Fortune, the saying goes, favors the bold. Were that truly the case, the Tucker Model 48 would have been an uncontested success for Tucker Corporation and Preston Thomas Tucker, the visionary jack-of-all-trades inventor behind its creation. Instead, just as production of one of the 20th century’s most innovative automobiles was about to start, the government (as some believe, pressured by Detroit’s Big Three automakers) stepped in and effectively shut Tucker down.
Preston Tucker was not an automotive engineer by trade, though few would argue that he possessed the ability to comprehend and advise on technical matters. With a background that included everything from automotive sales through race car and even armored car design (with partner Harry Miller), it was almost inevitable that Tucker would someday turn his attention towards constructing a production automobile that carried his own name.
As originally envisioned by Tucker, the Tucker Model 48 (named for its debut year of 1948) featured some truly groundbreaking designs. Alex Tremulis George Lawson penned the streamlined coupe bodywork, featuring the driver in a central position instead of offset to the left (a design that would much later be embraced by McLaren on its F1 supercar). Located in the rear of the car, the proposed 589-cu.in. aluminum flat-six engine was so under-stressed that an overhaul would not be required for the first 180,000 miles. Tucker’s original design lacked a conventional transmission, too, and in its place a pair of torque converters would have sent power to the rear wheels.
For a production facility, Tucker opted for the largest single-building factory in the world, the former Dodge B-29 assembly plant in Chicago, Illinois. The War Assets Administration (WAA) agreed to lease the plant to Tucker with the provision that he raise $15 million in working capital by the following year. Partnering with well-funded businessmen would have meant relinquishing control, so Tucker adopted a more innovative way of raising money: He’d sell dealership rights to companies eager to peddle the Tucker 48 to a waiting public. To further boost funding, he’d later offer shares of Tucker Corporation stock to prospective buyers, and would even sell accessory items such as radios to those on the waiting list for a Tucker automobile.
The original coupe design was dropped for the initial Tucker concept, replaced by a sedan body penned by Alex Tremulis (with design elements from J. Gordon Lippincott) that would become known as the “Tin Goose.” Revealed to an eager public on June 19, 1947, at Tucker’s massive Chicago plant, the prototype impressed many of the 3,000 people reported to be in attendance.
Few noticed that the engine was loud, or that the car overheated while being driven on stage, or even that the prototype lacked a reverse gear. Some critics were less kind, however, pointing out the Tucker’s flaws and even going so far as to call the car a fraud. Tucker had gotten the media exposure he’d hoped for, but negative coverage in the press soon painted the company in an unfavorable light.
It also became clear that the breakthrough designs called for in early ads couldn’t be implemented, at least not at the car’s projected selling price of $2,450. The Ben Parsons-designed flat-six engine was proving troublesome, so the decision was made to fit production models with a 345-cu.in. Franklin six-cylinder engine, manufactured by Air Cooled Motors (which Tucker would soon purchase to reduce supply costs) and intended for use in aircraft. As delivered, the engine was modified from its original air-cooled design to water-cooled, and its output was rated at 166 horsepower and 372 pound-feet of torque. Tucker abandoned the complex torque converter design, instead opting for more conventional Cord pre-selector manual transmissions, and a fastback sedan body style (also penned by Tremulis) with conventional seating for six was chosen for the final design.
Production models did away with seat belts (because Tucker Corporation vice president Fred Rockelman felt they sent a message that the car was unsafe), four-wheel disc brakes and swiveling outboard headlamps, too, mostly in the name of cost savings. The three-headlamp setup remained, however, and the design was changed so that the central headlamp turned with the front wheels. Because volume production had yet to start, each of the cars produced to date (51, counting the Tin Goose prototype, though only about 35 had been finished by the time production ended, and about 58 bodies in total were built) exhibited a few differences from the car that preceded it, leading some to consider all Tuckers as prototypes.
Just as initial Tucker 48 production was beginning to trickle out of the Chicago plant, things went from bad to worse for the Tucker Corporation. In early 1948, the government rejected Tucker’s bid to acquire a war asset steel plant in Cleveland, Ohio. Tucker had submitted the highest bid, but instead the plant was awarded to the company running it, depriving Tucker of a source for low-cost steel. The refusal of the Tucker bid, combined with the launch of an SEC investigation in May of 1948, prompted Tucker to publish a rebuttal in newspapers across the United States on June 15, 1948. In the missive, Preston Tucker detailed his company’s accomplishments (such as designing the model 48 in half the time of a conventional automobile, acquiring the largest factory in the world and establishing a dealer network in advance of production) while intimating that forces within the government and auto industry were conspiring to shut Tucker down.
If 1948 was bad for Tucker and his dream of producing the car of the future, 1949 was worse. Early in the year, the SEC seized the records of the Tucker Corporation and turned control of the company (which had already halted production, laying off some 1,600 employees) over to administrators. Preston Tucker and six other executives were indicted on numerous fraud-related charges, all stemming from the creative ways that Tucker had raised capital to fund Model 48 production, or from the differences between the initially proposed Tucker design and the manufactured Model 48 sedans.
Ultimately, the government failed to prove its case, and on January 22, 1950, Tucker and his executive staff were found not guilty of all charges. The outcome of the trial was moot, however, as the damage to Tucker Corporation had already been done. Its factory was gone, leased by the government to the Lustron Corporation, a manufacturer of pre-fab housing (although Lustron never occupied the entire factory, which Ford later used to build jet engines). Faced with a series of lawsuits from prospective buyers and dealers, as well as an insurmountable accumulation of debt, the assets of the Tucker Corporation (including unsold Model 48 production) sold for a reported 18 cents on the dollar.
To this day, the real story behind the failure of the Tucker Corporation remains unclear, though many buy into the version iterated in the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola film Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Some pin it on the ambitions of Preston Tucker, reportedly far more of a visionary than a businessman. Others blame it on the evil machinations of the Detroit Big Three automakers, who allegedly convinced the government that the success of a small, upstart automaker with a revolutionary design was in nobody’s best interest. While the truth likely lies between these extremes, this much is clear: The Tucker Model 48 gave us a brief glimpse into the future of the automobile, showing what’s possible when automakers favor innovation over profitability.
Thanks to Tucker historian Mike Schutta for his assistance in preparing this article. Article courtesy of Hemings Daily.