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 1948 - 1949

Preston T. Tucker

It was an unprecedented sellers market in the American motor industry after World War 2, a time that saw several newcomers attempting to break into the monopoly held by Ford, General Motors and Chrysler - the Big Three. None was more spectacular than the Tucker Corporation of Chicago.

Preston T. Tucker, of Ypsilianti, Michigan, had previously been known as an associate of Harry Armenius Miller in the construction of a number of successful racing cars, including one which had set up many records on the Bonneville Salt Flats, including a top speed of 244 mph and an average of 150 mph for 500 miles. Now he intended to produce an entirely new type of passenger car, sporty, modern in appearance and completely radical in mechanical conception.

The Tucker Torpedo

It was to be rear-engined and equipped with automatic transmission, and independently suspended all round; at press conferences Tucker would pile up conventional axles and other components to demonstrate the amount of unnecessary weight he had designed out of the car. His plans for a sports car called the Torpedo were shelved, but in the spring of 1946 he began organising a company to produce a family sedan.

Tucker was a flamboyant character who believed in spending money while he wheeled and dealed. He was well connected in Washington, and secured a lease on a big aero-engine plant in Chicago where Dodge had been building power units for Boeing Superfortresses. It was claimed to be the largest factory under one roof in the world.

Fred Rockelman

The Government was anxious to unload this plant, which had become a white elephant with the declaration of peace; it was also keen for cars to be built to meet the post-war demand. As soon as Preston Tucker had signed the agreement for his new venture, he sent his sales and engineering vice-president, Fred Rockelman (who had been one of the founders of Ford in 1903) straight back to Chicago on a chartered plane, which had been standing by in readiness during the negotiations; Rockelman's brief was to open offices in Chicago immediately.

The Securities Exchange Commission

Tremendous public and trade interest had been shown in the revolutionary concept of the Tucker automobile when details were announced in the press. Tucker intended to cash in on this enthusiasm to finance his venture, by selling dealerships before he began full-scale production. More than $8 million was raised from dealers anxious to sell the Tucker car, and a comprehensive sales network was organised, covering not only the United States but also export markets in 1800 retail outlets. Tucker also raised capital by a conventional stock market issue: but this brought his company under the rerview of the Securities Exchange Commission of the US Government, which insisted that all the unorthodox features proposed in the prospectus of the new car should be fulfilled.

This would doubtless have been fine under normal circumstances, but Tucker had no time to spare for development of the technicalities of the new car: it had to be right first time ... Tucker's power unit proposed problems: it was to be a flat-six, transversely mounted between the rear wheels, and driving a wheel from each end of the crankshaft through twin hydro-kinetic torque convertors to give a theoretically infinitely variable automatic transmission. Moreover, in the interests of engine flexibility, the conventional system of valve operation through a camshaft, tappets and pushrods was to be abandoned in favour of variable valve timing, actuated by an hydraulic pump and distributor.

Tucker designer Alex Tremulis
Tucker designer Alex Tremulis and his staff working on refining each detail of the Tucker sedan wooden model.

The First Tucker Engine
The first Tucker engine was an enormous 589 cubic inch unit and was situated crosswise on the overhang between the two independently sprung rear wheels.

1948 Tucker Interior
One of the features of the Tucker sedan was the use of a padded safety dashboard and pop-out windscreen.


Air-Cooled Motors of Syracuse

Unfortunately, Rockelman found that though the system was fine in theory, in practice the heat of the engine caused the hydraulic fluid pushing the valves open to expand, upsetting the valve timing and affecting performance. So a substitute power unit was found in the shape of a flat-six developed for a Bell helicopter, by Air-Cooled Motors of Syracuse, New York (successors to the Franklin motor company). Preston Tucker perversely had this unit converted to water-cooling ... Nor was the Tuckermatic transmission a success, as it proved impossible to make it work in reverse.

Preston Tucker Never Backed Up For Any Man!

The company spent a great deal of money attempting to cure the problem, but nevertheless, when the prototype was demonstrated to the press, it had no reverse. The flamboyant Tucker was quick to counter press criticism of this minor shortcoming: 'Preston Tucker never backed up for any man!' he growled. In order to get some demonstration vehicles on the road, a number of prototypes were built using modified Cord transmissions, with electrically-selected gears; other features of the original concept which were hurriedly abandoned were front cycle-type wings swivelling with the wheels and a central driving position.

Alex Tremulis

Nevertheless, the styling of this 'compromise' car was so different from anything else on the roads of America that it created an immediate sensation. The work of former Auburn / Cord / Duesenberg stylist Alex Tremulis, the Tucker body was only 5 feet high on a 128-in wheelbase, very long and sleek, with a unique three-headlamp layout carried over from the abortive Torpedo sports car. Helping keep the height down was all-round independent suspension, by superimposed wishbones at the front, and at the rear by trailing arms sprung by rubber-in-torsion units, a concept exactly similar to that adopted for the original Issigonis Mini.

You'll Step Into A New Automotive Age When You Drive Your Tucker' 48

Unfortunately, the art of bonding rubber to metal was still in its infancy, and the components of the rear suspension were liable to come unstuck at high speeds, leading to instability and, in one case, to the total destruction of the car. 'You'll step into a New Automotive Age when you drive your Tucker' 48,' ran the company's slogan, and a reported 300,000 motorists placed orders for this revolutionary new car - which was the first of the safety-engineered sedans, with disc brakes, pop-out windscreen, padded dash and an 'uncrushable' passenger compartment.

The Reconstruction Finance Committee

But the company was still in difficulty with its development problems, still laboriously hand-building demonstration cars for the dealerships. They never did manage to get the Tuckermatic transmission to work properly: all the Tuckers which appeared on the road - and there were only 45 of these - had the modified Cord transmission. More finance became necessary, and Tucker turned to the Government's Reconstruction Finance Committee for a $30 million dollar loan.

With anticipated sales in excess of those for Studebaker or Buick, it seemed as though Tucker would experience no difficulty in raising the money: but now the grey men of the Securities Exchange Commission stepped forward, claiming that as the cars being offered to dealers differed materially from those described in the prospectus - most importantly in the substitution of a conventional type of transmission for the automatic - Tucker and his associates were committing a fraud.

The Indictment of Preston Tucker

The loan was refused, and the Tucker company was forced into voluntary liquidation, though it was all geared up to sell everything it could produce, and had several million dollars in the bank. A receivership was set up, and though a financial consortium from Texas was anxious to refloat the company and begin production, it was not permitted to do so. The final act was the indictment of Preston Tucker and five of his associates, including Rockelman, for fraud. After a long court session they were acquitted; but it was too late to save the company.

Bureaucracy had won the day against mechanical innovation, and the Tucker Company died leaving only the legacy of the few hand-built prototypes and the memory of a car decades ahead of its time in engineering and performance, with many advanced design features which were not even commonplace on American cars twenty years on. In 1955, six years after his acquital, Preston Tucker was once again back in the news. He announced plans to build a new Tucker car designed by Alexis de Sakhnoffsky. However, Tucker was unable to raise the considerable finance necessary and the project died with him.
1948 Tucker
1948 Tucker - Years ahead of its time, the car never made it into production. Amoung its many features were air-cooled engine, disc brakes, safety windscreen and uncrushable safety passenger compartment.
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