There are hundreds of brilliant stories of how cars came to be, fighting through trials and tribulations to revolutionise the industry / save the company that made them. Then there are the – far rarer – fascinating stories of cars that almost were but, for various market and financial reasons, never quite made it. Then, pretty much all on its own, is the incredible story of one man’s revolutionary car dream, his fight against huge corporations, government organisations and the legal system and his never ending determination in the face of it all: and, unfortunately, his eventual failure. No, I’m not talking about Elon Musk.
This is the Preston Tucker story; and the Tucker ‘48.
Birth of a Salesman
Preston Tucker was born on September 21st, 1903, in Capac, Michigan. His father died when he was only two, so he was raised by his mother, a teacher, in the heartland of the burgeoning car industry of the United States, and was a big fan of automobiles from an early age. He learned to drive at the age of eleven, and by the age of sixteen he was buying late-model-year cars, refurbishing them and selling them on for profit.
He attended Cass Technical High School in Detroit, but quit in pursuit of a paying job, and soon landed one with Cadillac Motor Company as an office boy, where he used roller skates to make his rounds more efficiently. In 1922, he joined the police department with the hope of getting access to the high-performance police cars and motorcycles. But his mother, who had pleaded with him not to join the force, had him removed when she highlighted to department officials that, at 19, he was below the department’s minimum required age.
Clearly someone who knew what he wanted, he married Vera Fuqua in 1923 at the young age of 20 and took over a six month lease on a gas station near Lincoln Park, which she would run during the day whilst he worked on the assembly line for Ford Motor Company. And in the last couple of months, he also turned his hand to sales, successfully selling Studebakers on the side. Cars were present in every part of their lives.
Back and Forth
As was soon to become a theme with Tucker, he left Ford once the six month lease had run out on the gas station and returned to the police force, but he wouldn’t remain there for long either. In an incident that would come to some up the very character of the young man, he was banned from driving police vehicles only a few weeks into the job after using a blowtorch to cut a hole in the dashboard of a cruiser to allow engine heat to warm the cabin.
After leaving the force again, he returned to car sales and took a job in a Detroit showroom, through a friend he’d met whilst selling Studebakers. But the journey from his home proved too far and, despite proving himself a natural salesman, he left and returned to the police force for the final time. A few months later, he left, again, and took another job as a salesman, followed a few months later by another job, and a little while later another one.
He was obviously still searching for the right job/opportunity/venture, but there was no doubting that he was a natural salesman. And cars were his calling.
By the early ‘30s, Tucker was spending one month every year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as much in search of a business venture as for his own interest and passion. Combining his love for speed with the opportunity to network with race car designers and engineers was one he couldn’t resist. It was here that he met the legendary race car designer Harry Miller, and after moving to Indianapolis to get closer to the race car scene, he took advantage of Miller’s bankruptcy in 1933 and eventually persuaded him to join forces, the two creating Miller and Tucker Inc. in 1935. They would develop several successful race cars.
Not one to rest on his laurels, Tucker continued to look at other opportunities and, whilst in hospital in 1937 recovering from an appendectomy, he read about the looming war in Europe. It sparked an idea for a high-speed armored combat vehicle which he continued to develop until two years later, when after moving his family back to Michigan to operate a machine shop that he hoped to turn into a hub of automotive development, an opportunity presented itself.
The Dutch government wanted a combat vehicle suited to the muddy Dutch terrain, so Tucker, alongside Harry Miller, began designing a narrow-wheelbase armored combat car with a Miller-modified Packard V-12 engine. The car was nicknamed the “Tucker Tiger” and at least one prototype was built but, when the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, the Dutch shifted their priorities and the opportunity was gone. However, as we’ll come to learn repeatedly, Tucker was not a man to give in.
The Tucker Turret
With a working prototype and no-one to sell it to, Tucker went on the offensive and approached the U.S. government. Remarkably, despite the government having already agreed contracts with other manufacturers for combat vehicles, the supposed main reason they rejected his approach was that the thing was too fast: it had a claimed top speed of more than 100mph.
However, the 360-degree power-operated gun turret, the Tucker Turret as it would come to be known, interested the U.S. Navy, and it was soon in production, initial work focussing on developing it for the Douglas B-18 Bolo. But, as always seemed to be the case with Preston Tucker, none of his turrets equipped any bombers, his patent and royalty rights were confiscated by the US and he was embroiled in lawsuits for years trying to recoup royalties for the use of his patents on the turret.
Boats, Planes & Automobiles
With more determination than a tied-up terrier, he was quickly back on the horse, creating the Tucker Aviation Corporation in the hope of manufacturing aircraft and marine engines, World War II was now in full swing and steadily drawing the US into the mix. After issuing stock certificates, he soon had enough money to design the Tucker XP-57, a fighter aircraft that caught the attention of the United States Army Air Corps.
Once again, a single prototype was produced and Tucker fought for several military contracts but also, once again, to no avail. After selling the corporation to Andrew Jackson Higgins, the maker of “Higgins Boats” during WWII, he then moved to New Orleans to serve as vice-president of Higgins Industries in charge of the Higgins-Tucker Aviation division. But, as you may have guessed, it didn’t work out. Despite the severing of the relationship, Higgins once called Tucker “the world’s greatest salesman”.
And as if to prove this point, Tucker returned home to Michigan – again – and started his own car company, the Tucker Corporation.
The Torpedo on Wheels
By the end of the war, in 1945, the newest car available was the (already) four-years old Pontiac Streamliner that had debuted in 1941. In the years that had followed its debut, priorities had obviously shifted towards supporting the war effort. But with the war well and truly over, the high spirits and disposable income that had previously been enjoyed by the US general public had returned. New cars were needed quickly.
The Detroit-based “Big Three” – Chrysler, Ford & GM – were in no hurry to rush anything new to market and were likely hamstrung by the typical bureaucracy of a large company. Tucker saw this vacuum as a great opportunity to bring something radical to market and, as if to reinforce his thinking, Studebaker made the first moves with completely redesigned Champion and Commander models in early 1947.
Tucker had started his project in 1944, almost a year before the war had ended, having hired the renowned car designer George S. Lawson to add flesh to the structural skeleton he’d envisaged. Tucker wanted the car to be, above all, safe, and he’d included disc brakes, seat belts and a padded dashboard alongside other ideas including four-wheel independent suspension, a flat-six rear engine and ergonomic instruments within reach of the steering wheel. He later added a hydraulic drive system that Lawson worked on, before the two fell out and the designer left in December 1946, shortly after a conceptual design had appeared in Science Illustrated under the heading “Torpedo on Wheels”.
Despite lacking detailed feasibility at that point, the article and images suitably whet the appetite of the motoring public and Tucker moved quickly to replace Lawson with Alex Tremulis of Cord 810, Packard Clipper and Chrysler Thunderbolt fame. The design was finalised in six days.
The name “Tucker Torpedo” had become increasingly popular since the first sketches were publicly released, but the negative connotations with the war had the potential for a PR disaster. Tucker moved quickly to rename the car based on its planned year of launch: the Tucker 48.
He then hired a competing firm to develop a clay directly alongside Tremulis, providing competition and an alternative view that, whilst unheard of back then, is very common in the industry nowadays. In the end, the team from New York design firm J. Gordon Lippincott won and it was their features that carried through into the production model. But it’s what was beneath the skin that’s really interesting.
Pie in the Sky?
The Tucker 48 sketches had promised innovative design, but the engineering and safety features were what had really appealed to the public.
Whilst in Europe, companies like Saab, Volvo and Mercedes Benz were gaining reputations for their safety innovation, the American car industry, particularly The Big Three, didn’t seem to be paying any attention. Aside from disc brakes, seatbelts and various interior features, the Tucker 48 also had a third, central headlight that would activate at steering angles of greater than 10 degrees to aid cornering, much like the Citroen DS that would follow almost ten years later.
Another first for the US was the rear-engined, rear-wheel drive setup that had already been seen on European vehicles such as the VW Beetle and various Tatras. The body structure was a perimeter frame with a reinforced roll-bar in the roof and the steering box was behind the front axle to protect the driver in a front-end accident. Tucker had even patented a collapsible steering column that never made it into the production vehicles.
The windshield was made of shatterproof glass and was designed to pop out in a collision to protect occupants, whilst a glove box was added to the front door panels, instead of the more conventional dashboard location, to provide space for the now famous “crash chamber”, a protective cavity under the dash that passengers could hide in to minimise the effects of a frontal crash. The doors even extended into the roof to ease entrance and exit.
And perhaps his greatest idea, which seems oddly prescient when we think about the electrified world that we’re accelerating towards, was Tucker’s vision for exchangeable drivetrains. The engine and transmission were mounted on a separate subframe with only six bolts, allowing the entire drive train to be lowered and removed from the car as quickly as possible. The plan had been for a service exchange of less than thirty minutes.
And then there were other ideas that didn’t even make it: Magnesium wheels, fuel injection, self-sealing tubeless tires, a camshaft-less engine with four-separate direct-drive torque converters to avoid a gearbox. The Tucker 48 seemed too good to be true.
And as if the car itself wasn’t sounding good enough, Tucker then expanded his team to something resembling an automotive A-Team. He hired the former president of Plymouth to be his VP and Sales Director, the former VP of GM as his executive VP, various senior engineers from across the industry and a former Ford Executive to head the manufacturing department.
And this still wasn’t enough. Tucker and his team then purchased the largest factory building in the world, the 475-acre (1.92 km2) Dodge Chicago Aircraft Engine Plant which had previously been used for building the huge engines required to power the B-29 Superfortress bombers during WWII. This, Tucker believed, would be the single manufacturing site for a whole line of future Tucker automobiles.
So with all of the foundations in place, the next step was to sell the things. So he established The Tucker Export Corporation as an entity to manage worldwide sales of Tucker cars and hired his long-time friend, Max Garavito, to head up the division. Within a few short months in operation, distributorships were set up both nationally and internationally, including South America and South Africa.
But money was still a challenge, cars being one of the most intense and expensive products in the world to produce. So Tucker, as always undaunted by anything in his way, raised $17,000,000 in one of the first speculative IPOs.
Needing still more money to continue development of the car, he then sold more than 2000 dealerships and distributorships throughout the country, and as far afield as South Africa and Latin America. But perhaps the riskiest, and most inspired money-making scheme, was the Tucker Accessories Program.
People widely credit Tesla and Mr. Musk for their ability to raise deposits in order to fund future car production, but Preston Tucker had the idea more than 70 years ago. In order to secure a spot on the waiting list, future buyers could purchase accessories, like seat covers, radio, and luggage, before their car was built. The idea brought in an additional $2,000,000, which was huge at the time and showed just how big the public’s appetite was for Tucker’s car.
So all that was left was to debut the thing, start building it and then rake in the money. What could possibly go wrong?
It’s June 18th, 1947, the day before the Tucker 48’s long-awaited world premiere. The experimental 589 engine, which was operated by oil pressure rather than a camshaft, was proving exceedingly loud during testing, and whilst the other minor issues that arose that day were fixed, the noise needed a quick solution. So Tucker asked the on-stage band to play at maximum volume during the following day’s performance. Then, that evening, two of the independent suspension arms snapped under the significant weight of the prototype body. There were ominous signs.
Things got worse that morning when they realised that the high-voltage starter required an outside power source to start the engine, so a decision was made to leave the engine running through the whole event to avoid unwarranted public panic about the effort required to start it. As the car was driven on to the platform, the liquid coolant boiled over and steam escaped from the car but, fortunately, no one seemed to notice.
Over 3,000 people showed up at the factory in Chicago for lunch, a train tour of the plant, and the unveiling of the first prototype which, due to a compressed timeline and various issues, wasn’t in the best shape. As Henry Ford once said, “You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” And so it proved.
The Tin Goose
Whilst there’s no doubting the spectacle of the Tucker 48’s debut, nor Tucker’s ability to sell it, there were some who weren’t impressed. Drew Pearson, a renowned newspaper columnist, called it a fraud that couldn’t reverse and went “goose-geese” down the road, whatever that means. And whilst the issues were limited to the prototype, all their efforts were quickly unravelling thanks to a rushed debut. And worse was to follow.
He suffered another setback when his bids for two steel mills to provide raw materials for his cars were rejected by the War Assets Administration, despite being the only bidders to appear at the auction.
Tucker needed to do something radical, in order to get the public back on side. So with several pre-production vehicles already built and running smoothly, he went on a charm offensive, touring the country and visiting as many towns as possible to drum up interest. The cars were, of course, an instant success, crowds gathering wherever they stopped. There was even a story doing the rounds that Tucker was stopped by the police purely because the cops were interested in a closer look.
Whatever the truth, Tucker had, once again, managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Or so it seemed.
Spec, Drive & Roll
The prototype was, as we know, a long way from the final production cars that rolled off the manufacturing line, although that hadn’t been the intention.
The innovative engine just didn’t work within the time-frame, so they needed an alternative. Lyoming’s aircraft engine wouldn’t fit in the rear space, but Air Cooled Motors’ flat-six did. So they bought four samples, modified them heavily and squeezed them in. Then Tucker bought the company, cancelled all their aircraft contracts worth millions of dollars, and demanded that they focused entirely on automotive engine production. It was a huge gamble.
With the engine changed, the wheel-based torque converters were also out, so a gearbox was needed. Initial trials of the Cord 810’s infamous transmission were found to work, despite its reputation for being incredibly fragile. And the fact that it was designed and built for a V8, front-wheel-drive car. Several adaptations were made, and Tucker sent several employees around the country looking for second hand gearboxes that they could then rework at the machine shop. It became the manual transmission for all Tucker 48s and some of these still exist on cars today.
However, this was only a short term fix, so with the help of the man behind the Buick Dynaflow – Buick’s automatic transmission deemed the smoothest transmission of the time – the “Tucker-Matic” CVT was designed. A simple but effective design, the Continuously Variable Transmission used double torque converters and only 27 basic moving parts, roughly 90 less than a contemporary automatic transmission.
The suspension was also cutting-edge for the time, using a rubber torsion tube, four-wheel independent system similar to the race cars they’d designed at Indianapolis. It gave excellent handling, but caused wheel-lift when steering around corners on uneven surfaces and several early vehicles required re-designed fenders to allow the wheels to be removed, because the rubber tubes were so stiff!
What hadn’t changed during the entire development process were the safety features envisioned by Tucker from the very beginning. In one remarkable story, told by Steve Lehto in the recent biography, Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow, the head of the testing team, Eddie Offutt, was involved in a 90mph (140 km/h) roll that did so little damage to the car, he climbed out with only a bruised elbow, surveyed the damage, then replaced the tyre and drove the car off the track. If it hadn’t been missing a windshield, that had popped out as designed, he would’ve driven it home.
All in all, it was a pretty typical automotive development process (crash aside) that, to a certain extent, still exists to this day. But not everyone saw it that way.
The SEC were nervous about any new automotive company, and had been for a long while. The US government had previously granted millions of dollars to Kaiser-Frazer to support their development of a car to fill the temporary void left by the Big Three’s legacy, pre-WWII designs, only for them to later file for bankruptcy. Egg on face.
Tucker and his corporations had borrowed nothing from the government, but as a new automotive company, scrutiny was to be expected. And some of his practices, particularly the Accessories Program, had drawn extra attention.
In September 1947, Harry Aubrey Toulmin, Jr., the chairman of the Tucker board of directors, resigned and wrote a letter to the SEC in an attempt to distance himself from Tucker and the Tucker Corporation. In the letter, Toumlin, Jr. made several statements that were copied from various columnists and made assertions, without any specific data, regarding Tucker and the Corporation’s financial habits. Smelling something very fishy, Tucker jumped into damage-control mode and wrote to the SEC in reply, stating that he had asked Toulmin to resign “to make way for a prominent man now active in the automobile industry.”
That turned out to be Mr. Tucker himself.
Trials & Tribulations
Following Drew Pearson’s continued criticism of Tucker’s new car, and the media bandwagon that followed, Tucker published a full-page advertisement in most of the national newspapers as “an open letter to the automobile industry“. In what can only be described as Musk-esque cheek, Tucker hinted at a conspiracy against him by both the SEC and the American automotive industry. But some of the accusations, if true, were very serious and, potentially, damaging.
Needless to say, it damaged Tucker more than those it targeted, with many dealers soon filing lawsuits to recover their money. Tucker’s stock value plummeted, and worse was to come.
At the start of 1949, Tucker surrendered his corporate records to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and an investigation quickly followed. On June 10, 1949, Tucker and six other Tucker Corporation executives were indicted on 25 counts of mail fraud, 5 counts of violations of SEC regulations and one count of conspiracy to defraud.
Tucker, of course, declared the trial as “an opportunity to explain our side of the story”, but it was also a chance for the media to flog Tucker and his team further, including one outlet that, somehow, leaked excerpts from the SEC report, despite its “secret” classification. It was, interestingly, never released to the public.
The trial began on October 4th, 1949, the very same day that the Tucker Corporation’s factory closed. At that point, only 37 Tucker 48s had been built, until 300 loyal employees returned to the factory (some without pay) and finished the assembly of another thirteen cars for a total production of 50 cars, 51 including the first prototype, chassis number 0000. No more Tucker vehicles would ever be made.
The government’s case hinged on the accusation that Preston Tucker had never planned on building a car. The SEC’s report, which was never even seen by Tucker and his attorneys, was leaked in parts to the media, and the prosecution produced several of Tucker’s own employees as witnesses, who described the rudimentary working practices employed in the factory to develop the car.
One point, argued by the defense as being standard practice in the industry, was the use of spare parts and even scrap to build the initial prototype, and the lack of function of the first car built by the Tucker Corporation.
The prosecution continued to produce witnesses, but Tucker’s lawyers continued to embarrass them on the stand, highlighting various discrepancies and inconsistencies within their testimonials. In one example, a former Tucker dealership owner and distributor testified that he had lost $28,000 by investing in the Tucker Corporation. However, on cross-examination, the defense used this witness to their advantage when he testified that he still drove his Tucker ’48 given to him by Tucker and that the car had 35,000 miles (56,000 km) on the clock. It still cruised smoothly at 90 miles per hour (140 km/h).
When the prosecution had finished with their witnesses, the defense, in another clever move by Tucker’s team, refused to call any witnesses, based on the argument that there had been no offence, so it was “impossible to present a defense”. The jury were even invited to take a ride in one of the eight Tucker ’48s parked in front of the courthouse before they made their decision.
It was a killer blow delivered by Tucker’s team and, on January 22nd, 1950, after 28 hours of deliberations, the jury returned a verdict of “not guilty” on all counts for all accused. Whilst it was a technical success for Tucker, the Tucker Corporation had no factory, a mountain of debt and numerous lawsuits from Tucker dealers that were angry about the production delays. The prosecution had got what they wanted, and the Tucker Corporation ceased to exist.
As is no surprise, debate continues to this day as to whether Preston Tucker ever intended to produce a car. The Tucker Automobile Club of America have amassed over 400,000 drawings, blueprints, corporate documents and letters which they say prove that Tucker was, in fact, developing the manufacturing process necessary to mass-produce the Tucker ’48.
They also point to the fact that by the time of the investigation, Tucker had hired over 1900 employees, including teams of engineers and machinists, whilst the Tucker Corporation’s VP, Lee Treese, testified at trial that they were 90% ready with industrial machinery at the Chicago plant to mass-produce the vehicle.
After his acquittal, Preston Tucker’s reputation rebounded dramatically and he remained optimistic about the possibility of producing a car. In the early ‘50s, he teamed up with several Brazilian investors and car designer Alexis de Sakhnoffsky – best known for his early ‘30s work at Packard – to build a sports car called the Carioca. But during his frequent travels to and from Brazil, he suffered from fatigue and was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after returning from one such visit to the South American nation. He died from pneumonia as a complication of lung cancer on December 26, 1956, at the age of 53.
Otto Kerner, Jr., the US attorney who so aggressively pursued the Tucker Corporation, was convicted on 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury, and related charges for stock fraud in 1974. He was the first federal appellate judge in history to be jailed and was sentenced to three years in prison and fined $50,000.
Whether you think Preston Tucker intended to build a car or not, what’s clear in all of this is that we here at CLT are not the only ones fascinated by the remarkable life and story of the man and his creation: the Tucker ‘48.
A film, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, which was produced in 1988 and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, had been in the pipeline since 1973, when Coppola first began development of the film. Eventually, the idea was revived in 1986 with support from George Lucas. And the Tucker Automobile Club of America has well over one thousand registered members.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about Preston Tucker and the Tucker 48 story is just how pioneering both the man and the car were. So many plaudits are, rightly, laid upon people like Elon Musk, and yet it was Tucker who pioneered the deposit and waiting list system, it was he who envisioned exchangeable power sources and rapid servicing, and it was his vision for a safe car with revolutionary technology that we all benefit from to this day.
The Tucker 48, aside from the considerable innovations buried within, is a beautiful vehicle. But it’s also a torchbearer, a symbol, for so much more. It pushed boundaries, balanced style, grace and technical performance, yet was sufficiently competitive, financially, to scare the bejesus out of the Big Three automakers and, therefore, the US government of the time.
And even now, the vehicles are highly desirable, with a presence in many of the great automotive collections around the world. In many ways, the Tucker 48 reflects the true personality of its creator: pioneering, unique and defiant until the very last breath. So Preston Tucker may be gone, but he lives on in his creations. And we’re all still benefiting to this day.
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