees that block the test track from public view. In one corner of the scale model, perched up in one of the trees, facing a turn in the track, sits a little white plastic figurine — you know, like one of those plastic Army men we used to play with when we were kids.

“What’s that?” one of the writers asks, pointing at the little plastic man.

The Renault tour guide responds, “That’s Jim Dunne.”

Well, the whole group busts out laughing, and the Renault guy goes on to say that’s “Dunne’s Corner.” He’s scooped Renault so many times that they actually pay homage to him in their scale model. And once in a rare while, if they want to leak information about a future car to the press, well, they just take it for a spin around the track when they know Jim’s there in his perch. Isn’t that something?

You know what that is? That’s respect. — Ed Peabody