My Quarter Mile pays tribute to the remarkable “Tucker”
By Mark Thayer
There´s still this question of whether or not the cars Mr. Preston Tucker dreamed up were any good. For starters, it´s doubtful than any car maker besides Tucker can say that 60 years after they were first built, the bulk of their cars are still around.
From a performance standpoint, Tucker´s were hard to beat when placed against others from the same era.
In 1954 Bill Hamlin pitted his Tucker against a new Oldsmobile 88, the Olds had a V-8, the Tucker a flat six. At the time Hamlin´s Tucker had 110,000 on the clock and would top out at 82 MPH, the Olds topped out at 78.8 MPH. Hamlin had a slight disadvantage, he had to start his car in second (Tucker´s had a 4-speed by the way).
The torque from the engine most likely would have shredded the transmission if he´d started in first. The Tucker would stop in two thirds the distance the Olds could.
The helicopter engine, which powered the Tucker, could run for 1,500 hours without a rebuild, it exceeded every military specifications required of it. At least one Tucker had 200,000 miles on the clock without needing a major repair. Hamlin´s unmodified Tucker was rated at 103 HP at 2,000 RPM, while a 1954 Cadillac was only 87 HP at 2,000 RPM in testing. A Tucker´s engine put out some 372 ft. lbs of torque and the car had 0-60 times of 10 seconds. Not bad for a 4,200 lb car.
As far as safety features, well everyone knows about the center headlight, padded dash, seat belts, and pop out windshield, but those are only part of the Tucker´s safety features. Unlike cars of that era, or most cars built today, the Tucker used a unibody which was welded to an automotive frame, this helped eliminate body rattles. Additionally, the frame of a Tucker was shaped like a ship´s prow at the front and rear. The reason for this design was that research done by the Tucker Corp. revealed that most collisions tended to be glancing blows at an angle. It was their hope that the prow shape of the frame would deflect the other vehicle away from the Tucker. There were steel bulkheads placed at the front and rear to further protect the passengers. The aerodynamics of these cars was such that you didn´t even need to use the wipers above 50 MPH. The bumpers were mounted on springs to absorb shock in a crash.
The weight was magnificently balanced due to the rear mounted engine and would prove brake wear to be much more even. This design would also help the car lower itself evenly instead of having the front end pitch down during hasty or panic stops. The rims were designed in such a way that if one of the tires went flat, the car wouldn´t pull dramatically to that side. With the use of live bearings, the front end of the car was light enough to not require any need for power steering. The steering wheel was designed to breakaway so that it wouldn´t “spear” the driver in the event of a crash.
Sadly, because so few Tuckers were produced, the data on how well they would protect the passengers in a crash is severely limited. We do know that when a car rolled onto the test track at around 100 MPH, the driver escaped with only a bruised elbow. The car would be driven away under its own power as well.
It´s now common practice for automakers to do crash testing proving once again that Tucker was far ahead of his time.
If Tucker had only continued, we know that there would have been at least two possible designs for a two door version of the car.
We have also learned that Tucker purchased the patents of Secondo Campini which related to automotive turbines. This could have led to Tucker beating Chrysler in its development of the turbine car.
Here is what a modern Tucker may have looked like thanks to Philip Egan.
Up till his final days Tucker was still trying to start another car company. Several backers in Brazil were willing to support Tucker, but he kept holding out for an American backer.
Preston Tucker did name a car in honor of Rio, It was to be called the "Carioca" an amazing work of art.
Preston was pretty quiet about the features of this car, but we know it would have been built on a modular platform and easily converted into a pick up. It was designed to receive a 100 HP rear mounted air cooled engine built by Aircooled Motors. The Carioca would be completed with disc brakes, a 12 volt electrical system and a four wheel independent suspension.
There were a few known glitches with the car: The first was the center headlight, it didn´t work as well as predicted. The pop out windshield could be removed with a moistened toilet plunger making the car easy prey for thieves. Transmission had lubrication problems during idle, stop and go traffic would be hard on its transmission.
These were relatively minor issues and likely would have been easy to correct if the cars had gone into production.
Rumor has it there was a convertible built and sketches exist showing it for a 1950 model. Occasionally you will see an ad in Hemmings Motor News and other popular publications for one.
Phil Egan and Alex Tremulis, both hired designers of Preston Tucker for the famous Tucker Torpedo have both stated no such car was ever built! Photos of this famous yet mythical convertible have recently surfaced.
Legend has it the car started out as a 4 door body shell bought at auction by a former Tucker employee. They say he decided to turn the car into a convertible but was never able to complete the car for some reason.
Preston Thomas Tucker (September 21, 1903 — December 26, 1956 from where else but the great state of Michigan.
Obsessed with automobiles from a very early age and first learned to drive at the age of 11.Later Tucker worked as a salesman for the Chrysler Corporation in the early 30´s. Later Preston would convince friend Harry Miller to join him in building race cars. Tucker had already been operating a machine shop out of an old barn at the time.
Miller and Tucker Inc. was formed in 1935 landing their first job with none other than the man Henry Ford himself.
Miller and Tucker moved to Indianapolis where Miller would pass away in 1943, a funeral Tucker would help pay for.
Tucker would eventually align himself with the military where they would use what is called his Tucker Turret.
The turret would be used in PT Boats, landing craft, B17 and B29 bombers. The formation of Higgins-Tucker Aviation Corporation would evolve by 1943.
Andrew Jackson Higgins and Tucker did not see eye to eye and Tucker would later sever his association with Higgins that same year.
Preston decided to move back to Michigan with the intention of starting his own solely owned company.
After the big war nothing in the way of automobiles had been created since 1941 and the public was ready.
Studebaker would come first but Tucker would follow. With his own different track and an emphasis on modern design and safety we welcomed the Tucker Corp. in 1946.
It was 1948 when the world welcomed the "Tucker Torpedo" Preston Tuckers idea with help from designer Alex Tremulis. Not wanting to bring to mind the horrors of WWII he quickly changed the name to the “Tucker 48”.
The specs originally called for by Tucker would sound as modern as some cars built today.
For instance, how about a rear engine, disc brakes, fuel injection, all instruments within the diameter and reach of the steering wheel. A padded dashboard, torque converters on each rear wheel instead of a transmission. He wanted self-sealing tubeless tires, independent spring less suspension, and a chassis which protected occupants in a side impact. A roll bar within the roof, a laminated windshield designed to pop-out during an accident. He envisioned a center "cyclops" headlight which would turn when steering angles at of 10 deg. or better, this would help with seeing around corners. While most of these innovations made it to final prototypes, several were dropped due to cost and time restraints.
While Tucker took no money from the Government, the new competition Kaiser-Frazier would except millions.
In the year 1949 Tucker would be indicted for fraud in a very controversial case by the SEC.
The investigation would be head up by liberal Democratic attorney Otto Kerner. It would eventually involve six other Tucker executives.
The trial began on October 4, 1949; coincidentally, Tucker Corporation´s factory was shuttered on the very same day. A small 37 Tucker ´48s had been built; 13 were later finished from parts stores for a total production of 50 cars not including the prototype.
At trial the government contended that Tucker never intended to produce even a single car.
Despite the fact Tucker had the largest factory building under one roof, former engineer Kincaid agreed with these allegations.
While accusations that Tucker never intended to actually produce the cars exist, there is much evidence to the contrary. Tucker had hired over 1900 employees, teams of engineers, machinists and obtained and sold nearly 2000 dealerships at the time of the SEC allegations.
Over 400,000 drawings/blueprints, corporate documents, and letters organized by Tucker collectors of the Tucker Club of America suggest that Preston Tucker was ready to mass produce the Tucker ´48. These documents prove that Tucker wasn´t simply building prototype parts, but was developing the manufacturing process to mass produce his creations. This controversy lives on, but the large volume of evidence collected by Tucker historians support the conclusion that Preston Tucker was on his way, provided he could continue to raise sufficient funds. The timing of the bad press and SEC allegations couldn´t have been worse for the Tucker. January 22, 1950 Tucker and his executives would be acquitted on all charges believe it or not.
However, Tucker now without a factory, buried in debt and faced with numerous lawsuits from dealers on the basis of production delays, was no more.
Ironically, the prosecuting attorney Otto Kerner, Jr. who pursued the Tucker Corporation was convicted on 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury, and related charges for stock fraud in 1974.
Preston Tucker´s reputation rebounded after the acquittal. His optimism was remarkable; after the trial was over he was quoted as saying “Even Henry Ford failed the first time out”.
It was early 1950s Tucker would team up with investors from Brazil and auto designer Alexis de Sakhnofsky to build that sports car “Tucker Carioca”.
His travels to Brazil would wear on him finally and the fatigue would set in. On his last return to the United States he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Tucker would later die from pneumonia as a complication of lung cancer on December 26, 1956.
The Tucker Carioca would never be developed.
If you enjoyed this brief look into the life of one of the world´s most remarkable icons in automotive history, MyQTRMile highly recommends the film Tucker: The Man and His Dream. A 1988 biographical film starring Jeff Bridges.
Preston Thomas Tucker´s final resting place is at Michigan Memorial Park in Flat Rock, Michigan.