The magic and mythology of the fabulous Tucker Torpedo

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Have you ever stopped to wonder how history might have differed if certain gifted people had never had the chance to make their mark? What if aero engineer RJ Mitchell hadn’t been around to design the Supermarine Spitfire that brought the mighty Luftwaffe to its knees? Or if Ernest Rutherford hadn’t figured out how to split the atom? And how would we view the world today without John Logie Baird’s television?

At the other end of the scale are those whose innovations never got the chance to shine – men whose vision of a new way of doing things became derailed by forces beyond their control. Men such as the single-minded Preston Thomas Tucker, who was driven by a dream to create the safest, most efficient car in the land. But he ended up a David against the Goliaths of American bureaucracy, who were hell-bent on smothering his ideas and the role his car could have played in shaping his country’s automotive future.

‘The first new car in 50 years’ and ‘The car of tomorrow today’ were just a couple of the clever straplines that got the attention of America’s technologically hungry post-war public when Tucker – a Michigan-born car salesman-cum-inventor – started pursuing his life-long goal of making a truly safe car.

Tucker combined the gift of the gab with a flair for engineering. He grew up in the early 20th century, immersed in America’s burgeoning car industry, and left school at 13 to work as a messenger for Cadillac, where he was fired for using rollerskates to speed up his deliveries. That fuelled his ambition to succeed in whatever he did, including a stint as a police officer chasing bootleggers in the prohibition era before taking sales jobs with various car firms. Later he started his own engineering company at his home in Ypsilanti, producing a small combat car that the army derided for being too fast: the military had no need for 117mph performance in battle. Tucker’s subsequent patent for a fully rotating gun turret was more successful, yet the government’s wartime decree that no royalties would be paid left him empty-handed.

Still, Tucker knew that, when the war was over, real opportunities would be there for the taking, especially in the automotive field where Detroit’s involvement in military production meant it would have to offer warmed-over pre-war designs. Years of innovative sales nous (he once took a Doberman puppy in part exchange) had given Tucker an innate sense of what America’s motoring public wanted in a car and he compiled a list of safety and performance attributes to meet their needs. Disc brakes, all-round independent suspension and a headlamp that turned with the wheels were just some of the safety features that accompanied the futuristic styling sketches he published in the press just a year after WW2. Other attributes included a pop-out windscreen – to limit facial injuries – and a steel safety frame surrounding the cabin while the car’s specification promised high performance and super-quick service times.

Never short of ambition, Tucker devised an equally impressive plan to make it happen and leased a facility from the government’s War Assets Administration as a factory. At 475 acres, the former B29 bomber engine plant in Chicago boasted the world’s largest building, in which Tucker aimed to churn out 1000 cars a week.

Although Tucker knew he could sell the idea of the car to the public, he realised that he needed Detroit big hitters behind him if the Tucker Corporation was to attract investment. So he enlisted on to his board a former president of Plymouth, Fred Rockelman, and other credible figures before floating the company.

In the end, $15m was raised via a stock offer and a further $6m from dealer franchises: big money for the time, but chicken-feed compared to the development budgets behind new models over in Detroit. Still, it was enough for Tucker to get stuck in with a prototype, styled by Alex Tremulis, a young designer looking to make his mark after working at Auburn and Cord.

Nicknamed the Tin Goose (allegedly after the 600lb of tin solder needed to shape its panels), the first Tucker broke new ground as much for the way it was styled as the styling. There was a shortage of modelling clay, so the design was translated straight from the drawing board into metal, with the inner structure of an Oldsmobile forming the backbone of the prototype.

Ever the showman, Tucker made sure that the car’s premiere – at the factory on 19 June 1947 – was well promoted, with slogans such as ‘Don’t let the future pass you by’ becoming household quotes. It paid off: more than 5000 people showed up, eager for a glimpse of the future.

They weren’t to be disappointed by the well-choreographed PR fanfare, which included a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. Backstage, things weren’t going quite so well as Tucker’s engineers battled with last-minute development issues. First, the complex fuel injection had to be junked in favour of a set of Autolite carburettors, then the hydraulic valve set-up developed a leak and the engine’s timing went haywire. The final straw came an hour before curtain call when the suspension collapsed under the immense weight of the batteries needed to power the car’s 24V electrics, another promised innovation. Undeterred, Tucker’s men machined stronger suspension arms from steel billet while the founder’s public relations repertoire went into overdrive to buy time.

Finally, the Torpedo made its entrance under its own power, surrounded by a gaggle of pretty models – the Tuckerettes – who held up papier mâché examples of all of the traditional transmission and suspension components that the car of the future did without. The reception couldn’t have been more rapturous and Tucker had proved that tomorrow’s car was indeed here today and, what’s more, it could drive.

Yet, just as the show ended and the sale of stock got under way, the government’s Securities Exchange Commission started investigating Tucker for selling stock in a product that wasn’t going to be delivered with the advertised features. Truth was, Tucker’s list of futuristic boasts was being whittled down as his engineers raced the car through the development process. First to go was the troublesome transmission, which used torque converters to direct drive off either end of the transverse engine’s crankshaft. Its mechanism of rotating hydraulic vanes to produce variable torque may have eliminated the need for a differential, but they could only work in one direction. That left the car without reverse and a reputation that a Tucker ‘can’t back up’ after a newspaper leaked an account of a prototype’s demonstration run.

Other features bit the dust, too. The hydraulic valve-actuation system was unreliable and required frequent bleeding so a conventional camshaft-driven arrangement was adopted. In the end, Tucker realised that he needed a better engine after it transpired that the 589cu in 

(9.7-litre) flat-six couldn’t produce sufficient power. The answer came in the form of the Franklin helicopter engine, but the all-alloy 335cu in unit had to be redesigned to take water-cooling plus a conventional sump and gearbox. That was another stumbling block: Tucker wanted an automatic but the lack of time led to a manual Cord item being used and he scoured scrap-yards across the country for used ’boxes that could be refurbished for the production line.

At around the same time, the SEC’s investigation led to rumours that the car wasn’t reliable. So Tucker took seven sedans to the Indianapolis Speedway for a two-week continuous shakedown to prove that they worked. It turned into a safety trial when one of the cars – driven by Eddie Offutt of Offenhauser fame – rolled following a tyre blow-out. Offutt walked away unscathed, with the windscreen popping out on cue.

But the test wasn’t enough to offset investors’ concerns over the ongoing investigation, and the company was becoming cash-strapped. So the ever-creative Tucker developed a sales strategy so controversial that it’s been quoted in American college economics courses ever since. He sold accessories for the cars to potential owners before their vehicles were made, in exchange for a guaranteed build slot. That meant you could buy a set of seat covers or matching luggage long before your car made it down the line.

The ruse helped to raise some $2m in cash while proving that the market had an appetite for the Tucker. That was never in dispute, of course: when Tucker first teased the public with a sketch of his car in Pic magazine in 1946, he was engulfed by more than 150,000 letters of support (which he displayed in a massive pile at the car’s premiere). In fact, throughout his mauling by a cynical press, Tucker received much support for pursuing his dream. The car wasn’t as technically advanced as he’d promised but, in truth, most of Tucker’s alterations were limited to the way it was powered and were a desperate attempt to get the Torpedo into production. Unlike the big three, with their multi-million-Dollar development programmes, Tucker didn’t have the luxury of ironing out the specification over time. He simply had to substitute technology to get his cars on to the showroom floor.

Yet it was these substitutions – plus concerns over Tucker’s accounting practices – that led the government to claim that he was trying to con the public out of their money because they weren’t getting what he promised. Tucker was indicted for fraud. 

The grand jury trial kicked off in late 1949 and lasted three months, with Tucker in the dock to face allegations of mismanagement and fraud for deliberately misleading buyers by selling a car that he never intended to build. A showman to the last, Tucker had the road outside the courthouse lined with his cars in a final bid to prove that he wasn’t a trickster.

In the end, he was acquitted of all charges but, although Tucker won the battle, he lost the war. His firm was all but finished, with potential investors scared off by the bad publicity. What’s more, the War Assets Administration annexed his factory after he was unable to meet his contractual obligation for production targets and rent. A trusteeship was set up to sell off the parts and tools after only 51 cars including the prototype had been built and just three years since he’d started to develop ‘the first new car in 50 years’.

The irony was that the Tucker Corporation was technically still in the black and had a product that the public wanted. It just didn’t have any credit to pay the people who made it or the rent for the building in which they worked. Yet it wasn’t quite the end of Preston Tucker’s dream. By the early ’50s, he’d come up with a new Tucker – using a rear-mounted, air-cooled four-cylinder engine – that he planned to build in Brazil, far enough away for Detroit not to meddle. Tucker aimed to take on the emerging small-car market but he was too late: his health failed and he died of lung cancer, just six years after the trial.

Much has been written about the end of Tucker’s dream, including allegations that Washington was lobbied by Detroit’s big three to curtail his plans or the industry would be faced with massive expenditure to keep up. Others claim that Tucker was simply a crook who left thousands with nothing to show for their investment. Whatever the reason behind Tucker’s demise, it’s academic 60 years on. One thing is for sure: had Tucker been successful with his curvaceous rear-engined sedan and its raft of safety features, Harley Earl’s ‘fins and chrome’ and the small-block V8 may never have come to symbolise America’s post-war automotive ideal.

Words: Graeme Hurst; pictures: Peter Spinney

ON THE ROAD IN A TUCKER TORPEDO

Nothing prepares you for the Tucker’s radical styling when you see one in the metal. It may be 60 years old, but its futuristic lines still make it look as if it’s doing 90mph even when standing still. It is surprisingly low-slung, too – the roof is just 69in off the road, making it one of the lowest US production cars of its day – while its 18ft 3in length was 2in more than a contemporary Cadillac.

Inside, the dashboard console is a work of art, with the huge circular speedometer flanked by aircraft throttle-style ventilation levers and a vertically mounted radio (a Tucker option) – only the steering wheel and pedals look traditional. The driver sits close to it all but there’s loads of room alongside for a pair of passengers thanks to the capacious safety cell – designed as a zone to duck down into in the event of a collision – that affords nearly 2ft of space in front of your knees. There’s also plenty of padding along the dashboard rail to soften any impact, but no seatbelts. Tucker’s marketing men felt that they would make the car appear unsafe and, besides, the windscreen would pop out if your head hit it (presumably no thought was given to how you’d fare when you met the car in front a second or so later). 

The doorhandles are recessed for safety as well, while the doors are cut into the roof to aid entry and exit for the car’s six occupants. There is a lot of space in the rear for them, too, with the large area above the engine compartment promoted as a ‘shopper’s shelf’ for stowing parcels (Tucker never missed a marketing opportunity).

With a flat-six mounted at the back and a voluminous but sparsely furnished cabin to amplify the engine’s noise, it’s no surprise that a Tucker sounds a lot like a Porsche 911 when you hit the starter button, yet the engine’s hefty 335cu in capacity means the timbre is on an industrial scale, even at idle. And its 372lb ft of torque at just 3200rpm means that, as you let the clutch out to surge smoothly away, there is no hint of the sluggishness so typical of many ’40s American saloons. Changing gear with the Cord pre-selector unit is easy – just move the chrome toggle into the slot for the next gear and dip the clutch when you want the transmission to change – but the vacuum-assisted operation needs a moment to engage as you let the clutch out. Rush it and you’ll wince at the graunch from the gearbox, which is a pity because the Tucker feels surprisingly quick. Testers claimed a 0-60mph time of around 10 secs, which may be optimistic for a 4000lb-plus sedan, but that figure feels believable given the car’s sustained urge as you shift up. Long gearing means that it’ll cruise at 70mph with ease, yet it’s tractable enough to lope along at 40mph in top.

The all-round Torsilastic independent suspension makes for a sure-footed feel, although the softly sprung seating amplifies its bouncy nature over bumpy roads. The steering is light, too, with a direct response from the car’s whitewall crossplies. But braking is less than impressive, with the all-round drum set-up (disc brakes were another of the items that got substituted in the rush to production) needing a sustained shove to wash off speed well in advance in a corner. Otherwise you could risk the back end stepping out because the car’s 61% rear weight bias – more than it would have been with the Tin Goose’s original transverse engine – creates a slingshot effect. No doubt that must have caught out a few drivers more used to traditional front-engine, rear-drive layouts in period. As long as you brake in plenty of time, it corners confidently though. Yet today the biggest challenge in driving a Tucker is ensuring that other motorists don’t accidentally drive into you, shocked at the sight of ‘the future passing them by’.

FACTFILE

Sold/number built 1948/51

Construction Steel body with box-section perimeter frame and subframes front and rear

Engine rear-mounted, all-alloy, water-cooled, 5490cc overhead-valve flat-six, with dual twin-choke Stromberg carburettors

Max power 166bhp @ 3200rpm

Max torque 372lb ft @ 2200rpm

Transmission four-speed, pre-select manual, driving rear wheels

Suspension independent all round, at front by equal-length wishbones rear half-shafts, trailing links; springing by rubber Torsilastic mounts front and rear

Steering worm and sector

Brakes hydraulic finned drums

Length 18ft 3in (5563mm) Width 6ft 6in (2006mm) Height 5ft 9in (1752mm)

Wheelbase 10ft 10in (3302mm)

Weight 4235lb (1925kg)

0-60mph 10 secs Top speed 134mph

 Mpg 24mpg Price new $2450

 


 

 

Comments

julianem

I have seen 2 of these beauties - one at the Petersen in LA, the other at Francis Coppola's winery in Napa. What strikes you is just how gorgeous they are. So low, so enchanting and so full of potential. Like looking at a crouching leopard.

I wish I could own one.

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