Preston Tucker and his backers may not have made money from the 51 Tucker 48 “Torpedo” sedans built before his grandiose scheme to revolutionize the American automobile went sideways and ended up in history’s wrecking yard – but subsequent investors certainly have.
A buyer handed over a record $2.9-million (U.S.) for one of the 47 survivors in January to top the Barrett-Jackson Nevada auction.
The fast-talking Tucker raised $28-million in 1947 to launch his car company, Tucker Corp. The money came from a stock offering, down payments for dealerships and a bizarre scheme that sold accessories such as seat covers and radios to hopeful buyers, allowing them to get on a list to purchase cars that had yet to go into production.
But investors didn’t see as much as a floor mat in return for being convinced by Tucker’s vision to back his novel new car, with its rear-mounted, helicopter-engine, radical styling and advanced features.
Negative publicity generated by a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into its eyebrow-raising funding activities and a subsequent trial were blamed for the company’s demise in 1949, despite no charges being proven against Tucker. Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists were claiming a plot by the “Big Three” was behind Tucker’s woes. There was also speculation he never intended to build the car in the first place. But, if he didn’t, he certainly put a lot of effort into making people think so.
Tucker was born on a Michigan farm in 1903, became keen on cars and learned to drive at 11. By his mid-teens he was fixing up and reselling cars before briefly attending a tech school and then taking a job as an office boy at Cadillac. During the 1920s, he worked on and off as a cop, gas station operator and car salesman, selling Studebakers, Stutzes, Pierce-Arrows and Dodges.
He was also an Indy 500 fan and, while attending the race in the early 1930s, hooked up with famed engine builder Harry Miller. They went on to build, with factory assistance, 10 Ford V-8-powered Indy racers together in mid-decade.
Tucker turned to Miller again in 1939 to help create the “Tucker Tiger,” an armoured combat car that could reach 115 mph, which proved fast enough to frighten off potential military buyers. But the powered gun turret developed for it proved of more interest and the “Tucker Turret” was built during the Second World War for bombers and PT boats.
His next venture was the Tucker Aviation Corp., which was based in the shop behind his house, and he raised enough money to design a fighter aircraft that didn’t fly. He then sold the company to, and went to work for, PT boat and landing craft maker Higgins.
After the war, Tucker returned to his first love and decided a brand-new and thoroughly innovative automotive design would capture buyers’ imaginations more than the warmed-over pre-war offerings of the major auto makers.
By 1946, Tucker was on his way to realizing his ambition to become a car maker – revealing a design with fantasy-futuristic styling and a lengthy (wish) list of innovative, but mostly unproven, technological attributes, a number related to safety.
The original “Tucker Torpedo” styling was soon refined by designer Alex Tremulis, who had worked for Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg in the 1930s, went on to create aviation designs (the Dyna-Soar among them, that influenced the space shuttle) and Ford concept.
Among the highly touted high-tech features that caught the public imagination were a central headlamp that swivelled with the steering, a windscreen that popped out in a crash, seatbelts, a perimeter frame that promised side protection, a “rubber” suspension, disc brakes, magnesium wheels, self-sealing tubeless tires, a novel driver-focused instrument panel and padded dash, a lockable parking brake as an anti-theft device, seat cushions interchangeable front to rear (to even out wear) and door frames that curved into the low roofline for easier access by fedora-wearing drivers. Very little of this actually made it into the few cars produced.
Most innovative of all was the Tucker’s back-to-front drivetrain. At its heart was to have been a new 589-cubic-inch (9.65-litre) horizontally opposed six, with fuel injection and hydraulically-operated (no camshaft) valves. Designed to slog at from 250-1,200 rpm, it was mounted in the rear and powered the car through torque converters at each wheel. It was to be mounted in a sub-frame held by half a dozen bolts that would allow it to be changed in 20 minutes.
The only problem was it didn’t work, and Tucker had to replace it with a Franklin flat-six intended for a helicopter. Converted to water-cooling and making 166 hp, it was eventually mated to a dual-torque-converter “Tuckermatic” transmission.
Despite its sleek aero looks, the Tucker 48 was a tank, weighing in at 1,909 kg, but was reputed to accelerate to 96 km/h in about 10 seconds, reach almost 200 km/h and achieve fuel economy of 14.2 litres/100 km at a 90 km/h cruise.
Clues to Tucker’s long-term intentions included buying the aero-engine company to ensure supply, leasing a huge surplus ex-aero-engine factory and hiring a work force. But Tucker’s dream dissolved and disappeared in the usual acrimonious post-bankruptcy acid-bath.
Tucker himself didn’t survive much longer, dying of lung cancer in 1956, but leaving behind as a legacy a brief but fascinating chapter in the history of the automobile.
Back in 1948
At the 1948 Academy Awards, Hamlet is crowned Best Picture and its lead, Laurence Olivier, Best Actor. John Huston is named Best Director for Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Jane Wyman Best Actress for her role in Johnny Belinda.
Louis Saint Laurent replaces Mackenzie King as prime minister and hockey player Bobby Orr, golfer Sandra Post, former Ontario premier Bob Rae and Margaret Trudeau are born.
Boxing legend Joe Louis defends his heavyweight title for the 25th time, knocking out Jersey Joe Walcott, and then hangs up his gloves. Another sporting icon, Ben Hogan adds to his reputation by winning the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship.
Country and western singing star Eddy Arnold dominates the Billboard charts with five number one hits. Over his six-decade career, Arnold would have 147 songs make the Billboard hit list and sell 85 million records.
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