The Tucker Story (No, It Wasn’t the Car to Beat Detroit)

The Tucker Story (No, It Wasn’t the Car to Beat Detroit)

Tuck­er, “the First Com­plete­ly New Car in Fifty Years,” was announced in 1946. To a war-weary yet opti­mistic Amer­i­ca, it seemed to be tomorrow’s car today.

The Tuck­er was a dra­mat­ic break with tra­di­tion. Its engine was a 166 horse­pow­er flat opposed alu­minum six, rear-mount­ed for opti­mum weight dis­tri­b­u­tion. Its frame was low­er than the cen­ter­line of the wheels. Sus­pen­sion was ful­ly inde­pen­dent. The ratio of pounds to horse­pow­er was low­er than any pre­vi­ous Amer­i­can car. Top speed was said to be 120 mph.

Oth­er imag­i­na­tive fea­tures includ­ed a “cyclops” cen­ter head­light that swung with the front wheels, a pro­tru­sion-free dash­board, and a ”storm cel­lar” com­part­ment into which the front seat occu­pants were sup­posed to dive in the event of col­li­sion. The doors were cut into the roof for ease of entry. Indi­vid­ual glove box­es were in the door pan­els. A “pop-out” wind­shield eject­ed in a crash.

Tuck­er styling, by Alex Tremulis, was arrest­ing, and the car was sup­posed to sell for under $2500. All this was mind-bog­gling to peo­ple for whom the newest cars were the 1947 Kaiser, Fraz­er and Studebaker—which, though fresh­ly styled, were entire­ly con­ven­tion­al under the skin.

Fran­cis Coppola’s 1988 film Tuck­er: The Man and His Dream,  star­ring Jeff Bridges, col­or­ful­ly recounts the sto­ry. But it tends to cast Pre­ston Tuck­er him­self as the vic­tim of a cabal led by rival man­u­fac­tur­ers and the politi­cians in their pockets.

There is no doubt that cer­tain Michi­gan politi­cians looked askance at Tuck­er. Alas Pre­ston him­self made promis­es he couldn’t keep. While Stude­bak­er and Kaiser-Fraz­er built mil­lions of cars, Tuck­er built only 51. By 1950 his enter­prise had dis­solved under charges of fraud, and the tri­al of Pre­ston and sev­en of his colleagues.

Tucker redux

For awhile it looked like Tuck­er was going to set the indus­try on its ear. He rent­ed the largest plant under one roof in the world, sold $15 mil­lion worth of stock, and built pro­to­types which per­formed impres­sive­ly well.

But as a seri­ous mass-pro­duc­tion car, the Tuck­er was dead on arrival, from the stand­points of both cost and its quirky fea­tures. Illus­tra­tive of these prob­lems is the sto­ry of Tuck­er engine development.

The first Tuck­er engine was a huge 589, installed only in the pro­to­type or “Tin Goose.” Start­ing it required 30 to 60 volts of exter­nal pow­er. It had oth­er prob­lems, accord­ing to Richard E. Jones, writ­ing in The Mile­stone Car: “No sat­is­fac­to­ry hydraulic valve actu­at­ing sys­tem or prac­ti­cal fuel injec­tion were developed.”

Pre­ston Tuck­er con­tin­ued to promise fuel injec­tion, but the nec­es­sary lev­el of per­for­mance was nev­er met. Ex-Cell-O fuel injec­tion was tried, but in Feb­ru­ary 1948, Tuck­er asked his engi­neers to test their engine with a car­bu­re­tor, because “con­sid­er­able work was still required on the injector.”

It took anoth­er decade for Gen­er­al Motors to get fuel injec­tion to work reli­ably (sort of). Yet the deci­sion to post­pone fuel injec­tion occurred months before Pre­ston promised that his car would have it.

Bust upon bust

Final­ly, Tuck­er opt­ed for the famous Air­cooled Motors 335 cid six. From it, he promised 275 horse­pow­er and speeds up to 150 mph. Did its price reflect real­i­ty? Richard Jones wrote: “The aver­age cost of the nine­ty-one engines deliv­ered through the end of August 1948 was $1418 each. And this was exclu­sive of $128,000 expend­ed by Air­cooled for engi­neer­ing, tool­ing and devel­op­ment work.” Sub­tract­ing $1418 from the pro­ject­ed price of $2450 leaves $1032 for the rest of the car. Retail. Out of that, Tuck­er promised to wring fea­tures like the swivel­ing third head­lamp, disc brakes, seat­belts, inde­pen­dent sus­pen­sion, etc., etc.

Tuck­er real­ized the imprac­ti­cal cost of the 335 engine when, in August 1948, David Doman was assigned to cre­ate a cheap­er alter­na­tive, the “335U.”  The dream­like qual­i­ty of the Tuck­er episode is nowhere bet­ter illus­trat­ed than by Doman’s brief: The new engine must pack the same horse­pow­er and dis­place­ment, but cost a third less.

Doman tried, using a two-piece crank and cylin­der block and two heads cov­er­ing three cylin­ders each. But there was nev­er any sign that the 335U could meet the boss’s require­ments. Pre­ston then ordered anoth­er 125 of the orig­i­nal 335 (at $1500 each).

Richard Jones cor­rect­ly sum­ma­rizes the 335 as fit­ted to the fifty “pro­duc­tion” cars: “[O]ne of the most impres­sive auto­mo­bile engines of that day or this, [whose] qual­i­ty and air­craft stan­dards pre­clud­ed mass production.”

On the road

There are sim­i­lar things to say about the rest of the Tuck­er dri­ve­train. For­mer GM pres­i­dent Ed Cole, inter­viewed by Michael Lamm in 1973, men­tioned Tucker’s first con­fig­u­ra­tion of “dri­ving the rear wheels with a pair of con­vert­ers, and trans­mit­ting axle torque through a con­vert­er.” Tuck­er had to aban­don that. John R. Bond of Road & Track, in anoth­er inter­view, said: “…you had all that weight out back and a pret­ty long wheelbase…the han­dling was catastrophic.”

Most of those who have dri­ven a Tuck­er agree that, like the ear­ly Cor­vair, it’s per­fect­ly safe, pro­vid­ed you are com­pe­tent to han­dle dras­tic over­steer. We all know what hap­pened to Cor­vair own­ers who could not. Some sued Gen­er­al Motors.

Things about the Tuck­er that first looked good did not bear up in prac­tice. The famous swivel­ing cen­ter head­lamp was itself a com­pro­mise. Tuck­er orig­i­nal­ly want­ed a fixed cen­ter head­lamp and the flank­ing lamps turning—along with the front fend­er assem­blies. Tuck­er design­er Alex Tremulis talked him out of that—what pro­fes­sion­al wouldn’t? But the cen­ter swiv­el-light would itself have been banned as a haz­ard to nav­i­ga­tion, fry­ing the eye­balls of oncom­ing dri­vers at the apex of every curve.

Ear­ly pro­mo­tion for the Tuck­er fea­tured cen­tered steer­ing wheel and front fend­ers that swiveled in the car’s direc­tion. (Alden Jew­ell, Cre­ative Commons)

Bright ideas, unintended consequences

There were the nov­el Tuck­er doors, cut into the roof for easy of entry and egress. But there were no rain gut­ters, and in a down­pour they bid fair to soak the hap­less passenger.

There was the “storm cel­lar” com­part­ment ahead of the seats, which Tuck­er said one could “drop into” dur­ing a crash—as if you’d have that kind of time.

The “storm cel­lar” seems to have been a fall­back safe­ty posi­tion. Tuck­er want­ed seat­belts, but staffers con­vinced him they would imply, at that time, an unsafe car. (They did exact­ly that when Nash briefly offered them as a 1950 option.)

The movie depicts Tuck­ers with mod­ern met­al-to-met­al seat­belts. If ever installed they would have been the con­tem­po­rary fab­ric-to-met­al type. But, like the disc brakes he also vain­ly promised, seat­belts seem to have been for­got­ten by the time Tuck­er framed his final promotion.

It’s too bad. Many of the con­cepts were nov­el, inter­est­ing and good. It had a remark­ably low drag coef­fi­cient (though I can scarce­ly believe the claim of .30). Tucker’s ele­gant low­ness, light­weight rear engine, and safe­ty fea­tures how­ev­er crude were all commendable.

But Pre­ston Tuck­er lacked the busi­ness acu­men to find suf­fi­cient time and mon­ey for their devel­op­ment. To dub him, as the film does, a genius thwart­ed in a will­ful con­spir­a­cy led by Detroit—whose main prob­lem in those days was to get enough steel to build left­over pre­war designs—is to fantasize.

Business models compared

Com­pare Tuck­er with the oth­er major post­war attempt at a new auto­mo­bile: Kaiser-Fraz­er. K-F was launched by a sales exec­u­tive who loved auto­mo­biles, Joseph W. Fraz­er. Fraz­er need­ed cash, so he teamed up with Hen­ry Kaiser, doyen of wartime ship­build­ing, backed by the best banks and cred­it in the coun­try. Tuck­er didn’t find, nor appar­ent­ly did he seek, an angel of such stature. One won­ders what might have hap­pened had he met Hen­ry Kaiser.

Kaiser-Frazer’s ini­tial cap­i­tal­iza­tion was $52 million—and it wasn’t enough. Chevro­let had set $100 mil­lion aside just to redesign its 1949 mod­els. Hen­ry Kaiser lat­er admit­ted, “we should have raised $200 mil­lion.” Tuck­er raised $15 million.

From incor­po­ra­tion to first cars took Kaiser-Fraz­er eigh­teen months; It took Tuck­er two and a half years. From mov­ing into its new plant to its ear­li­est pilot mod­els took K-F only six months; it took Tuck­er eighteen.

Kaiser-Frazer’s first full year of 1946, which didn’t see any cars until June, end­ed with 12,000 units built and was fol­lowed by 140,000 in 1947. Tucker’s first full year of 1947 saw no cars, and fifty were built in 1948.

K-F’s max­i­mum employ­ment reached near­ly 20,000; Tuck­er pre­dict­ed 35,000, hut nev­er broke 2000.

Kaiser-Fraz­er sat­is­fied the Secu­ri­ties and Exchange Com­mis­sion by admit­ting in its first stock prospec­tus that its pro­gram was a pure gam­ble. Tuck­er float­ed one stock issue and prompt­ly cre­at­ed a mess for itself through sev­er­al false state­ments and unsub­stan­ti­at­ed claims in its prospec­tus. Pre­ston was caught mak­ing indi­rect pay­ments to pro­mot­ers, plan­ning to assign work to his mother’s machine shop in Ypsi­lan­ti which didn’t have the capac­i­ty. And the SEC, right­ly or wrong­ly, nev­er let him live it down.

Business strategies

Like Tuck­er, Hen­ry Kaiser promised fea­tures that didn’t appear—unit body con­struc­tion, tor­sion bar sus­pen­sion, front-wheel-dri­ve. Unlike Tuck­er, Kaiser sub­sti­tut­ed a car he could deliv­er. If it wasn’t what he had orig­i­nal­ly intend­ed, at least it was a vehi­cle on four wheels that peo­ple could dri­ve and buy.

Kaiser mapped out a pro­duc­tion line cov­er­ing mil­lions of square feet with the help of an ex-Chrysler pro­duc­tion expert. He was build­ing 200 cars a day almost from the start. Tuck­er sent fifty cars down a con­vey­or and called it a pro­duc­tion line.

When Repub­lic Steel’s wartime blast fur­nace in Cleve­land was put up for bids by the War Assets Admin­is­tra­tion, Tucker’s bid was high­est. Then with­out warn­ing in August, 1948, the WAA award­ed it to Kaiser-Fraz­er. War Assets claimed K-F had raised the mon­ey, which they had. Tuck­er claimed WAA nev­er told him the price was going up. But Jess Lar­son, WAA’s admin­is­tra­tor, told Tuck­er his bid was inad­e­quate and asked Tuck­er to demon­strate the abil­i­ty to run the blast fur­nace on May 28th, long before Kaiser’s bid arrived.

It is inter­est­ing to look at what lat­er hap­pened to the Repub­lic Steel fur­nace. When Kaiser got it, Repub­lic protest­ed, say­ing Kaiser-Fraz­er had “pulled strings.” Affront­ed, Hen­ry Kaiser called for a con­gres­sion­al inves­ti­ga­tion. Lar­son told Con­gress he would medi­ate between K-F and Republic.

The feud end­ed with the plant going to K-F as high bid­der, but allow­ing Repub­lic to oper­ate it through mid-1949, pay­ing K-F to do so—but less than it would have had to pay War Assets in rent. Repub­lic came out ahead, and in 1949 signed a five-year con­tract with K-F to retain the fur­nace while sup­ply­ing K-F and oth­er cus­tomers with steel. Every­one was happy.

Timeline anomalies

If the Kaiser-Fraz­er com­par­isons don’t tell you some­thing, con­sid­er the Tuck­er time­line. The plant was tak­en over in 1946, yet the stock appli­ca­tion didn’t come until June, 1947. What was hap­pen­ing in the meantime?

Tuck­er began sell­ing stock in Sep­tem­ber, 1947, but was still try­ing to decide on an engine the fol­low­ing spring. The first 500 Air­cooled Motors engines didn’t get ordered until May. What was hap­pen­ing in the meantime?

The first Tuck­er cars were deliv­ered in pro­to­type form in March 1948, but by August when the plant closed it had built only fifty. (Hap­pi­ly, most all of them sur­vive.) Yet Tuck­er claimed to have a pro­duc­tion line that would build 1000 cars a day by mid-1948. What was hap­pen­ing in the meantime?

One can only con­clude of Pre­ston Tuck­er that bril­liant though he may have been, he made impos­si­ble promis­es. This alien­at­ed some of his best peo­ple. When patent attor­ney and Tuck­er board chair­man, Col. Har­ry A. Toul­min, Jr., quit the com­pa­ny in Sep­tem­ber 1947, he point­ed to “fast sell” prac­tices such as pro­mot­ing stock on the basis of an unfin­ished, untest­ed sin­gle prototype.

The Tucker trial

It was cold in Chica­go, that windswept Jan­u­ary Sun­day in 1950, and the atmos­phere was reflect­ed in the U.S. Cour­t­house on Atlanta Street—the same cour­t­house where the feds had final­ly con­vict­ed Al Capone.

Sad­ly, Pre­ston Tuck­er was near­ly with­out friends by the time of the tri­al. There were sev­en oth­er defen­dants in court, and not one of them spoke very high­ly of him. Some­where along the way he had alien­at­ed near­ly every­one, which is quite an accom­plish­ment. For­mer Sales VP Fred Rock­el­man, who had lengthy indus­try expe­ri­ence at Chrysler, was long estranged.

Anoth­er vice pres­i­dent, Her­bert Mor­ley, tes­ti­fied that $800,000 in Tuck­er receipts couldn’t be account­ed for in 1947. In 1948 Mor­ley had com­plained that Tucker’s moth­er was unable to build trans­mis­sions at her Ypsi­lan­ti Machine and Tool Company.

Even chief design­er Alex Tremulis, who warm­ly sup­port­ed Tucker’s engi­neer­ing abil­i­ties, admit­ted that Pre­ston want­ed many imprac­ti­cal design ideas, such as front fend­ers that turned with the wheels and a periscope rearview device.

Now the jury was out—had been for some time. One may eas­i­ly won­der what was going on behind Pre­ston Tucker’s placid coun­te­nance, wait­ing for a ver­dict that could bring him a cumu­la­tive 155 years in jail and fines total­ing $160,000.

But we nev­er found out. Nor did we learn if Tuck­er could build anoth­er car. As the jury even­tu­al­ly told, he was cleared of 31 counts of con­spir­a­cy, mail fraud and ille­gal stock pro­ce­dures. And by 1956 he was dead of can­cer. Or, some said, a bro­ken heart.

In 1963 Alex Tremulis con­jured up his “sec­ond gen­er­a­tion” Tuck­er, called the Tal­is­man, invok­ing much of the orig­i­nal styling. (Alex Tremulis draw­ing for the author)


Conspiracy theories

The old song about Gen­er­al Motors “doing in the lit­tle guy” has oft been repeat­ed over Tuck­er. Preston’s well-pub­li­cized defens­es referred to a dark, clan­des­tine attempt to thwart him. It’s rather odd, then, that Tuck­er elec­tron­ics were sup­plied by GM Delco.

In Tucker’s defense, his case was an exam­ple of big gov­ern­ment (as big as it was then) run para­noid. But that was a hap­haz­ard time after a major war. The Secu­ri­ties and Exchange Com­mis­sion was not con­cerned only with Tuck­er in those days. In fact, its hands were fuller than they’d ever been.

Gov­ern­ment watch­dogs looked for pro­mot­ers with an idea and enough mon­ey to push it, sell­ing stock in a com­pa­ny designed to pro­duce in the end noth­ing. Bureau­crats are dogged folk with great stay­ing pow­er, espe­cial­ly when some­body they’ve already scored a few points against takes to charg­ing that they’re out to get him. Ask Don­ald Trump.

What about Sen­a­tor Homer Fer­gu­son, Repub­li­can from Michi­gan, and his Michi­gan appointee to the SEC, Har­ry A. McDon­ald, who leaked news of the SEC inves­ti­ga­tion to the press? Beyond doubt they act­ed uneth­i­cal­ly, espe­cial­ly McDon­ald. It would be the height of naïveté to believe the inter­ests of their state’s main indus­try didn’t occur to them when they heard about Tuck­er. Yet even as McDon­ald ran his lit­tle plot to pub­li­cize the Tuck­er inves­ti­ga­tion, the com­pa­ny had a his­to­ry of SEC vio­la­tions dat­ing to its first stock issue.

In retrospect

Pre­ston Tuck­er, wrote auto his­to­ri­an Michael Lamm in 1973, “was essen­tial­ly a small­time pro­mot­er who’d gone big-time. He was out of his pond. He remained a stranger and per­haps even a threat to the SEC, and he didn’t know any­one in gov­ern­ment. Pre­ston was care­less in some of his pen­cil-work, per­haps in a bit of his talk, too, and when the SEC jumped on him about those ini­tial fif­teen irreg­u­lar­i­ties, the irreg­u­lar­i­ties did exist.”

Well said. Nev­er­the­less. Pre­ston Tuck­er con­ceived one amaz­ing auto­mo­bile. Nev­er­the­less, the gov­ern­ment did over­re­act, despite all he did to earn it. If GM didn’t try to stop him, cer­tain rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the state of Michi­gan did. With a dif­fer­ent approach, three times more cap­i­tal, and wis­er busi­ness heads, the sto­ry might have been dif­fer­ent. But hind­sight is cheap, and far too eas­i­ly indulged.

Notes and further reading

This piece is reprised from “Tuck­er: Brief Reflec­tions,” The Mile­stone Car no. 11, Spring 1975; and “Post­war Cars: The Tuck­er Bub­ble,” Car Col­lec­tor, Jan­u­ary 1989.

See also “The Great­ness of Alex Tremulis,” in three parts, begin­ning here.

And: “Kaiser-Fraz­er and the Mak­ing of Auto­mo­tive His­to­ry,” in two parts, begin­ning here.

One thought on “The Tucker Story (No, It Wasn’t the Car to Beat Detroit)

  1. Thanks for the cold dose of real­i­ty on an urban myth that refus­es to die. I’ve often repeat­ed to unwill­ing lis­ten­ers that the Tuck­er film is just an urban myth with lit­tle to do with real­i­ty. It’s akin to the hoary old falder­al that GM, Fire­stone, etc. bought and doomed the Los Ange­les Red Line urban train sys­tem. That bit of tripe was still being taught in col­lege in the mid-Eight­ies. I, a rather well versed thir­ty-some­thing stu­dent at the time, argued with the pro­fes­sor, and (per­haps con­vinc­ing­ly to a few in the class), decon­struct­ing the myth in a pre­sen­ta­tion. I won­der if it’s still being taught.

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