1948 Tucker Torpedo

25
2533
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Preston Tucker has been described as a hopelessly naive genius, a con man . . . or some combination of both.'48 Tucker lead pic

The evidence suggests he genuinely wanted to build cars – not filch people’s wallets. No doubt, he played fast and loose. So do most entrepreneurs.

They have to.

Unlike GM or Ford or Chrysler, each of which had a bottomless well of money to draw from (WW II defense contracts had been very good for business and the postwar years were even better) Tucker had financial holes in his floorboards and getting anyone to front him cash took persuading that probably included a little fibbing.

Regardless, His dream of becoming a major player in the auto business quickly became a nightmare. His “car of the future” never made it past 1948. Just over 50 cars saw the light of day before everything imploded. Creditors descended like hungry vultures; the SEC was doing its best to put him in prison. The Chicago plant (where B29s had been built during the war) and all company assets were sold off at auction for 20 cents on the dollar.

Tucker died a broken man less than eight years later, on December 26, 1956 – at the age of 53.'48 Tucker ad

Time passed – and Tucker the legend began to take form.

In the 1988 film, Tucker, Jeff Bridges portrayed him as a ’40s version of maverick GM engineer (and father of the 1964 Pontiac GTO) John Z. DeLorean … without the coke. And the Tucker automobile has only grown in stature since the death of the man whose vision inspired it. Today, surviving examples are high-dollar collectibles, typically selling for seven figures.

This is not surprising.

Because the Tucker was a pretty cool car.

Each one featured pop-out safety glass, seat belts, a padded dashboard and a body structure specifically designed to protect occupants in the event of a wreck. These safety features were decades ahead of their time. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the Big Three began outfitting their cars with seat belts, for example. (Industry marketing types long believed that installing seat belts in cars implied the cars were not safe.)'48 Tucker rearview

The Tucker also had a separately locking parking brake – so you could still stop the car even if the primary braking system failed – as well as large protective bumpers at each end. Interior knobs and controls were rounded off to limit the potential for injury to occupants in a crash. There was a reinforced “Safety Chamber” in the front footwell area, where driver and front seat passenger could dive “in case of impending collision.” That particular feature was never adopted by other automakers and likely wouldn’t have helped much in a crash. But the Tucker’s pop-out safety glass was a true life-saver. And its clever modular seats – which could be rotated from front to rear to even out wear – anticipated the idea of fold-away/fold-down/stowable seats that are commonplace in minivans and crossover SUVs today.

Tuckers also had a rear-mounted, aluminum engine – like Porsches, VWs and the Chevy Corvair. The placement of the engine enhanced traction by weighting the rear wheels and the low center of gravity of the horizontally-opposed “boxer” layout enhanced the car’s handling and stability.

You had to really try to flip a Tucker.

And unlike the economy-oriented (and equally luckless) Corvair, the Tucker’s flat six produced decent power (150 hp, advertised) and so the car was actually pretty quick for its time: Zero to 60 in about 10 seconds flat – with a very impressive 120 mph-plus top speed.'48 Tucker engine

For the late 1940s, this was superior performance. Few cars of the time were capable of triple digit speeds, but the Tucker achieved them easily. A contributing factor was the car’s slippery aerodynamic profile (.27 CD, or coefficient of drag – about the same as a Honda Civic hybrid) and its low-to-the-ground, wife-tracked stance.

Also impressive was the Tucker’s 20 mpg highway fuel economy capability –  not too far off the mark for a modern full-size sedan equipped with all the latest technology, such as computer controlled fuel injection and an overdrive transmission. (The Tucker was actually supposed to have been fuel-injected, too – but cost constraints nixed that in favor of a more conventional – and much less expensive – carburetor.)

While the horizontally-opposed/rear-engined layout was similar to the Corvair’s in general terms, the Tucker’s enormous converted helicopter engine was a monster, displacing 335 cubic inches – comparable to a small block Chevy V-8. It was also converted to water-cooling from the original engine’s air-cooled design. The Corvair, meanwhile, had an engine half that size – 144 and then later 164 cubic inches – and it was designed from the get-go as an automotive powerplant.'48 Tucker interior 1

Still, the Tucker’s big six only weighed about 320 pounds fully dressed – chiefly because it was made of aluminum alloy rather than cast iron. It was light enough that two reasonably strong men could remove it by hand for servicing. A 283 CID Chevy V-8 weighed closer to the 500 pounds – considered light for a V8 – and the famous small-block Chevy wouldn’t make its debut until seven years later, in 1955. Other engines circa 1948 weighed as much as twice what the ’48 Tucker’s engine weighed.

The Tucker’s engine featured an industry-first sealed cooling system with an expansion tank. As the coolant got hot and boiled over, the excess would drain into the expansion tank, where it would be drawn back into circulation as the coolant cooled and pressure decreased. Other cars of the  era – and for many years to come – would simply spit coolant onto the road from heat expansion, necessitating regular checks and top-offs (as well as leaving toxic little green puddles in the driveway).    '48 tuckers in a row

Another very forward-thinking feature of the ’48 Tucker was the car’s signature center-mounted “cyclops” third headlight that turned with the steering wheel while cornering to give the driver a better view of the road ahead. This idea has resurfaced in recent years and a form of it is available on a few high-end luxury cars. Called “Active Headlights,” the system is electronically controlled rather than mechanically actuated, as in the ’48 Tucker – but the concept is identical and Tucker developed it six decades sooner.     

The Tucker’s chassis was equally prescient.

In addition to fully-boxed perimeter-style subframes front and rear, the Torpedo featured a four-wheel independent suspension system at a time when virtually every passenger car on the road (in the U.S. at least) used a solid rear axle and leaf springs – a layout that dated back to the Model T Ford.

All-independent suspensions would not become common on anything other than high-performance sports cars and European exotics for another 40 years.'48 Tucker front detail

Unfortunately, the aircraft-inspired four-wheel disc brakes and lightweight magnesium wheels envisioned by Preston Tucker never made it to production, once again chiefly due to cost issues.

Nonetheless, the car was taking generational leaps in terms of design. As recently as the 1980s, disc brakes were still fairly rare – especially in American-brand cars. The ’77 Cadillac Seville was one of the first American cars other than Corvette to offer them. Most performance cars of the era such as the Chevy Camaro and Ford Mustang GT came standard with drum brakes on the rear wheels. Four wheel disc brakes did not become a given on performance (and most other) cars until the mid-1990s, some 40 years after Preston Tucker tried to bring them to market.    

No one can say the car didn’t make it because it was ugly – or because it wasn’t well-designed. It was – and still is – a stunning piece of work that can be compared favorably with the iconic Studebaker Avanti or even the gorgeous Cord 810 in terms of both its clean lines and the original thinking behind its underlying design.'48 Tucker stock certificate

Ultimately, what did in the Tucker was the same thing that’s put the kibosh on just about every attempt by a newcomer since the pre-war era to launch a new car or new car company: finding the money to compete with the established automotive cartels. GM and Ford have long had economies of scale on their side. They can, for example, buy steel and tires and other car peripherals in huge quantities – and thus, negotiate much lower prices per unit – than a small upstart like Preston Tucker (or John DeLorean) could. GM and Ford can also afford to crash test a hundred brand new cars just to test a new design.

Preston Tucker was barely able to build two-thirds that many finished cars.

He over-promised – and got over-extended, prematurely issuing $15 million in stock that led to a highly publicized and hugely damaging investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and from there to a trial on 31 counts of fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud. Tucker and seven of his associates were eventually acquitted, but the negative publicity of the trial ruined Preston’s public image and that doomed the Tucker.Tucker 48, one of the most advanced, early post-war automobiles

The saga of Preston Tucker proves on thing: You can build a better mousetrap – but you can’t do it successfully without the bucks and the backing to get in the game and stay in the game.

Alessandro DeTomaso – or John DeLorean – could tell you the same thing.

Back in 1948, Preston Tucker expected to sell his car for about $4,000 – comparable to the Cadillacs of the era. Today, it’ll cost you a million bucks and six figure change to acquire one – if you can find an owner willing to part with a piece of automotive history, a four-wheeled reminder of what almost was but didn’t quite make it.

Tucker TorpedoTrivia: 

* The Torpedo’s highly aerodynamic (.30 drag coefficient) and instantly recognizable low-slung/fastback exterior shape was penned by stylist Alex Tremulis. The car was low – just 60 inches off the ground – wide and very long – 219 inches – with integrated pontoon-style fenders and doors that were cut into the roofline to provide more room for entry and exit.'48 Tucker pipes

* The Tucker’s four-wheel independent suspension used a rubber torsion tube and shocks to deliver agile for its time handling and a smooth, bump-asborbing ride.   

* One of the first publicly released design sketches for what would become the ’48 Tucker appeared in the December 1946 issue of Science Illustrated magazine.

* Designer Alex Tremulis privately called the Tucker prototype “The Goose.”

* A little-know legal obstacle faced by the Tucker was that 17 states had laws prohibiting more than two headlights.

Copyright 2015, Eric Peters

The above is a chapter excerpted from the forthcoming book, Doomed.

Share Button

25 COMMENTS

  1. Tuckers factory still exists on the southwest side of Chicago. Built during WWII to make airplane engines, Tucker made it into the factory where the few Tuckers were built. After Tucker went bust, it was made over as the Ford City Mall.

  2. If you ever find yourself in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania make it a point to visit the Swigart Museum (http://swigartmuseum.com/). They have many interesting cars, including the Tucker prototype and a production model …not to mention 2 beautiful Cords and (I believe) Cary Grant’s Duesenberg.

    As for Mr DeLorean, he was a victim of a sting operation. The feds, knowing he was getting desperate keeping his company alive (and likely familiar with cocaine), coerced him into a phony drug deal. Well, technically his neighbor did, but hmm, neighbor in Detroit? In the 1980s, you couldn’t swing a dead cat in Detroit without hitting someone who was working or had worked for GM at one time or another. Who is James Timothy Hoffman anyway? As a youth, this was one of many stories that started my road to Libertarian-hood. I try not to be conspiracy minded, but how difficult would it be for GM to persuade the DEA to go after him? I’d think there’s going to be some crossover from the FBI to GM corporate security. How hard would it be for someone to pick up the phone and “tip off” the feds? And with the newly acquired powers of the Drug Tzar at their disposal, they’re thrilled to push a high profile case to show off the department to congress.

    • Visit Swigart soon. They’re concerned about proposed legislation for taxation of non-profits designed to shore up the looming state pension crisis. Passage may bankrupt them.

      • Pennsylvania’s corporate net income tax has a flat rate of 9.99% (this makes it one of the highest corporate tax rates in the country)

        Worst case, Swigart will end up paying this 10% in a few years on its $100,000 ‘income’, which looks to be about $10,000 a year.

        http://501c3lookup.org/william_e_swigart_jr_automobile_museum/

        501c3 lookup of Swigart EIN: 25-1826896

        http://www.guidestar.org/ViewPdf.aspx?PdfSource=0&ein=25-1826896

        2013 Financials of Swigart – it lost $8,000 for the year, but it still has a fund balance of $2 million.

        2013
        Assets: $2,047,618
        Income: $96,564
        Expenses: $104,755
        Liabilities: $2,718

        It’s not like it’s setting something in stone going forward. It’s really just setting up the potential for debate in an upcoming legislative session. So really, you’re going to have four or five years from beginning to end of this taxation discussion. I think that’s probably ample time.”

        A governor’s signature is not required for an amendment, though Gov. Tom Wolf’s office has said he isn’t supportive of the proposal.
        http://www.post-gazette.com/news/politics-nation/2015/01/27/Pennsylvania-Senate-advances-controversial-nonprofits-bill/stories/201501270199

        • Swigart knows how the proposal may affect their financial survival better than I, my post was gist of an article from last week’s the Daily News. However, don’t try visiting Swigart until later this spring as they close each winter.

          • Okay C C. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they do close the oldest auto museum in the Homeland and divvy up the carcass. I’m just saying whatever excuse they give is bunk.

            $79 Billion !!! Keystone State Budget coming down the pike. Heck, they might have to shut down PA soon and divvy it up too.

            Didn’t see the article anywhere. When this passes, it’ll be yet another total cluster when the non-profit ant hills have to be inspected by the statist ant hills to decide how much “taxable profit, the non-profits” made for the year. It hurts the mind to contemplate it, really.

            In the coming reality, Swigart won’t use the guns of state to run their museum. It’s our curious task to convince them how little they actually know about what they think they can peacefully organize through ant hill building.

  3. The Tucker car showed the unethical behavior of mega corporations. GM knew that the Tucker would be a big seller. So they got their legal department to dig up some dirt on Tucker. They couldn’t find any dirt. So they invented the charge of “fraud” to get the SEC involved. This meant Tucker had to spend his money defending against GMs corporate lawyers, who had no ethical behavior. And not spend money on his car and factory. In the end, GM’s legal team bankrupted Tucker, as the SEC could find no fraudulent behavior by Tucker. The real fraud was by GM in suing when it had no case.

    This case proved that you did not need a legal reason to sue for fraud. Instead it became a way to put new competitors out of business, and was used successfully in this case.

    I’ve also heard that the Tucker motor could be changed out in just 15 minutes. Another reason for GM to run Tucker out of the game.

    When it comes to ethical and proper behavior, don’t expect such from large corporations.

    • Corporations are mob mentality.
      No conscience, no blame – it’s for the company. “For the common good. (Of Us!)”

      I begin to think Agenda 21 is correct from a QUANTITY point of view: we have too many people, most are low-quality cannon fodder / grunts. We have too large a social structure, not because of internet, but purely because of bodies. And too many people with too large a valuation of themselves, and too arrogant a disposition to deal fairly with others (I’m likely guilty of this.)

      We have a “tribe” mentality, the “Us vs. Them” mindset – we can afford to be a little socialistic as a tribe – the stronger take care of the weaker, you build a civilization that way.
      But the same mentality, when used across a million people? No longer works. You have those who feel the world owes them a living – and they sponge off the rest. (Q.V. Shameless, main character.)
      Everything is a manipulation (which is actually an underlying meme on most sitcoms – someone’s manipulating someone else, routinely.)

      The corporation has no soul because there is no accountability (that’s also the purpose of a corporation: They are legally meant as a dodge for accountability/responsibility.)

      And while the tribe might be willing to feed the less-capable hunter, because he is a bard?
      The corporation thinks of us all in dollars. It is willing to “feed” the less-productive, because those being ruled become more productive as artificial heirarchies are created. Techie becomes lead becomes management becomes upper management, and social standing, power, and in theory money and women follow. (Also bear in mind that women are latecomers to this realm, but they want the social standing anyway, and many think rather than MARRY the social standing, they need the feminist merit badge of social status, while raising a family [thank god for the nanny!], while working to be CEO – which they deserve, because they’re ALREADY CEO of the family!! Etc, etc, etc.)

      Anyway – Everyone outside the corporate walls is “them.” The Other, the Outsider. Which no one realizes, INCLUDES the workers when off-duty. The Corporation isn’t Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Carly Fiorina, Al Gore, Warren Buffet, Donald Trump, or ANY OTHER NAME you’d name.
      It’s the entire Org chart; but no one is answerable to The Other outside the walls. Some are made to pay, when a sacrifice must be made (the origin of the word Scapegoat, in fact, comes from sacrifice of a goat to the wilds/ the gods, usually done during bad crop harvests, to try to cleanse the sin of the tribe…)

      So, Ollie North in Iran Contra.
      QA when the product isn’t out the door on time.
      Engineers when a product fails (including when the product was changed after the engineer designed it.)

      Not the CEO or CFO who wants it as cheap as possible, and drives people to cut corners.
      Not the leadership team that won’t upgrade, or FORCE the upgrade, to technology that’s less than a decade old. (Yes, there’s a story there. You can be TOO conservative.) [and there’s a coroporate mandate to transition this technology stack, but no one is enforcing it – so we’ve got something that’s obsolete in five different ways, we now need to fix in Production, because the car drops the engine when you hit Redline RPMs.]

      guess who is suffering for this? Not the CEO. Nor the COO, CFO, et al. Nor the VP. nor the Assistant VP. Nor the PM (Project manager), save that he’s getting reports of the problems.
      Nope – the people doing the work, who are still “the outsider” to the corporation, because they aren’t the “tribe” of business/management.

      “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Unfortunately, that usually means teaching someone in a “hands-on” sort of way.
      Comparable story, in a circuitous way, see http://www.Femulate.org/2015/03/young-marines.html
      Even those inside the group? Can be the “untouchables”, as in the Indian non-caste of the “lowest of the low.”
      QA in business.
      Truckers in the auto world.
      Democrats who own guns (as perceived by other democrats, I mean.)
      Blacks who “sell out” (self-hating, racist blacks, want to be “white,” they is Oreos, “only black on da outside….”)

      Etc, etc, etc.

      I’ll shut up now, save to say… I made it a whole 180 seconds at work today without wanting to kill someone….
      Best day in the last quarter!

  4. Henry Kaiser succeeded in building post-war cars where Tucker failed. Kaiser incorporated safety features like padded dash and pop out windshield. The original Kaiser was designed for front wheel drive but reverted to a conventional rwd because of excessive mechanical noise and expense. Unfortunately Kaiser wasted precious capital on manufacturing a compact car line instead of a V8 to replace the anemic Continental flathead six.

    • The first car I remember is my father’s 1950 Kaiser. It was my toddler/young childhood ride until my dad got a 1956 Dodge Royal. I was too young to remember much about the car, except the time my sister slammed the rear driver’s side door while my finger was in the way. My first broken bone.

  5. I’ve also heard that the Tucker was originally designed to have an air-cooled engine. That engine was originally designed to be 589 cubic inches and as you mentioned, fuel injected to deliver 300+ horsepower. That would have made it, wait for it…a fast mother Tucker!

    As far as 4-wheel disc brakes go, Chrysler Imperials were one of the few 70s cars to have them…they were offered only in 1974 and 1975. The New Yorker Broughams dropped them.

    No matter how you slice it, with the bucks and backing, Tucker could have dealt the Big Three a serious blow. I’m also of the mind that the Tucker might have succeeded had it been launched, say, in 1968, as concerns about Big Three cars’ safety, quality and economy started to really come to the fore, and as foreign competitors with better mousetraps started making inroads. But in 1948, no one really cared about those things.

    • Cars got safer and safer from the start. There’s no real break in the slow on going process.

      I really dislike the myth that the big three intentionally did not build the safest cars they could. Long before Nader’s book they were financing safety research and trying to sell the products that came from it. The problem was that people weren’t buying. Marketeers were dealing with the customers as they were in those days. People couldn’t just finance the cost of all the safety gear and it was expensive. Decades of productivity increases hadn’t made it cheaper yet. They took their chances.

      I could go on, but the end result was that the people who want to tell everyone else how to live decided to use their best friend, government, to force it. Much easier than convincing people on the merits to spend their money voluntarily. But to have government they had to paint the automakers as villains so that’s what they did.

      • As I recall the first American manufacturer to offer (optional) seat belts was Nash in 1950. There were few takers. (The Tucker actually did not have belts, it instead had a pop-out windshield and a padded crash chamber for the front passenger.)

        Few people remember today that back in 1956 Ford went on a safety binge. As a result their sales tanked. Customers were just not interested.

        The safety cult had not taken hold of the popular culture in those days.

        • And that’s just it. The safety devices were profit items back in those days. The automakers wanted people to order them. People just wouldn’t do it in the numbers necessary. The advertisements, the press items about funding university research, and much more all exist as evidence of these efforts. Not to mention the SAE standards government copied as its own.

          But the true story doesn’t sell books and doesn’t make a career. A book on how to order a safe car by checking off the right boxes and getting the right dealer installed items would have sold maybe enough to get by and that’s about it.

  6. I remember as a kid riding in cars with ‘unpadded’ dashboards. I never hit my head on one, despite riding in the front seat w/o a seat belt.

LEAVE A REPLY