1948 Tucker. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Preston Tucker was a flamboyant and colourful man and his attempt to launch a revolutionary new car following the Second World War is a fascinating chapter in automotive history. He envisioned a car that would make all others obsolete, and it prompted articles, books and even a movie.
Opinions vary on Tucker’s sincerity. True believers say he was a genuine entrepreneur in the mould of General Motors’ founder Billy Durant. Others saw nothing more than a classic flimflam artist.
Tucker was born in 1901 in Capac, Michigan and raised in Lincoln Park, Michigan. At six-foot-two and 200 pounds (93 kg), his easy manner made him a natural salesman. He sold cars, served as a police officer, and became a Pierce-Arrow representative.
He wanted to enter car the business and in 1929 formed a partnership with racing car builder Harry Miller to try taking over ailing luxury car maker Marmon. That failed, but Tucker became convinced he wanted to manufacture his own car someday.
During the 1930s Tucker developed a fast combat car with a rotary gun turret. The army didn’t need the 188 km/h 115 (mph) speed, but wanted the turret. During the Second World War his Ypsilanti, Michigan-based Tucker Aviation Corporation prospered manufacturing gun turrets. When peace came, Tucker turned to building his dream car.
In December, 1945 Tucker announced his futuristic “Car of Tomorrow,” The Tucker Torpedo, later renamed the Tucker 48, would be a large, low, six-passenger sedan with a big, horizontally-opposed (flat) six-cylinder, aluminum engine in the rear.
While established manufacturers were offering warmed over pre-war designs, Tucker promised a car-starved nation aerodynamic efficiency and 160 km/h (100 mph) cruising. Safety features included padded dash, “pop-out” windshield and disc brakes. Suspension was fully independent with “Torsilastic” rubber and torsion bar springs. And this revolutionary car would be very affordable.
Tucker wanted the engine laterally positioned in the rear, driving the wheels through a torque converter on each end of the crankshaft. That probably led to later rumours that the car wouldn’t reverse. A low rpm engine promised good fuel economy and easy high speed cruising.
By the end of 1946 Tucker knew that to obtain financial backing he needed more than drawings and pictures. He commissioned noted aircraft designer Alex Tremulus to design and build a prototype in an incredibly short 100 days, a feat accomplished by Tremulus and a crew of skilled Indianapolis racing mechanics.
The prototype was built on an Oldsmobile chassis and affectionately dubbed the “Tin Goose,” a term later used against Tucker and his car in court. Although quite low, the styling was more conservative than originally envisioned.
The transverse engine and torque converters proved unworkable. The safety windshield and padded dash stayed, but front fenders that steered with the wheels were gone, as were the disc brakes. A centre-mounted “cyclops eye” headlamp steered with the wheels, and the 5.5-litre rear-mounted aluminum helicopter engine converted from air to water cooling drove through a Cord pre-selector transmission.
Tucker financed his operation by pre-selling dealer franchises, and a successful $20 million stock offering. After acquiring a war surplus bomber engine plant in Chicago on favourable terms from the War Assets Administration he thought he was in the car business.
But shortly after, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission began investigating Tucker’s dealer franchise sales. That, and unfavourable magazine articles collapsed Tucker Corp. stock and he stayed afloat only by pre-selling accessories like radios and seat covers.
Through all the charges and counter charges, the plant turned out 51 cars in 1948. The end finally came in 1949, and although Tucker was cleared of all charges it was too late. The damage was done and there would be no more Tuckers.
The cars themselves were reportedly surprisingly good. In Mechanix Illustrated magazine (9/’48), Tom McCahill reported zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 10 seconds, and “the quickest 105 mph (169 km/h) I have ever reached.”
He called the Tucker “roomy and extraordinarily comfortable,” and said “it steers and handles better than any American car I have driven. He called its “roadability…in a class by itself.”
Tucker’s brave attempt to crack Detroit’s establishment failed. There is a Tucker owner’s club dedicated to keeping the faith, and keeping the surprisingly large number of surviving Tuckers running.
Preston Tucker always claimed he was the victim of dark conspiratorial Detroit interests afraid of his advanced new car, a belief he carried to his grave when he died of cancer at age 55 in Ypsilanti on December 26, 1956.