The story of Preston Thomas Tucker (1903 – 1956) is rich of passion and enthusiasm: a visionary man who, driven by great determination, created a car capable of immediately making all other four-wheeled vehicles in production at that time obsolescent and who also had the courage to criticize the most important American car manufacturers by claiming that they preferred to produce unsafe cars to keep their costs down, focusing on profits alone, rather than considering the safety of their buyers.
Passionate about cars since he was a child, Tucker began his approach the world by working on the Ford assembly lines as a young man, but the real beginning for him was in 1935 when he, along with racing car maker Harry Miller, founded Miller and Tucker Inc. In the field of innovation, Tucker became famous for having built a compact military vehicle powered by a Packard V12 and called the Tucker Tiger, equipped with a turret with a machine gun: this original solution eventually came to be called the Tucker Turret. The plan was discarded by the United States government, however, because it failed to meet the required standards: its small size and powerful engine made it too fast.
But the creation that most represents Preston Tucker’s character is undoubtedly the Torpedo. This was the name originally chosen for the car, later to be known as the Tucker 48, which first appeared in 1947, a year after the founding of the Tucker Corporation. Its development had already begun three years earlier under the supervision of designer George S. Lawson, who was then replaced by Alex Tremulis, who had worked at the Chicago Tammen & Denison company. The long design phase, during which the car’s design and technical content was modified several times, was documented by numerous advertisements and brochures circulated at the time, helping to fascinate and intrigue many people.
The official launch took place at the Tucker factory in Chicago in June 1947 and despite some unexpected mechanical problems appearing just before the presentation, the new car was immediately appreciated for its modern design, characterised by rounded lines (hence its nickname the Tin Goose) which gave it a Cx of only 0.27, a very surprising result for its time. The low height of the rear, just 1520 mm, also helped to make it possible to achieve this extraordinary result and it was for this reason that the doors were also extended into the roof, facilitating access to the passenger compartment. Another innovative external feature that improved the safety of the 48 was the central headlight which turned with the front wheels, giving improved visibility when cornering at night. Then followed a very strong body with a rollover bar integrated into the roof, which offered excellent protection to its occupants in the event of a crash. There were also many interior features which improved comfort and safety, such as the padded dashboard and doors and a collapsible steering column; also eye-catching was the original layout of the controls behind the steering wheel, all clearly visible and within easy reach. Another innovation was the shatter-proof windscreen glass, which detached from the car in the event of a crash and by not shattering avoided the danger of flying splinters during the impact.
Being an avant-garde car, the long gestation period presented various problems to which the team had to find solutions. The first difficulty was the innovative 589 six-cylinder engine, designed by Tucker together with Ben Parsons, owner of the Fuelcharger Corporation, which was later replaced: firstly by a Lycoming unit, which didn’t actually fit into the engine compartments, so finally by the 5470 cc 6-cylinder 160 bhp Boxer engine made by Aircooled Motors (Ex Franklin Engine Company). This engine was modified by changing it from air- to water-cooling.
As for the transmission, that of the Cord-Auburn was initially used, derived from the one used in the 810/812 model, transmission that had been used on a front engine/front-wheel drive car whilst on the Tucker everything was at the back instead. Later these transmissions were revised by the Ypsilanti Machine and Tool Company but problems persisted until a continuously variable transmission was chosen, designed with the help of engineer Warren Rice and called Tucker-Matic. For the suspension the car originally had helical springs but was switched to independent rubber elastomers, designed together with Firestone. In a nutshell, the 48 was an extremely modern car for its time and made the Big Three very uncomfortable as well as being targeted by some of the media, which highlighted the various initial problems of the car instead of its innovative features, and although this negative news was quickly denied since the problems had been solved, they did not help the image of the 48.
The accusation of fraud against Tucker was the last straw, driving the company into crisis and, even though he was later acquitted of all charges and managed, with great effort, to produce the 50 cars promised so he could continue to take advantage of the factory which had been granted to him, his idea was still cut short and the company fell into bankruptcy and was without a production site.
Tucker later tried to re-start, with a new car developed in Brazil, but unfortunately this project was halted when he found out he had lung cancer, which led to his death from pneumonia on December 26, 1956.
As for the car, 47 of the 50 cars still exist, and you can find more information on the various models by visiting the Tucker Automobile Club of America website, which collects information and photos of the whole production of the brand.
Although Preston Tucker has often been portrayed as a swindler, he was actually a genius, well ahead of his time and who, with his futuristic car, re-wrote the whole way of conceiving a car, one that has been studied and imitated by other manufacturers and which, even today, represents a symbol of innovation. The symbol also fascinated Francis Ford Coppola, owner of a Tucker car, whose Carmine was one of the investors in the company’s title. Coppola himself later dedicated the film “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” in 1988 to the entrepreneur and his four-wheeled jewel.
More recently the great-grandchildren of Tucker, Sean and Mike, who founded Preston in 2012, are the protagonists of Tucker LLC, founded to promote the history and plans of their ancestor through various initiatives also involving Rob and Bob Ida, who specialise in Hot Rods and who have already made some replicas of the 48 and are currently building a copy of the first prototype of the Torpedo (find more info HERE and HERE).
Although 70 years have passed, the initiatives that revolve around this marque are not lacking and they help to keep Preston and his Tucker alive, just as it should be.
Text by Tommaso Lai
Translation by Norman Hawkes
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