The Greatness of Alex Tremulis, Part 2: Tucker to Kaiser-Frazer

The Greatness of Alex Tremulis, Part 2: Tucker to Kaiser-Frazer

Con­tin­ued from Part 1. My Alex Tremulis piece was pub­lished in full in The Auto­mo­bile, March 2020. 

Alex and Tucker

Like Bob Bourke’s famous 1953 Stude­bak­er “Loewy coupe,” the 1948 Tuck­er was almost entire­ly the work of one design­er. Of course many helped, and both Bourke and Tremulis gave them cred­it. But as near as one comes to design­ing a car by one­self, they did.

Tucker’s orig­i­nal con­cept fea­tured a cen­tral steer­ing wheel, doors with severe­ly curved glass wrap­ping into the roof, and front fend­ers that turned when the car was cor­ner­ing. Alex dis­missed all these as imprac­ti­cal. (Cre­ative Com­mons, Alden Jewell)

Alex set to work in a stu­dio at Tucker’s large, ex-Dodge plant in Chica­go. As chief design­er he had to inject prac­ti­cal­i­ty into Pre­ston Tuck­er’s enthu­si­asm. First con­cepts includ­ed a car with cycle fend­ers that turned with the wheels, a periscope rearview scan­ner, and vast expans­es of com­pound-curved glass. Tremulis argued that the first two ideas were imprac­ti­cal. As for glass, such cur­va­ture exceed­ed the tech­nol­o­gy of the con­tem­po­rary glass industry.

“It was hard enough,” Alex said, “to add Preston’s third cen­tral head­lamp, which he want­ed to turn with the wheels. Or those big doors inset into the roof—along with a rear-mount­ed air-cooled engine.” (Clever ideas were not always thought out: Tuck­er soon had to issue cov­ers for the swiv­el head­lamp, which tend­ed to blind oncom­ing dri­vers on curves. And con­tem­po­rary tech­nol­o­gy was not good enough to keep rain from pour­ing on your head when you opened one of those inset doors.)

With a stock issue pend­ing and deal­er pre­views set for mid-1947, it was a bat­tle against the clock. Tremulis devel­oped a full-size clay mod­el, adopt­ing bumper ideas from fel­low design­ers. Deal­ers greet­ed a steel pro­to­type with loud huz­zahs on June 19th. Tuck­er dubbed it the “Tin Goose.” It looked bloomin’ mar­velous! Or at least dras­ti­cal­ly dif­fer­ent from any con­tem­po­rary car.

Performance and aerodynamics

The pro­duc­tion pro­to­type, chas­sis num­ber 0000. The only Tuck­er with rub­ber-disc sus­pen­sion derived from the Miller rac­ing cars, a 9.65 liter flat six, and direct torque con­vert­er dri­ve with no reverse gear. (Alex Tremulis)

I once asked Alex for his Tuck­er dri­ving impres­sions. “The han­dling, accel­er­a­tion and top speed were impres­sive,” he said. “We always con­sid­ered ten-sec­ond 0-60 times slow by about a sec­ond and a half because of the [shift] delay. Third was utter­ly amaz­ing for pass­ing, and on sev­er­al occa­sions I reached 105 mph with it.” (Most Tuck­ers used Cord four-speed trans­mis­sions with the Ben­dix elec­tro-vac­u­um shifting.)

For com­par­i­son, Tuck­er bought a Cadil­lac coupe, reput­ed­ly America’s fastest car at the time. The Cadil­lac, Tremulis recalled,

could reach 80 mph in 22 sec­onds; the Tuck­er was doing 80 in 15. At 22 sec­onds the Tuck­er was at 90. By the time the Cadil­lac reached 85 mph in our many drag races, the Tuck­er could hit 100. At sea lev­el our top speed was 122 mph, though the Mar­quess de Porta­go was timed at 132 at Sebring. At Bon­neville, where the alti­tude is 4200 feet and the air less dense, Tuck­er #10 was clocked on three occa­sions at 130 mph, in spite of loss of horse­pow­er due to altitude.

* * *

Such num­bers seem unbe­liev­able in 130-inch wheel­base car with only 166 horse­pow­er. The answer was quite sim­ple, Alex explained:

I delib­er­ate­ly designed it to be as stream­lined as pos­si­ble, with­out being too con­tro­ver­sial. Eighty per­cent of the bot­tom was under-panned. The rear-mount­ed engine also helped. A typ­i­cal front engine requires an air intake area of some 250 square inch­es. Once trapped, the air has no place to go, except to spill out through the hood open­ing or under­neath. The Tuck­er rear fend­er air intakes required only forty square inch­es of area—air entered the radi­a­tor core and exit­ed through the rear grille. There were also lit­tle details—for exam­ple, no exter­nal rain gutters.

Good stream­lin­ing, Alex insist­ed, depends on details. “It all adds up.” Breath­tak­ing, you might say in 1948. In Chica­go tests, the Tucker’s coef­fi­cient of drag (CD) ranged around .30, sim­i­lar to a mod­ern car’s. This was unheard of at a time when a Lin­coln CD was .55. Even the VW Bee­tle was .48.

Tucker: the reality

Although Tucker’s ven­ture end­ed in law­suits and bank­rupt­cy, Alex Tremulis was blame­less. (Nor will we learn much from the hagio­graph­ic film which set up Tuck­er as the vic­tim of Detroit moguls. If GM real­ly want­ed to put him out of busi­ness, why did they sell him Del­co electrics?) For all his engi­neer­ing know-how, Pre­ston Tuck­er was a small­time pro­mot­er who didn’t know his way around busi­ness. He had no con­cept of the resources need­ed to launch a new car company.

Alex Tremulis point­ed to the com­par­i­son with anoth­er new post­war car com­pa­ny, Kaiser-Fraz­er. K-F’s ini­tial cap­i­tal­iza­tion was $52 mil­lion, and it wasn’t enough. Chevro­let set aside $100 mil­lion just to redesign its 1949 mod­els. Hen­ry J. Kaiser lat­er admit­ted, “we should have raised $200 mil­lion.” Tuck­er raised $15 mil­lion. (For today’s val­ue, mul­ti­ply by 11.)

Kaiser float­ed two stock issues, admit­ting in its prospec­tus that it was a gam­ble, stat­ing what it hoped to accom­plish. Tuck­er float­ed one stock issue, promis­ing the world, and found him­self in trou­ble with the Secu­ri­ties and Exchange Com­mis­sion. They charged him with false state­ments, mak­ing indi­rect pay­ments to pro­mot­ers, assign­ing engine work to his mother’s machine shop, and oth­er irregularities.

Significant nothwithstanding

Like Tuck­er, Kaiser promised things he couldn’t deliv­er: unit body-frame con­struc­tion, tor­sion bar sus­pen­sion, front-wheel-dri­ve. Unlike Tuck­er, Kaiser quick­ly regrouped. He sub­sti­tut­ed a car he could deliv­er, which peo­ple could actu­al­ly buy. Kaiser built a pro­duc­tion line cov­er­ing mil­lions of square feet and was build­ing 200 cars a day almost from the start. Tuck­er sent fifty pilot cars down a con­vey­or and called it a pro­duc­tion line. Nevertheless—isn’t there always a nevertheless?—Tucker con­ceived and Tremulis devel­oped one impres­sive motor­car. And Alex stuck it to the end, work­ing every day, long after his pay­checks stopped. Final­ly the plant closed and the doors locked.

In 1963 Alex con­ceived a “sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” Tuck­er, the Tal­is­man, invok­ing much of the orig­i­nal styling. (A.T. draw­ing for the author)





Pre­ston Tuck­er died in 1956, but Alex con­tin­ued to toy with his ideas. In 1963 he sketched draw­ings for a revival Tuck­er called the Tal­is­man, one of Preston’s orig­i­nal mod­el names. Its coef­fi­cient of drag was .25. With radi­al tires and Alex’s pro­posed mid-mount­ed Oldsmo­bile V8, he expect­ed it would do 150 mph. Forty years lat­er his ideas tri­umphed. In 1987 the Soci­ety of Auto­mo­tive Engi­neers hon­ored him for “one of  the sig­nif­i­cant auto­mo­biles of the past half-century.”

“A penchant for losers”

Alex engaged in MG dis­tri­b­u­tion for awhile after Tuck­er fold­ed, but still had a yen for design. “I guess I had a pen­chant for losers,” he mused. “By 1951 I was chief of Advanced Styling at Kaiser-Fraz­er.” They might have hired him because he showed up in a snow­storm dri­ving a Lin­coln Con­ti­nen­tal with the top down and trail­ing a white scarf. “I always liked to make an entrance.”

The job didn’t last long. Kaiser aban­doned its Wil­low Run, Michi­gan plant in 1953 and ran a rump oper­a­tion in Tole­do, Ohio before expir­ing in 1955. But Alex enjoyed his expe­ri­ence, par­tic­u­lar­ly the design­ers he worked with. In a busi­ness where egos are ram­pant, his gen­er­ous acknowl­edge­ment of them is worth recording.

Kaiser-Frazer’s stylists

Alex called Herb Weissinger, who turned Dutch Dar­rin’s 1948 clay mod­el into the ground-break­ing 1951 Kaiser, “a mae­stro in the exe­cu­tion of a line on a sur­face. His chrome appliqués were done with the per­fec­tion of a Celli­ni.” Arnott “Buzz” Grisinger, Alex said, was “the great­est sculp­tur­al design mod­el­er. A quick sketch of a beau­ti­ful car float­ing in space sans wheels was all he need­ed to attack a full-size clay mod­el. The body engi­neers told me they nev­er sur­face-devel­oped any irreg­u­lar­i­ties. They took tem­plates off his clays and used the lines ver­ba­tim.” Bob Robil­lard “was indis­pens­able in refin­ing and work­ing out the end­less details for pro­duc­tion. I best remem­ber Bob sit­ting in the front seat of a pro­to­type for weeks on end, per­son­al­ly mod­el­ing the instru­ment panel…he said that in order to design it, you have to live behind it.”

1952 All­state, a Hen­ry J restyled by Alex Tremulis. (Cre­ative Com­mons, Alden Jewell)

“Advanced Design” at Kaiser-Fraz­er sounds like an oxy­moron. But in 1951 sales were up and they still thought they had a chance. The Tremulis tal­ent for nam­ing cars sur­faced when he sug­gest­ed “Sun God­dess” for a pro­to­type hard­top Kaiser the com­pa­ny con­sid­ered but nev­er built. “I named it for an Egypt­ian gal I knew,” Alex quipped.

His first K-F assign­ment was the All­state, a facelift­ed Hen­ry J sold through Sears, Roe­buck cat­a­logues in 1952-53: “I did a hur­ry-up remake of the grille, putting in two hor­i­zon­tals and a lit­tle tri­an­gu­lar piece, made up a jet plane type bon­net mas­cot and put on the All­state logo with a map of the Unit­ed States. Voila, there it was!” But he was just get­ting started.

Might-have-been: the Kaiser 105

Tremulis con­cept sketch­es of the “inter­me­di­ate” sized Kaiser 105, an aero­dy­nam­ic con­cept he expect­ed would deliv­er 30 miles per gal­lon and 100 mph with the stan­dard Kaiser engine. (A.T. draw­ing for the author)

His proud­est achieve­ment was the “New Com­pos­ite Body Pro­gram”: a com­plete restyle for the Kaiser and Hen­ry J for 1955 or 1956—cars that nev­er arrived. The prob­lem was twofold. Not only did Kaiser need updat­ed styling; they bad­ly need­ed per­for­mance. But there were only under­whelm­ing six­es and fours.

Repris­ing his expe­ri­ence at Tuck­er, Tremulis stressed stream­lin­ing and light weight. They slight­ly down­sized the new Kaiser; the Hen­ry J gained need­ed inte­ri­or room by going from a 100- to a 105-inch wheel­base. Alex recalled:

The 105 design called for a flat four-cylin­der engine cou­pled to front wheel dri­ve. With its light­ness [2500 pounds] and small frontal area it would per­form real­ly well. With­out a change in engines, we expect­ed 35 miles per gal­lon and a top speed of over 100 mph. A planned V-6 would have giv­en greater per­for­mance. It was anoth­er Tuck­er, years ahead in con­cept and function…If the 105 had been built, I hon­est­ly believe I’d be telling a dif­fer­ent sto­ry today.

Con­clud­ed in Part 3: “Stream­lin­ing and Speed Records”


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