They say that any creation is an expression of its creator. That’s certainly the case with the 1948 Tucker Sedan, also known as the “Tucker Torpedo.” Like its maker, it was way ahead of its time. And, like him, its legacy survives to this day, despite efforts by the powers-that-be to drive it into oblivion.
A Square Peg In a Round Hole
Preston Tucker (September 21, 1903 – December 26, 1956) was a self-taught engineer and iconoclast inventor. Like many visionaries, he was known for upsetting established authorities. In 1922, he joined the Lincoln Park, Michigan Police Department against his mothers’ wishes. His career as a peace officer was cut short when she informed the chief that he was only 19 and below the minimum age, a fact he had neglected to mention on his application.
He later rejoined the department, only to be dismissed again, when he used a blowtorch to cut a hole in a police vehicle’s dashboard. He had realized that engine heat could be used to warm a car’s interior and simply wanted to put his discovery to use. His superiors didn’t share his enthusiasm for the project, however.
Prior to designing the car that bears his name, he worked as a car salesman, entered into unsuccessful business ventures, and was employed as a line worker by Ford. Later, he designed race cars and submitted plans to the military for armored vehicles and fighter planes.
His breakthrough came during WWII, when the US Navy expressed interest in a revolving gun turret he had created. It was eventually installed on PT boats, landing craft, and both the B-17 and B-29 bombers. It allowed American gunners to shoot down enemy aircraft approaching from multiple
directions, and return safe from missions that might have otherwise cost them their lives. After the war, however, Tucker spent years in court trying to collect the revenues he was owed for his invention.
The Car of the Future
As the end of WWII neared, marketing researchers polled Americans about what products they intended to purchase after victory was declared. Over 80% of them said that the first thing they wanted to buy was a new car. But Detroit had not come out with new models since 1941, so Tucker sensed
an opportunity to enter the market. He set out to design what he called “the car of the future.”
He included elements into his plan which were cutting-edge concepts by the standards of the time. These included:
•Four wheel independent suspension
•A user-friendly instrument panel
•A padded dash
•Rotating headlights that saw around curves
•A crash frame similar to today’s unibody construction
•Direct drive torque converters instead of a conventional transmission
•A power train that could be removed and replaced in half an hour
•And a parking brake locked by a separate key to discourage theft
This was a bold vision indeed, considering the technology available in the 1940s, and Tucker was forced to forego many of these features in his production model. He also had to abandon his unique engine design, a 589 cubic inch (9.65 L) flat-6 which included hemispherical combustion chambers and overhead valves, due to production issues. Ultimately he settled on a modified air-cooled engine. It was mated with several different transmissions that were used in various versions of the sedan.
The Final Car Takes Shape
Tucker’s Chicago factory ultimately built 51 vehicles, 47 of which are still around today. They can be seen in places as far apart as the Toyota Automobile Museum in Tokyo, the Swigart Antique Auto Museum in Huntington, PA, and the Tallahassee Antique Car Museum in Florida. Many of them are held by private collectors. In 2010, one sold for $1.127 million, and in 2012, one went for $2.195 million at auction. These sums are ironic, given that the original projected price was under $2500.00.
Tucker’s Enemies Close In
Tucker had no backing from the government or the Big Three. In fact, it’s generally believed that Detroit’s power brokers colluded with corrupt Washington politicians to destroy the young upstart, who was challenging their vaunted position in American industry.
In order to finance his company, he raised millions of dollars by issuing stock, selling dealerships, and offering potential buyers a guaranteed opportunity to buy a Tucker sedan, once they began rolling off the assembly line in large numbers.
These actions drew the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and soon an aggressive effort was under way to ruin Tucker’s name and to have him imprisoned on fraud charges. It was led by Otto Kerner, Jr., a US attorney with extensive political connections. With no evidence to back up these claims, the campaign collapsed. Decades later in 1973 Kerner was himself found guilty of 17 charges, including perjury, bribery, and stock fraud.
Aftermath and Legacy
Though the attempts to put Tucker in prison failed, the negative publicity surrounding them was enough to destroy public confidence in his company. Production of the car ended. But Tucker himself, always the optimist, continued to work on forward-thinking projects until 1956, when he passed away from cancer.
In 1988 the Hollywood film “Tucker: the Man and His Dream,” starring Jeff Bridges and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, was released nationwide. Despite widespread critical praise, it failed to make much money at the box office. Perhaps the movie, like the man and the car it portrayed, was simply ahead of its time.