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’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.
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.
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.