PRESTON THOMAS TUCKER was a big man who dreamed even bigger. Seventy years after the demise of his ambitious rear-engined Tucker 48 (aka Torpedo) car, the jury is still out on whether he was a visionary or a highly polished flim-flam man.
What’s beyond doubt is that Preston Tucker, born in 1903, had petrol in his veins. He left school in his mid-teens to be an office boy at Cadillac, joined a Michigan police force at 19 to drive pursuit cars and, perhaps inevitably, gravitated to selling cars. He partnered with genius Harry Miller to build 10 Indy 500 racers for Ford in 1935. When they failed, he pitched designs for a military car and a fighter aircraft, from his backyard in Michigan.
Detroit’s Big Three had developed no new cars during the war, Tucker figured he’d catch them napping. In 1946 he advertised the futuristic Tucker ‘Torpedo’ family car; in reality, a rendering and a doctored photo of a 1:8-scale model, with a vague wish-list that included a rear-mounted, flat-six engine and all-independent suspension. The design was taken over by Alex Tremulis, whose subsequent stint with the US Army produced renderings of alien aircraft: the now-familiar ‘flying saucers’.
Tucker, meanwhile, was vigorously selling stock options and dealership rights. By March 1947, when he began advertising the ‘Tucker 48’ – after “15 years of testing” – he had raised US$17m.
A prototype, built in 60 days and nicknamed ‘Tin Goose’, was unveiled in June 1947. Its clean-sheet ‘589’ engine, a monobloc flat six of almost 10 litres, clearly needed years of development. Tucker would soon buy Air-Cooled Motors of Chicago, producer of a flat-six helicopter engine.
There were plenty of innovations: independent suspension; padded dashboard; collapsible steering column; wrap-over doors; and the ‘cyclops’ steering headlamp. However, assembled pilot cars were just as soon disassembled, as specifications changed.
Way back in June 1946, the Securities and Exchange Commission had warned investors of “grossly misleading and in many cases false” statements being made by Tucker. Further reports emerged about his business history of dodgy deals and pocket-lining.
While Preston Tucker squawked of a Motown conspiracy, in truth his promise-laden car was massively underdeveloped and his business hopelessly disorganised.
In October 1949, Tucker and seven associates were charged on 31 counts of conspiracy and securities and mail fraud. They were acquitted in January 1950, but Tucker’s big dream was dead, with just 51 cars (including the Tin Goose) built.