Hailed as a visionary by some and a con artist by others, Preston Tucker (1903-1956) was the man behind an innovative, futuristic-looking car that debuted amid great fanfare during the summer of 1948. Within just a couple of years, however, the Tucker Corporation had folded in the wake of suspicions about its founder's business practices.
With the post-war economy booming during the summer of 1948, American consumers were in a buying mood, especially for cars. But the people crowding dealers' showrooms were yearning for something more exciting than the offerings of General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, whose designs seemed old-fashioned and unimaginative. Into this void stepped Preston Tucker, a brash entrepreneur and master of promotion who insisted that he had just what Americans wanted-"The Car of Tomorrow Today." His namesake automobile boasted a radical new aerodynamic look and a number of innovative safety features. At first, it seemed that Tucker had indeed tapped into the public's growing desire for a sleeker, safer car; his company was flooded with orders in a matter of just a few months. Ultimately, however, his inability to deliver on his promises cost him his business as well as his reputation.
Preston Thomas Tucker was born September 21, 1903, on a peppermint farm in rural Capac, Michigan. He grew up in the suburban Detroit community of Lincoln Park where, even as a child, he was fascinated by anything having to do with automobiles. He learned to drive at the age of 11 and quit school two years later to become an office boy for Cadillac. Tucker subsequently worked at a number of other automobile companies, including Ford, Studebaker, Chrysler, and Pierce-Arrow. Although he began his career as a mechanic and test driver, he eventually moved into sales after attending Detroit's Cass Technical High School.
During the 1930s, Tucker dabbled in a number of unsuccessful business ventures, most of them automotive-related. In 1935, for example, he teamed up with famed engine designer Harry A. Miller to build Indianapolis 500 race cars for Ford Motor Company. But none of the ten cars they completed managed to make it across the finish line, prompting Ford to withdraw from the project. Then came World War II, during which time the major automobile manufacturers dedicated their assembly lines to the war effort. From 1942 until 1946, no new models were introduced. Thus, by the mid-1940s, American consumers were desperate for cars. Spying an opportunity to challenge General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler for a share of this eager, fast-growing market, Tucker formed his own automobile manufacturing company, which he named the Tucker Corporation.
Revealed Plans for the "Tucker Torpedo"
As envisioned by Tucker himself, the "Tucker Torpedo" (as the concept vehicle was known) represented quite a departure from the standard fare offered by the Big Three automakers. Long, low, and substantially wider than other large cars then available, with sleek lines reminiscent of a rocket, it had doors that slid up into the roof and six chrome-plated exhaust pipes. Its unique safety features included headlights mounted in fenders that moved with the front wheels to illuminate the road as the car made a turn, a windshield made of shatterproof glass, seat belts, disc brakes, and a heavily padded dashboard to protect front-seat passengers in the event of a collision. In another unusual twist, the driver's seat was positioned in the middle rather than on the left, with separate passenger seats on either side.
Engineering-wise, too, the Tucker was different. It boasted a gigantic, fuel-injected, six-cylinder engine mounted in the rear that its creator claimed could hit a top speed of 130 mph, maintain a cruising speed of 100 mph, and deliver an astonishing 35 mpg gas mileage. In addition, it sported a revolutionary power delivery system of "hydraulic torque converters" that Tucker said would eliminate the need for a clutch, transmission, drive shaft, and differential.
The American public responded with unbridled enthusiasm to Tucker's "car of tomorrow" and buried him in an avalanche of letters and inquiries. But first he had to secure some factory space in which to make his fantasy a reality. Under the auspices of the War Assets Administration (WAA), the federal government leased him a former B-29 engine plant outside Chicago, Illinois. Because the deal was contingent upon his ability to raise $15 million in capital by March 1, 1947, Tucker then set about lining up potential investors. However, he soon found out that in return for their financial support they expected him to surrender control of his company, a notion he found intolerable.
Struggled to Finance His Dream
Tucker then came up with a rather creative way to finance his dream. Although he had produced nothing more than an idea, he began selling dealer franchises and quickly amassed some $6 million that was to be held in escrow until he delivered the first Tucker. But the scheme prompted an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the first of many such probes. Tucker then devised a new strategy that involved issuing $20 million in stock. Before the SEC could rule on his plan, though, the head of the National Housing Agency demanded that the WAA cancel its deal with the Tucker Corporation so that the Lustron Corporation could use the factory to make prefabricated metal houses.
By January 1947, Tucker had won the right to remain in the plant he had leased. In addition, his March 1 capital-raising deadline was extended to July 1. (The SEC's decision on selling stock in the Tucker Corporation was still pending.) But all of the setbacks and squabbles had greatly undermined the public's confidence in the would-be entrepreneur, and the struggle to underwrite the cost of his venture continued.
Meanwhile, efforts to come up with a prototype were under way. Tucker hired noted designer Alex Tremulis to head the project in late 1946, and he and his colleagues managed to fashion a sheet-metal version of the car by hand in less than 100 days, a truly astounding feat. Affectionately known as "The Tin Goose, " it went on display in June 1947 as a 1948 model. Many of the revolutionary features Tucker had touted in his original concept vehicle proved unworkable and were revamped or scrapped. Yet it was still an eyecatching car, especially with its distinctive, Cyclops-like third headlight mounted in the center of the grill that moved with the front wheels. The public's response was overwhelming, and the company was flooded with orders. On July 15, the SEC finally cleared the way for Tucker Corporation stock to go on sale.
Targeted for Investigation
By the spring of 1948, Tucker was ready to go into production with his car despite some lingering financial difficulties resulting from insufficient stock sales. In need of some quick cash, he came up with a new fundraising tactic that offered Tucker buyers the opportunity to pre-purchase certain accessories such as seat covers, radios, and custom luggage. But SEC officials took a dim view of his plan given the fact that not a single vehicle had yet rolled off the assembly line. In May 1948, working in conjunction with the Justice Department, they launched a major investigation into Tucker's business practices and the viability of his car. The bad publicity and lawsuits that ensued effectively disrupted production, spooked creditors, and sent the company's stock price plummeting. Finally, in January 1949, the Tucker factory was forced to close and Tucker was ousted from his own organization and replaced by two court-appointed trustees.
In June 1949, Tucker and seven of his associates were indicted on charges of mail fraud, stock irregularities, and conspiracy to defraud. The trial began that October, with government prosecutors using "The Tin Goose" rather than one of the actual production vehicles to try to prove that the Tucker could not be built or perform as promised. But many of the 70-plus witnesses called to testify against the company actually hurt rather than helped the government's case.
Tucker himself hinted darkly that the Big Three auto-makers and their supporters were behind the attempt to destroy him because of the threat he represented to their domination of the market. Indeed, some evidence suggests that officials of both General Motors and Chrysler actively sought to make it more difficult for Tucker to succeed. Whether they also tried to influence the government to pursue him is less certain. There is no question, however, that Tucker had made some powerful enemies in Washington who repeatedly denounced him as a con artist.
Acquitted on Fraud Charges
The trial dragged on until January 1950. In the end, the jury found Tucker and his associates innocent of all the charges against them. However, Tucker was left bankrupt and with his reputation in tatters; as a result, he was forced to sell his remaining assets, including the 51 vehicles that had been completed before the plant was shuttered. They would be the only Tuckers ever manufactured.
During the early 1950s, a more subdued but still optimistic Tucker tried one more time to develop and market a new kind of car. Before he could pull together all of the necessary financing, however, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He succumbed to the disease in 1956 on the day after Christmas.
Tuckers are now prized by car collectors (around 47 are still known to exist), most of whom are active members of the Tucker Automobile Club of America. Meanwhile, the debate continues over Tucker's place in automotive history. His detractors still consider him a fraud who tried to pass off what was basically a lemon as "the car of tomorrow." His fans regard him as a visionary who was brought down by sinister forces with money and power. Others believe the truth lies somewhere in between those two extremes. Even if his ultimate goal was to strike it rich, they argue, he was sincere about his desire to build an exciting, innovative new vehicle that offered a level of comfort, safety, and affordability not available in any other car at the time. What they do fault is his naivete and lack of business sense, which left the Tucker Corporation woefully undercapitalized and in a constant state of financial crisis that doomed it to failure.
Yet as Tucker himself once observed, as quoted in American History Illustrated, no matter what the obstacles, it was unthinkable not to try to make his fantasy come true. "A man who has once gotten automobiles into his blood can never give them up, " he said. "A man with a dream can't stop trying to realize that dream…. It's no disgrace to fail against tough odds if you don't admit you're beaten. And if you don't give up."
Further Reading on Preston Tucker
Pearson, Charles T., Preston Tucker: A Biography—The Indomitable Tin Goose (originally published in hardcover as The Indomitable Tin Goose: The True Story of Preston Tucker and His Car), Pocket Books, 1988.
American Film, June 1988, p. 27.
American History Illustrated, July 1980, pp. 18-21; January 1989, pp. 36-41.
Car and Driver, October 1986, pp. 89-93; June 1988, pp. 81-89.
Forbes, September 19, 1988, p. 34.
Harvard Business Review, November-December 1988, pp. 176-177.
People, September 19, 1988, p. 85.
"The 1948 Tucker, " Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, http://www.hfmgv.org/showroom/1948/tucker.html (March 6, 1998).
"The Tucker Automobile Web Site: 'Keeping the Legend Online, "' The Tucker Automobile Club of America, http://www.tuckerclub.org (April 2, 1998).