Whatever Happened To...Tucker?

Glenn Arlt

August 13, 2013

Preston Tucker’s entrepreneurial spirit, ingenuity and unrelenting positivity led him to develop an innovative automobile that stood on a foundation of questionable business decisions. In the first installment of a new series looking at short-lived automotive marques and models, Glenn Arlt takes a look at the groundbreaking vision (and initial glitches) behind Tucker’s legendary car. 


The story of Preston Tucker is a classic David and Goliath tale. In the 1988 film Tucker: The Man and his Dream, Hollywood portrayed Tucker as man with grit, genius and determination — an automotive visionary who took on the establishment and, finally, the American legal system that ultimately caused his undoing. 

We love Tucker’s tale because of what could have been had he, Alex Tremulis and the other hardworking folks in the background been able to at least get the car to market to see whether it would have panned out or not. 

Tucker

Tucker’s Dream 

Tucker’s initial vision for an all-new, post-war car started in 1946 when he proposed a torpedo-shaped car powered by a hydraulic drive system, which turned out to be too far in advance of technology of the day.

Instead of giving up, however, Tucker merely went back to the drawing board. Having designed a gun turret that became invaluable to the war effort for the United States and Allied militaries during World War II, Tucker had the engineering expertise. Thanks to an earlier collaboration with famed race car fabricator Henry Miller, he also had the design knowhow. 

What he needed was money and a factory. After the government agreed to lease him a massive, decommissioned B-29 engine factory outside Chicago, Tucker and his associates began attracting investors and setting up a dealer network. In order to take advantage of the post-war seller’s market (as well as to establish a name for himself in a hyper-competitive industry), Tucker believed his “car of the future” had to be developed, engineered, designed, and tooled up within two years — a nearly impossible task. 

Early Glitches 

The first Tucker sedan prototype (affectionately named “Tin Goose”) initially had a massive fuel-injected 589-cubic-inch liquid-cooled flat-6 rear engine with a torque converter on each end. This feature drove each rear wheel directly with no transmission; thus, no reverse gear was possible, which was a major problem to say the least. 

Alex Tremulis was hired to design a car body for production and reportedly given just six days to finish the job. Tucker’s fanciful and entirely impractical demand for front fenders that turned with the wheels (with headlights attached) was abandoned. This is why the production-ready car had a central steering headlamp; it was the only practical means of achieving Preston’s goal. The proposed disc brakes also had to be temporarily abandoned in order to get the cars out the door. 

There was also a major problem with the 589 engine — it simply didn’t work. Being impossible to back up, it was unceremoniously dumped. Tucker turned to the remnants of the old Franklin auto company, which built aircraft and helicopter engines under the moniker “Air Cooled Motors” in Syracuse, New York. 

Believing that nobody would accept air cooling, he had the engine converted to water cooling and added an oil pan. The 335-cubic-inch engine was also placed behind the rear wheels instead of between, and this necessitated a transaxle (more or less identical in layout to the Volkswagen and later Corvair and Porsche 911). 

To rush things along, a few pre-war Cord 810/812 transaxles from that front-wheel-drive car were purchased from scrap yards, rebuilt and pressed into service. This transmission was retooled for production as a “standard shift.” But engineers were also working on a fully automatic transmission, the Tuckermatic, which was to be optional for an extra cost. Tucker even had long-term plans for proposed gas-turbine engines for the 1950s cars. 

Tucker

What Tucker Got Right 

All production hiccups aside, the 1948 Tucker sedan proved faster than competitors, just as roomy and had many unique features, including an aluminum liquid-cooled flat-6 rear engine, four-wheel independent suspension and a padded dashboard. It also had a reverse gear! 

The Tucker ’48 planned for production had many other features well ahead of competitors. These included: pop-out windshields to keep from cutting people (proved to have worked in a high-speed rollover wreck on the proving grounds with one of the pre-production jobs); safety door releases inside; no protruding knobs ready to impale passengers in a wreck; and a padded “escape cellar” area instead of a dashboard for the front passengers to duck down into if a wreck was impending. 

Virtually all the top automotive testers and critics of the day were very enthusiastic and praised the car highly in magazines and newspapers. Herbert D. Wilson, then the automobile editor of the Chicago Herald-American, wrote in the May 2, 1948 issue of the newspaper that his test drive indicated that “… the car loafs along at 80 with the throttle half open…the acceleration is terrific, extreme roominess, has excellent vision and a feeling of safety and solidity.” Tom McCahill, automotive editor for Mechanix Illustrated magazine, reported in the August 1948 issue that the Tucker was one of the “greatest performing passenger automobiles ever built on this side of the Atlantic.” 

Cahill’s test drive of the vehicle found the car capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph in 10 seconds. “I opened the throttle on a straight stretch of highway,” he wrote, “and was soon doing 105 miles per hour. This was the quickest 105 miles per hour I have ever reached.” 

Only 51 cars were made before Tucker was forced to shut down his company in 1949 thanks to negative publicity surrounding the investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which charged Tucker with stock fraud. Tucker was ultimately found innocent of all charges, but by then the damage to his dreams of owning an automobile company was done. 

Flash forward to now and one can only wonder: could Tucker have added the planned 1949 “Talisman” two-door sports coupe and stayed competitive against the Detroit convertible hardtops then coming into vogue? Tremulis wrote later that the 1949 sedans were going to have a wrap-around rear window, much like the 1963-1967 Corvettes. 

What if Tucker could have developed the planned automatic transaxle and gotten it into production ahead of established companies such as Ford, Packard and Studebaker, which also developed automatics in this era? Would the powerful 166-horsepower car have flopped on the marketplace? Sadly, we’ll never know.


Comments

  1. George Bishopric FORT LAUDERDALE

    I've never understood all the hype about this car. Kaiser, who was had far deeper pockets than Tucker could have dreamed of quit, and said he was undercapitalized to compete with the big three. It was a time when small builders were winnowed out of business. It was kind of cool, it was new, but large rear engined cars were probably never going to be the way of the future.

  2. Neil Russell Statesboro, GA

    I always believed Raymond Loewy took a look at Tremulis' designs and saw the Tucker as something that would become wildly popular. 1947 through early 50s Studebakers look an awful lot like "baby" Tuckers. The 50 and 51 even has a place for the third headlight. Or maybe Tremulis looked at Loewy's designs ;)

  3. Brakeservo USA

    Another car to compare with the Tucker is perhaps most appropriately the Tatra which may very well have also inspired Tucker . . . and ironically may have in turn inspired Tatra later as well - look at how closely the 1955 Tatra 603 mimics the Tucker 48! I've actually had people mistake my Tatra for a Tucker.

  4. Gary Griffin Washington state

    My mothers cousin owned Tucker 10 for decades. She and her late husband bought it in California and later returned to Washington with it. It sat in her garage here in Wadhington until she sold it and ther is a video of it leaving her home on You Tube called Tucker 10.

  5. jimpassi United States

    the tucker was way ahead of its time the big 3 was scardtadeath & made up storys so people would not buy. they all lot in court after they ran him under. he lost everything. think about it there all still on the road 70 years after the fact how many other cars can say that i almost bought one on ebay it sold for $55,000. about 15-20 years ago.now its wourth about 1 million. are any of your cars wourth that. most likely not

  6. Nick Shu Colorado, USA

    Making the 589 engine/torque converter setup backup was not "impossible" as the article states, Tucker just did not have time or money to develop a reverse gear setup for it in time to get it into "production". With investors and dealers breathing down his neck (who he had overpromised) he needed a solution that would not take another 2 years and million dollars to develop. His original idea on the 589 cu inch was because it allowed him to use the same equipment for machining pistons and cylinders for the B29's that were built in the Chicago factory he obtained, including the tooling. In the end the Franklin O-335 engine was an easier fit, however the Franklin was so heavily modified by Tucker engineers to adapt to the car that it was basically a whole new engine by the time they got done with it. Certainly was not plug and play. Regardless of whether Tucker was a sheister or not his ideas were so revolutionary that over the next 30 years the big-3 automakers adopted almost all of them as technology and cost allowed.

  7. Lou Ratsos Michigan

    Although the car company of Bricklin had many issues, the car also had innovations similar to what Tucker did. Can we be looking for a Bricklin story too in the future?

  8. Marty K. Vancover, Washington

    Here is an interesting sideline to the Tucker. A good friend of mine Ed Monroe who has now passed away, owned a Tucker I believe it was number 48 or 49 but I'm not sure. At any rate it is the one that's in the Smithsonian. Ed owned this car along with about 100 other classic cars. Unfortunately for Ed he chose to manufacturing drugs which paid him enough money to buy these cars but also gave him a long time in federal prison. The Tucker was one of the many cars Ed owned. They were all confiscated by the federal government and chose to put the Tucker in the Smithsonian. One thing that probably only I know now you know is that before they came and confiscated the car Ed took an initial stamping tool and stamped his initials inside the car everywhere he could think of. Under the hood, in the trunk, in the door jams etc. Ed was a very nice person and I always liked him regardless of where he chose to make his money.

  9. ed chaja westville,in.

    the original red car used in the movie is sitting in a museum about ten miles from my home in indiana housed with a number of other classic autos and other antiques from an era long gone. it's a very nice place to visit located in laporte,in. anyay back to the tucker ! the only way to appreciate the car is to see it in person. pictures alone do not do it justice. the car is really designed beautifully before it's time much like the studebaker was. the inside and the dash especially looks to be much like being in a cockpit. controls and gauges very fitting to the design of the car, when most cars of that era took on the look of aerodynamics. nothing fancy but impressive, very roomy , ( no hump flat floorboard, that probably had some people scratching their heads) the car is very well designed. every time we visit the museum it's the first vehicle I have to see. this year we had the chance to meet the grandsons of mr. tucker which were there representing the car and answering any questions. very nice !

  10. Timothy Wagner Lansing, Mi

    A friend of mine from church lived in Ypsilanti. He was friends with Preston Tuckers daughter. He knew the Tuckers well. His daughter would drive a Tucker to school. She would let him drive her Tucker. He has talked to me a lot about her car. He is in his 80's and his memory is really good. I enjoy talking to him. The Hudson Dealer in Depot Town Ypsilanti has one of the dummy Tuckers from the movie in their museum.

  11. KaiserBill Seattle, WA

    In 1989 I was lucky enough to spend an afternoon with Alex Tremulis. He designed a car I owned, the Kaiser Sun Goddess, a unique prototype hardtop that the company did not put into production. We talked a good deal about that car, but the talk turned to the Tucker, since I had always been fascinated by it. He was a bit hard to understand, as he had suffered a stroke a short time before, but it was an afternoon I shall never forget, full of talk of prototypes, design principles, the demise of the Tucker before it was really born, and of independent car makers fight for a place in the business. Alex passed away in 1990, so the one afternoon I had with him was really special to me. Viewer Russell, in regards to Kaiser, did not know how stubborn Henry Kaiser was, and especially where his businesses were concerned. Each business had to stand on its own, he was not one for throwing good money after bad. If it did not work, he simply walked away. In Kaiser's case, part of the problem was his own, he produced far more cars than needed in 1949-50, when he could have retrenched and taken a small profit---instead, he was burdened with costs he could not recover. In this respect, his stubbornness to never retrench was a part of the company's demise.

  12. John Neuenburg California

    Saw a Tucker last week inside the store at the fancy Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, CA. Reminded me of being an extra in the movie when they were filming in downtown Oakland. A non-stop "hurry up and wait" kind of day, watching Tuckers racing around the block to get back in the shots. I was in a traffic jam scene as part of a military vehicle convoy on my '41 Indian Scout, in MP uniform. Ended up on the cutting room floor. I got the worst haircut ever. She asked if I was wearing a hat, answer was yes, so she didn't care what was above the hat line. High and tight, 1940s style.

  13. Rick Fisk Yakima, Wa

    I was told that if you ordered a Tucker, that he would send a radio to you that would be installed in the car when you recieved the car from the dealer. I have one of those radios which is complete. It is probably 6 volt, but I don't know if the cars were pos. or neg ground, so I have never tried to see if it works.

  14. McCloud Houston, TX

    With all due respect, I don't see how anyone could mistake a Tatra 603 for a Tucker. Inspiration for Tucker? Gimme a break....that's quite a stretch!

  15. Abe Dadian Meredith, NH

    When I was in high school in Chelmsford, Mass. we had an old stable as a neighbor and the fellow who rented it brought hay to his horses in bales stacked in the back seat of his Tucker and eventually on some rack he built on the roof of the car. He was a teacher at one of the schools and the best word to describe him would be "strange".

  16. art Allison Park (McCanmdless) PA

    Having made my very first new car purchase of a 1954 Willys Aero Eagle (ahead of its time, no "b" pillar Coupe) I had the chance to see a number of different Kaiser models up close. The dealer sold both because of the desperate merger to fend off the great cows from Buick, Cadillac, Lincoln and Imperial of the time. The first Kaisers (Frazer, too) were truly ugly lumps that even the car hungry post WWII customer were reluctant to buy. By 1954 they came out with quite a fetching, if sedate, looking car - but alas, a bit late and even with the Kaiser Dragon snakeskin roof, the sardine can Henry J and the stunning Kaiser Darrin, the company went down the tubes - Willys lives on (sort of) as the Jeep.

  17. Larry New Jersey

    As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, NY, I remember a Tucker Show room/ Dealership located on 65th Street and Fort Hmailton Parkway circa 1948/49. I believe they only had one or two cars in the show room. As a 10 year old at the time I impressed with it design compared to what was on the road at that time, mostly pre-war vehilces.

  18. oldcarman Oakland MI

    The bullet-nosed Studebaker foresaw the wrap around rear windows discussed, in volume production. Different does not mean better. Hype usually says it does, such as the Tesla electric. The Big 5 had deeper pockets to retool and develop bigger & better drive trains. Ticker was just under-capitalized. This has been the story of car company after car company since the start. It would have been an interesting car if it had gotten into production. Still, in the context of the time, it was not a beautiful design, and not really all that innovative.

  19. J.B.Zepko Powder Springs , georgia

    who furnished , or stamped the sheet metal for the Tucker..As a field rep for SAAB, visiting a dealer (Cadillac ) in Chattanooga , Tenn, a gentleman i met claimed to be a foreman in the Willow run plant, and indicated the bodies were Fisher ..Of course there were a number of body makers back then, Budd, Hayes , illonia , etc ,,Any truth to the Fisher myth ?/

  20. Chris Green Omaha, Nebraska

    We have a Tucker near here at a museum in Lincoln Nebraska. Many small car companies have been driven out of business by the big three. Tucker was an early casuality but there have been plenty others. Bricklin and DeLorean and even now the Tesla owner is coming under fire. We are prisoners of the combustion engine because those in power have no other vision. What a joke when president Bush, an oil man, said that hydrogen cars were "the way of the future". That path would take thirty years to develop giving gas gustlers another two decades of dominance.

  21. Glenn Arlt Traverse City, Michigan

    Hi Mr Zepco, IF memory serves me correctly, Tucker's mass production bodies were to be furnished by Hayes Body in Grand Rapids, Michigan, which is not too far from Chicago. Glenn Arlt.