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.
Instead of just two headlights, the Tucker boasted three, including outboard lights designed to turn with the steering wheel, what we would call “adaptive headlights” today. Underneath, the proposed Tucker design rode on a four-wheel independent suspension with disc brakes at all four corners, while inside it pioneered safety advances like a padded dash, front and rear seat belts and a windshield designed to pop out in a crash.
During the car’s design and early promotion, it was referred to as the Tucker Torpedo, though Tucker himself quickly changed the name to the Tucker 48 to avoid reminding potential buyers of the Second World War. John Eddie Offutt, a mechanic who had previously worked with Tucker and his racing car partner, Harry Miller, on assembling cars for the Indianapolis 500, signed on to assist Alex Tremulis with production of the initial prototype. First revealed via design sketches in late 1946, Tucker began promotion of his revolutionary automobile in March of 1947 with a series of full-page ads in national newspapers, calling the Model 48, “the car you’ve been waiting for.” Follow-up ads would list the innovative proposed features of the Tucker 48, something that would later come back to haunt Tucker in his battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC).
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.
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.