Gear Head Tuesday – Preston Tucker Dies: 26 December 1956

Gear Head

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Preston Tucker poses for a publicity shot in front of one of his cars.

Visionary carmaker Preston Tucker died of lung cancer on December 26, 1956. He was only 53 years old.

Tucker began his career in the auto industry as a mail messenger at General Motors. He quickly worked his way out of the mailroom and before he turned 30 he was the vice president of a Packard dealership in Indianapolis. There, he befriended racecar designer Henry Miller, and the two men chatted often about how to build a truly great automobile. They teamed up to build racecars for Ford in the 1930s, but when the United States entered World War II, Tucker turned his attention to the war effort. He invented and manufactured a gun turret for Navy ships.

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Preston Tucker with a design sketch for a Tucker sport coupe that was never built. The “cyclops eye” headlight figured in this design as well as in the design of the 50 Tucker Torpedos that were built.

As soon as the war ended, however, Tucker was ready to start production of his own line of cars–cars that, unlike the recycled 1942 models that most car companies were turning out, were entirely new. With their low-slung, aerodynamic teardrop shape, Tucker cars looked like nothing anyone had ever seen. “It looks,” wrote one reporter, “like it’s doing 90 even when it’s standing still.”

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Preston Tucker’s daughter breaks a bottle of champagne on the front of a new Tucker automobile, one of only 50 built.

They drove that way, too: Their rear-mounted engines were modified helicopter engines, the cars were fitted with disc brakes, aircraft-style mechanical fuel injection, specialized transmissions, and a third “Cyclops” headlight that was connected to the steering wheel and swiveled with the car’s wheels. Ahead-of-their-time safety features abounded: padded dashboards, “pop-out” safety glass windshields and a reinforced carbon frame. The car was even supposed to have seatbelts, until one of Tucker’s assistants convinced him that they would make the car seem less sturdy and less safe than it was.

To build this amazing “Tucker Torpedo,” the carmaker leased an old Dodge plant near Chicago from the federal War Assets Administration, which had been building B-29 bombers there. While they waited for the WAA to clear out, Tucker and his team hand-built 50 prototype cars by hand. (The first one, called the “Tin Goose,” was hammered out of sheet steel because engineers could not find enough clay for a full-scale mockup.)

Tucker - f:r

Meanwhile, because the company was almost completely broke, they solicited investors any way they could. First, they sold dealer franchises; then they sold stock to the public; then they began to sell car accessories like radios and seat covers, all before the Torpedo had hit the assembly line.

This was apparently the last straw for the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which launched an investigation in May 1948. The federal government’s argument was that Tucker never planned to build any cars. According to this line of reasoning, he was just going to bilk his investors and go out of business. As this was patently not the case, prosecutors struggled to convince the jury; in fact, the accusations were so specious that Tucker’s attorney did not even bother to mount a defense. Tucker was acquitted in January 1950, but the damage was already done: Tucker lost all his investors, had to fire all of his workers, and never built another Torpedo.

The shut down of Tucker spawned many conspiracy theories about how the company was forced to close before it even really got off the ground. Most of these theories revolved around the accusation that General Motors was very fearsome of the upstart auto maker and wanted Tucker closed at all costs.

In 1988, director Francis Ford Coppola made a biographical movie called “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.” Much of the movie was filmed in the San Francisco East Bay city of Martinez. Coppola’s film received a good deal of critical praise, but, perhaps like Tucker’s cars, never really found its audience, and the studio lost money on the film.

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It is sometimes alleged that Raymond Loewy stylist Robert Bourke, working at Studebaker, “borrowed” the look of the Tucker for the front on the ’50/’51 Studebakers. There is, indeed, a striking similarity, but Bourke was showing sketches as early as 1941 that prefigured the front both of his ’50/’51 Studebakers and the short-lived Tucker.

Bourke 1941 spinner nose sketch

Above: A Robert Bourke sketch from 1941 that prefigures his own ’50 (below) and ’51 Studebaker front end. There is another Bourke sketch from the same time frame (which I don’t have access to as I write this) that shows perhaps Bourke’s design may have influenced the Tucker rather than the other way around for the ’50-’51 Studebakers.

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Tucker #44 on a Chassis Dynamometer

Tucker #44, a true “barn find” was put on a chassis dynamometer. This 70 year-old car’s engine shows that Tucker’s power figures for his car were accurate. Click to play:

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Courtesy of “Chris-to-Fear” we continue with photos of old gas stations at
Curbside Classic. Today – “That Good Gulf Gas”:

Gulf gas station

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