1948 Tucker Sedan
It's the most famous mass-production car that never got mass-produced. The story of its not-quite birth is equal parts mad science, courtroom drama, and carnival show, drizzled with a dash of conspiracy theory. Its manufacturer is perhaps the only car-builder for which the complete production record and eventual fate of every single car it made has been completely documented. If you ever see one on the road operating under its own power, pinch yourself to make sure it's not a dream and, assuming it's not, take lots of pictures, because it means that you're having a close encounter with one of the rarest of the rare, the 1948 Tucker Sedan.
Before we begin the story of the 1948 Tucker, we need to get the disclaimer out of the way.
We often write about objects of automotive desire here at Car Lust: cars we've loved, cars we've loved and lost, cars we've only worshipped from afar. Sometimes, one of our posts will spark a reader's interest in a car they hadn't heard of or considered before; in some instances, what we've written here has induced a reader to go out and buy one for himself. I mention all this because today's subject is a car with a fascinating story that has stirred Car Lust in the hearts of many thousands of our brother and sister pistonheads over the last sixty-four years.
For one thing, Tucker sedans are so rare that they make gullwing Mercs, Duesenbergs, Packard Hawks, Toyota 2000GTs, and Ford RS200s look abundant. There were just 52 sedans built: the "Tin Goose" prototype (serial #1000), 50 more prototype and pre-production cars built at the Tucker factory in Chicago, plus a half-finished 52nd unit that sat around for a few decades before being completed with a combination of NOS and replica parts. Some people don't count that last one as an "official" Tucker, but we will.
Of these 52 sedans, one was wrecked in a traffic accident, one was destroyed in a warehouse fire, one was damaged at a PR event and then partially parted out, and another was just plain trashed, leaving us with 48 intact survivors. 21 of those are in museum collections. This means that the potential private market supply is just 27 vehicles. On those occasions when one of those 27 goes on the market, they don't put an ad on Craigslist or in the local paper, or trade it in to their friendly neighborhood dealership on a new Silverado--it's probably either one of the high-dollar auctions or a brokered private sale.
Assuming you know the right people and can get in on the bidding in the first place, the market price of a drivable Tucker in recent years has (with one exception) been a number with seven digits to the left of the decimal point. (The exception is #1046, which got restomodded twice and ended up with a Mercury Monterey chassis and drivetrain. The last time that one changed hands, its non-original condition meant that it sold for an almost-affordable $202,000.) The last time an intact inoperable Tucker was sold, it went for $800,000.
If you have the scratch to make the bid price, you probably wouldn't dare take it out of the climate-controlled garage stall you'd have to build to keep it in. If you actually want to drive your Tucker on the public streets, you'll need to get your collision coverage from Lloyds of London, and every minute on the road, you will be in constant fear that some inebriated bozo with no insurance and a suspended license will wallop your million-dollar set of wheels with his ratted-out '87 Cutlass Ciera. If that happens, repair parts are going to be a little hard to come by.
In other words, forget it: you don't have the kind of money it takes to own a Tucker.
(Note: the preceding sentence does not apply to billionaire entrepeneurs and financiers, A-list entertainers, retired politicians, and/or members of royal families. You people actually do have that kind of money--but Tucker ownership will still be expensive even by your usual standards.)
Okay, you've been warned. Now, where was I?....
Preston Thomas Tucker was one of those fast-moving, entrepenurial sort of people with a lot of energy and a real flair for promoting whatever their latest project is. As one of his business partners put it, Mr. Tucker was "[t]he world's greatest salesman. When he turns those big brown eyes on you, you'd better watch out!"
Before World War Two, Mr. Tucker had at various times operated a gas station, sold Studebakers, served as a regional sales manager for Pierce-Arrow, and built racing cars in patrtnership with Harry Miller. In 1937, he became involved in a venture to build an armored car for the Dutch military. The Tucker Combat Car never went to war (the German Blitzkrieg of 1940 overran the Netherlands before the deal could be finalized, and the U.S. Army wasn't interested) but its "Tucker Turret," armed with .50 caliber machine guns, was used on PT boats, landing craft, and heavy bombers. He was also involved in an attempt to build a lightweight fighter plane powered by an Indy racer's straight eight engine, but that project was abandoned before getting off the drawing board.
After the war, Mr. Tucker decided to enter the automobile business. Preston Tucker, being the kind of man he was, would not merely be content with bringing to market a relatively conventional car. He set out to build "The Most Completely New Car in Fifty Years," with advanced technological features and an emphasis on safety.
The first inkling of what was to come was an article in the December, 1946 issue of Science Illustrated, written around a concept drawing of a car labelled "Torpedo on Wheels." The "Torpedo" shared many styling cues with the eventual Tucker sedan design, and for that reason you'll often hear the '48 Tucker referred to as the "Tucker Torpedo," but that was never its official model name--Tucker realized early on in the project that naming a car after a weapon that had sunk hundreds of American ships and killed thousands of American sailors just a few years earlier might not be the swiftest marketing move. The design had a number of unusual features: a rear-mounted engine, a transmission with no gears, and three headlights.
The final design of the Tucker sedan was done by Alex Tremulis, who had worked for Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg and Chrysler before the war. Up to that point, his most famous automotive design had been Chrysler's 1941 Thunderbolt concept car, which predicted the postwar styling trend away from separate fenders and toward the modern "envelope" body. Later in his career, Mr. Tremulis would design the Boeing Dyna-Soar, a never-built reusable spacecraft that would have beaten the Shuttle into orbit by almost twenty years, and the Subaru BRAT.
The design Mr. Tremulis came up with for Tucker--in just six days!--drew a lot of inspiration from the "Torpedo." The Tucker's roofline was 60 inches above the road, within an inch or two of most of its contemporaries, and slightly taller than a modern Camry--but it was noticably wider and longer, 219 inches long, on a 128-inch wheel base, and 79 inches wide. The then-novel "tumblehome" (inward slant) of the sides above the beltline, and the door cuts that wrapped over into the roof for ease of access, made it look even lower than it was. It was also much sleeker than its squared-up, bulbous contemporaries, and the sleekness wasn't just for looks, either; the drag coefficient was somewhere in the neighborhood of 0.27-0.30, incredible for 1946 and still pretty respectable today. The bulged-out fenders may have been a bit of a throwback to prewar styling--either that, or an eerily accurate premonition of the 1973 Monte Carlo!--but it definitely had that "Car of the Future" thing going on--albiet more the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon sort of future than the Star Trek/2001 kind.
Though perhaps a bit edgy, the basic styling was still very much in tune with the times. The engineering under the sheetmetal was "edgy" turned up to eleven. The original specification was for a fuel-injected 589-cubic inch overhead valve flat six (that's 9.65 litres for those of you still using the metric system) with hemispherical combustion chambers. Its most novel feature was the valvetrain: instead of a camshaft, it used hydraulic actuators to operate the valves and control their timing. It idled at a mere 100 RPM and only got up to 1200 RPM or so in highway cruising.
The 589 drove the wheels through a hydraulic transmission employing direct-drive torque converters on each wheel. The engine, transmission, and fully independent rear suspension were all mounted on a separate subframe, held on by only six bolts. One of Tucker's more creative ideas was that dealerships would stock spare drivetrains in the service department. If your Tucker needed major engine work, they'd put it up on the lift, untorque the six bolts, take out the subframe, and swap in a "loaner" to keep you rolling while they worked on your engine.
And the outside-the-boxness didn't end there. The suspension used rubber discs up front, and a rubber torsion tube aft, instead of metal springs; and the center headlight was yoked to the steering gear and swung around to illuminate your way around curves. Tucker also claimed it would be the safest car on the road: the shatterproof windshield was designed to pop out in a collision, the car had a perimiter frame and stout structure to protect the occupants in a collision, seatbelts were to be standard equipment, the dashboard and controls were arranged more ergonomically than anything else produced at the time.
As the Tucker went from prototype to production design, ambitious plans for four-wheel disc brakes, mag wheels, and self-sealing tires were dropped to keep the development budget under some semblance of control. The original rubber-sprung suspension design proved too cantankerous for mass production and too harsh-riding for mass consumption, and was re-engineered a couple of times before they got something workable. Preston Tucker was persuaded not to make seatbelts standard equipment because of concerns that it might give the impression that Tucker wasn't sure of the safety of its own product.
The most serious challenges occurred in the engine bay. The slow-cranking 589 never produced its intended 150 HP output, the hydraulic valvetrain was troublesome, and the thing needed a 24-volt electrical system--this in the era of 6-volt electricals! After a year's effort at trying to fix these issues, further development of this engine was abandoned. For a replacement, Tucker turned to the Franklin O-335 (also called the "6AC"), an air-cooled all-aluminum OHV flat six used in early helicopters such as the Bell 47, Hiller OH-23, and Sikorski S-52.
An air-cooled motor works pretty well when mounted on top of an open-frame helicopter, where it is exposed to the rotor downdraft. In an enclosed compartment on the back end of a giant postwar sedan, sufficient airflow is a little tougher proposition. Rather than rework the car's tail compartment, the Tucker people re-engineered the O-335--at considerable expense--into a liquid-cooled engine.
That may not have been the most financially efficient course of action, but it worked. The final production design of the Tucker automotive flat six kicked out 166 HP and an astonishing 332 foot-pounds of torque from its 335 cubic inches, and held up well in extended testing. Preston Tucker bought the donor engine's manufacturer, the eponymous Aircooled Motors Company, for $1.8 million ($17.4 million in today's post-inflation dollars), and promptly cancelled all its aviation contracts--quite a big deal, as it had 65% of the aircraft engine market at the time!--so that its production capacity would be available for his car.
The hydraulic transmission was unsuitable for any engine other than the slow-running 589--and they hadn't quite gotten 'round yet to figuring out how to get it to go in reverse!--so a replacement was needed. The first road tests of the O-335 were done with it mated to a four-speed transmission salvaged from a Cord 810/812. (The thought of a "coffin-nosed" Cord sitting forlornly in a salvage yard, stripped of its transmission, is enough to make one weep--but I digress.) The Cord tranny proved not to be strong enough to handle the O-335's record-breaking torque, but Tucker's engineers came up with a modification of the Cord design called the "Y-1," with stouter internal components and a larger case. The Y-1 was cataloged as the Tucker sedan's base transmission. Preston Tucker wanted to offer an optional automatic, and his engineers designed a very elegant continuously-variable transmission with only 27 moving parts called, oddly enough, the "Tuckermatic."
The car got its first public showing on June 19, 1947, at a generously-hyped PR event in Tucker's Chicago factory. There were several Tucker prototypes running around by that time, but the only one of them presentable enough for prime time was the Tin Goose, which still had the 589 and torque converter drivetrain. Like many prototypes, it was a bit over the design weight. The engineers installed two 150-pound 12-volt truck batteries to provide the 24 volts necessary to crank the starter--and the Goose's rear suspension collapsed, just moments before the car was to roll onstage for its big debut! While the boffins worked feverishly to change out the broken suspension arms, Preston Tucker stood on stage and filibustered like a three-term senator, somehow managing to keep everyone's attention, avoid running out of things to talk about, and successfully mask the fact that the show was behind schedule. The repairs were completed, and the Goose fired up and rolled out on stage to a warm welcome.
While the PR event itself was more or less a success, soon afterward, prominent "yellow journalist" Drew Pearson alleged on his radio show that the car was a fraud and couldn't go in reverse. Pearson was one of those crusading journalist types who never let factual accuracy get in the way of a good crusade, and he was on a crusade against Preston Tucker for reasons lost to the mists of time. It was true that the Tin Goose which had been on display at the PR confab lacked a reverse gear, but the production Y-1 tranny had no such defect, and Pearson had refrained from mentioning that little detail.
Tucker Corporation was on the verge of a public stock offering, one of the first speculative IPOs, and the cheap shot couldn't have come at a worse time. To counter the negative publicity, Tucker sent the completed prototypes (including the Goose, now retrofitted with the O-335/Y-1 drivetrain) out on a barnstorming publicity tour.
At one such event in November, seven Tuckers ran speed and endurance trials at Indianapolis, cruising around the "Brickyard" at up to 95 MPH for hours at a time. In the course of this event, one of the drivers lost control of his Tucker at speed and rolled it. The driver walked away with only minor injuries, and the car (#1027), though dinged up, was still drivable. Tucker seized on this event as proof that the car was the safest thing on the road, and played it up in advertising.
Preston Tucker had financed the R&D in part from his own resources, and in part by selling dealer franchises, and eventually had 2,000 or so retailers signed on. (Fun fact: that's nearly twice as many dealers as Ford lined up ten years later to sell the Edsel!) The second round of financing was the 1947 IPO, which raised $17 million--which still wasn't quite enough to create a new car company from a standing start. As 1948 rolled around, there were still no cars to sell, but the new Tucker dealers were taking orders and compiling waiting lists. Preston Tucker hit on the idea of pre-selling accessories such as radios and seat covers to the people on the waiting list. Buying the accessories up front gave the customer priority in delivery of her car once it went into production. This is why, to this day, there are more Tucker radios in circulation than there are Tuckers you could install them in. This "Accessories Program" also proved to be the Tucker Corporation's undoing.
Preston Tucker had attracted the attention of the SEC early on in the project. He was a fast talker, charming, and not terribly careful with the facts. He reasoned that everyone knew that advertising was at least 50% hooey anyway, so it was no sin (or a venial sin at worst) to be less than completely truthful in a print ad or promotional speech or prospectus. For example, Tucker's print advertising claimed that the car was the product of "15 years of testing" ...
... when the truth was nowhere close to that. The "15 years" came from the fact that Preston Tucker said he had been considering that he maybe, perhaps, possibly might like to start up a car company for something like 15 years, more or less. By his way of thinking, that was close enough.
This casual approach to truth in advertising, combined with his show-off demeanor, made Preston Tucker look fishy, and made things like Drew Pearson's hit piece just that much more believable to the SEC investigators. Selling accessories for cars that weren't even in production was the last straw. The SEC launched a very public investigation of Tucker Corporation in mid-1948, convened a grand jury in early 1949, and obtained criminal indictments against Preston Tucker and six other executives for mail and securities fraud.
The government's theory of the case was that the Tucker enterprise was a sham from the start and never planned to build the car. That was obviously not true. There was ample evidence that the company had every intention of bringing the design to market--they'd hired assembly workers, bought tooling and laid in an inventory of parts, and even gone so far as to publish the order codes for the paint colors that were going to be available (Black, Green, Beige, Silver, Maroon, and Mrs Tucker's favorite color, Waltz Blue).
The defendants were acquitted of all charges. This legal victory was small consolation to Tucker Corporation and its shareholders; by the time the courtroom drama was over, the company had endured so much negative publicity and lost so much time, and been sued for breach of contract by so many disappointed dealers, that the project was no longer viable. The pre-production cars and parts inventory and factory equipment were liquidated, and the Tucker marque went to that great wrecking yard in the sky without ever selling a single car to a retail customer.
The SEC clearly overstated its case, and brought down a viable private business for what seems like no good reason in the end, but they did have a point of sorts. Preston Tucker was a salesman above all else, and if he had a choice between being accurate and saying something fanciful that was more likely to close the sale, he went with the latter every time. When what you're selling is stock in a publicly-traded company, that's going to get you in trouble with the regulators--and, eventually, with your investors. Had the SEC pursued a less ambitious theory of the case, or brought a civil suit rather than criminal charges, they might well have pinned something on Preston or his company--and if today's consumer protection laws and securities regulations had been on the books in 1948, Preston Tucker would never have gotten as far as he did.
When the SEC's investigation was heating up in 1948, Preston Tucker published an "open letter" in which he made some fairly sensational allegations:
Most of the political pressure and investigations we have had to face these last two years can be traced back to one influential individual who is out to "get Tucker." If he acts from honest conviction in his efforts to prolong the motorcar, then I hope he will have the courage to tell the public just that.
But personally we believe he has more obvious motives. Evidence in Tucker files, for example shows the controlling interest in a large sales agency of an automotive corporate subsidiary is in his wife’s name. And when he gave an elaborate party at a Washington hotel a few months ago, who do you suppose paid the bill? None other than an official of an automobile manufacturer—a manufacturer distinctly unfriendly to the Tucker Corporation. Is all this, too, just coincidence?
Preston Tucker never quite got around to identifying the "influential individual," and given his record of concocting romance at short notice, it's not unreasonable to see this as just another one of his wild tales. On the other hand, a significant number of people who are familiar with the story are quite firmly convinced that the established automakers and the Michigan congressional delegation conspired to put Tucker Corporation out of business because Preston Tucker's innovative new car was a threat to the Big Three that they wouldn't have been able to compete with.
It's easy to see why people would want to believe in a Big Three conspiracy. Preston Tucker may have been a little fast and loose with the facts now and then, but he wasn't evil. Unlike certain other automotive mavericks we could mention, he didn't use the project as a means of personal enrichment at his investors' expense. The Tucker Corporation was a bona fide business venture, and, flaws aside, Preston Tucker was just the sort of plucky underdog Horatio Alger-type character most Americans are culturally pre-programmed to root for. (Quick show of hands: how many of you were glad to see the Giants win the Super Bowl?) In popular imagination, this kind of story always ends--is supposed to end--in the plucky underdogs pulling it off. As the tale of Preston Tucker reminds us, real life doesn't always follow the script and sometimes a bold effort that seems to deserve success fails. When that happens, it's almost comforting in a way to be able to attribute the outcome to dirty tricks and cheating.
In the particular case of the Tucker Corporation, the conspiracy theory got a boost in credibility from later events. Otto Kerner, Jr., the United States Attorney for the Northern District of Illinois who prosecuted the case against Preston Tucker, had a long career in government and politics, eventually winning election as governor of Illinois and an appointment as a federal judge. About a year after his elevation to the federal bench, it came to light that he had taken bribes while he was governor. He was convicted of 17 felony counts and sentenced to prison in 1973, around the same time as the Watergate scandal was making headlines--and all that made the conspiracy allegations an easier sell to later generations.
Francis Ford Coppola's 1988 movie Tucker: the Man and His Dream certainly bought in to the conspiracy theory. Much like its protagonist Preston Tucker, the screenplay (by Arnold Schulman and David Seidler) plays a little fast and loose with the facts. (You can read a critique by Tucker Club of America historian Larry Clark here.) Mr. Tucker's children and surviving acquaintances agreed, however, that actor Jeff Bridges absolutely nailed their father's mannerisms and personality. (The Joe Jackson soundtrack is pretty good, too.) From a Car Lust perspective, the film is noteworthy for co-starring 21 of the surviving 1948 Tucker sedans. Mr. Coppola ended up buying three Tuckers for his own collection; as best I can tell, he's currently the only person in the world who owns more than one Tucker.
Whether there was a conspiracy or not--it's possible, but I'm not convinced--there's no question that Preston Tucker authored a lot of his own troubles. Being loosey-goosey with the facts in a public stock offering--the equivalent of sending the SEC an engraved invitation to investigate him--was just a part of it. A new make of car needs to make itself stand out from the competition in some way if it's to have any hope of success. As a salesman, Preston Tucker understood this in his bones, and he proposed an ambitious car with unique styling and a lot of advanced engineering. Problem was, it was a little too ambitious for a start-up company's first try.
Some of the Tucker's signature innovations were good ones. The perimiter frame was almost universal in the postwar era and into the 1970s, until replaced by unibody construction. Steerable headlights have been made to work well by other manufacturers. Safety glass isn't just a good idea, it's the law! Even the concept of a quick-change drivetrain, which as far as I know has never been used on a production car, makes a certain amount of sense.
Other elements of the design seem more like novelty for novelty's sake. The rear engine layout is different, certainly workable, but did it really give the car any advantage over its contemporaries?
The torque converter drive, had they ever gotten it working right, would not have had any noticable advantage over a conventional transmission, and the increase in unsprung weight resulting from putting torque converters on the wheels would have had a negative effect on ride and handling. Similarly, the slow-turning big-block 589, with its hydraulic valvetrain, would have conferred no meaningful advantage over a less exotic design even if they'd gotten the designed horsepower out of it. After spending a year of engineering effort and a whole lot of money the company really couldn't afford to waste, Tucker had to abandon the whole concept as unworkable.
Even the wild stuff that eventually worked gave them problems. Converting the air-cooled O-335 to a water-cooled engine wasn't the most efficient course of action, but they did at least get a good engine out of it. (Taking the air-cooled version off the aircraft market before the car was ready to go into production was a costly, unforced error, though.) The engineers spent a lot of time and development capital wrestling with the rubber springs before getting them right; it would have been a whole lot faster and cheaper if they'd just gone with conventional metal ones.
Had Preston Tucker not gone overboard on the feature list, and had the engineers picked their battles a little more judiciously, Tucker Corporation would not have burned through its initial capital so fast, and would not have been so strapped for cash, and perhaps they could have gotten by with a smaller IPO and not needed the "Accessories Program."
So how did the Tucker compare to the various Chevrolets, Fords, Mopars, Studes, Hudsons, Nashes, and assorted Frazer Manhattans that would have shared the streets with it?
As far as safety is concerned, the Tucker was undoubtedly a very crashworthy car by 1948 standards, but please keep in mind that the 1948 understanding of "crashworthy" was that the car's structure would survive a mighty wallop without collapsing. Take a look at the sheetmetal on a postwar car: it's consumer-grade Krupp cemented armor plate compared to what's on a Camry.
As later generations of engineers eventually understood, most injuries in a collision were caused by the transmission of the force of impact to the individuals inside, and from the fact that those individuals, if unsecured, would be tossed around inside the car--and sometimes completely out of the car--by their own inertia. Seatbelts were a large part of the solution, but so was the use of crumple zones, deliberately sacrificing part of the car's structure to dissipate the energy of the crash.
The Tucker had optional seatbelts, but no crumple zones because those hadn't been invented yet. Had the seatbelts proven to be a major competitive advantage, the other car companies would have no doubt rushed their own into production in short order and levelled the playing field.
The rear-engine layout could have proved to be a disadvantage. A rear-engined car has very different driving dynamics than a front-engined car, and consumers had some difficulty adjusting to this when the Corvair came out a decade later--giving it a reputation for un-safety it didn't really deserve. Might the Tucker have gotten the same bad rap?
While the surviving Tuckers seem not to have any reliability or durability issues, please keep in mind that they are all pre-production prototypes, hand-built with loving care by the people who designed them, and they have spent most of their existence as treasured artifacts which are rarely driven. Had the car gone into mass production, it's a virtual certainty that there would have been build-quality issues with the early production runs, until the engineers worked the bugs out and the line workers got some experience. Had Tuckers by the thousands been in use as daily drivers, they might have proved to have engineering or maintenance problems which went undetected in the prototype stage.
We also don't know how the real-world gas mileage would have compared to the rest of the class of 1948. Gas mileage wasn't a priority back then the way it is today, but people did pay attention to it.
So was the Tucker really so far ahead of the competition that Detroit would see it as a mortal threat, and suborn government officers to stop it? Probably not. It was good, but not that good; and even if it had been, the Big Three didn't need covert operations. They could have beaten Tucker with their financial strength and economies of scale, the way they eventually drove all the other independents--Kaiser, Packard, Hudson, Studebaker, and Nash/Rambler/AMC--out of the business.
Whatever the case, it is fun to imagine how the design of American cars might have gone in wildly different directions had a rear-engined car with three headlights and rubber springs been a sales success in 1948.
"A man who has once gotten automobiles into his blood can never give them up." Preston Tucker certainly practiced what he preached in that regard: he never gave up on the idea of building a car with his name on it. He tried two more times to start up a start-up car company, though neither scheme came anywhere close to fruition before he died.
However else you might describe him, it's pretty clear he was Car Lust's kind of people.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The page scan of the 1946 "Torpedo on Wheels" article comes from Kustomorama. The print ads came from oldcaradvertising.com and carstyling.ru. The screencaps from Tucker: the Man and His Dream came from IMCDB. To learn more about the car--and see photos of every one ever built--visit the Tucker Automobile Club of America website.