|Tucker Torpedo Model 48|
Was Preston Tucker a visionary or a charlatan, a promoter or a huckster, a saint or a sinner? Five decades after he introduced his amazing car upon an unsuspecting public, those questions are impossible to answer. But the fact is, he was probably all of these things and more, for the story of Tucker and his Torpedo is the story of America in the wonderful, dreadful aftermath of World War II. It's the story of hoping against hope and daring to be different and, ultimately, the story of failure either unfairly thrust upon him or richly deserved.
If Preston Tucker had been a fictional character, Sinclair Lewis would have created him. He was the epitome of all that was good and bad about the American businessman in the middle of this century. He was brash; he was confident, and he didn't know the word "quit." Like Billy Durant before him, he had big dreams, dreams of turning the American auto industry on its collective ear, and he believed as no one else believed that he had the stuff to do it.
Not surprisingly, Tucker was once a car salesman, and his stint on the retail side of the business gave him a feeling that what the customer wanted was far different from what the "suits" in their ivory towers thought he wanted. He was convinced that the man-on-the-street didn't just want transportation, a mundane way of getting from dreary home to boring job and back again. He was convinced those flannel-clad men wanted to buy a dream. So he set out to give it to them.
The post-World War II 1940s proved the perfect time for him. It was an age filled with pent-up demand and rising expectations. The GIs who had returned from Europe and the Far East were proud of the past and believed in the future. They were ready to settle down and bring up their families in an era when consumption wasn't frowned upon or legislated against, but, instead, expected as their natural birthright.
The late 1940s was also an era that cried out for opportunism. Most factories had turned their efforts from making consumer goods to producing war supplies soon after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. So consumers who had gone without for so many years were ready, willing and able to buy. Not only that, but factories that had been constructed as part of the war effort were available at bargain-basement rates to the plucky entrepreneur who could put a business plan together.
Tucker, of course, was a man with a plan. And his plan, at the heart of it, was rather simple: he would build a car so advanced, so good, so special that the newly affluent would abandon the pre-war junk from the Big Three and flock to his dealerships like there was no tomorrow.
At first, his plan seemed to go forward with the ease of a scalpel through soft tissue. After abandoning a notion to build a rear-engined sports car with the help of legendary race car designer Harry Miller, Tucker settled on the idea of building a family sedan (yeah, that's the ticket) with the realization that a helluva lot more family sedans than sports cars were sold each year.
The heart of every great car is a great engine, but Tucker didn't want to waste the time and money to develop his own, especially when there were a bunch of Army surplus helicopter engines lying around that could be had for a song. With a little warbling, Tucker lined up a supply of horizontally opposed six-cylinder engines from Air-Cooled Motors, a descendant of the old Franklin marque. Of course, on the other side of the pond, an engineer named Ferdinand Porsche also was fiddling around with horizontally opposed, air-cooled engines for Volkswagen and for the car company that bore his name.
But, in contrast to Porsche, Tucker was no engineer, and the helicopter engine was no VW engine. Big and bulky, particularly after it was converted to water cooling, the military surplus powerplant displaced a serious 334 cubic inches (5.5 liters) and produced 165 horsepower at 3,200 rpm. In an era in which the Chevrolet "stovebolt" six was churning out 90 horsepower, this was heady stuff, but what could have been sublime turned ridiculous when Tucker decided to position this substantial mass above and behind the rear wheels.
Of course, Tucker's rationale was to put the weight over the driving wheels for better traction. On the face of it, it makes sense, and Tucker did have distinguished company. Czechoslovakia's Tatra 77 had used a very similar arrangement in 1935, with its air-cooled V-8 behind the rear axle, and one doesn't have to mention that Ferdinand Porsche was a proponent of the rear-engine configuration.
Time and physics have shown, however, that a large, heavy object like an automobile (or helicopter) engine placed in the rear of a vehicle often will cause the back end to try to overtake the front end, particularly in turns or under hard braking. So in putting the engine in the rear, Tucker was both ahead of his time and well behind it.
That didn't stop him from moving forward with his plan. He commissioned well-known and well-respected auto stylist Alex Tremulis to draw up a body for the Tucker sedan, based on Tucker's notions, and the fruit of his labor was a four-door that looks like several early-1950's designs but for its center headlight. In other words, it was somewhat advanced for its day, but hardly a leap forward.
The design did, however, incorporate some features that were precursors of items the auto world would see farther down the road. The interior was designed for "safety." No, seat belts weren't standard, but much of the interior was carpeted or otherwise padded, so presumably you and your family's heads would bounce off harmlessly in a collision. A better idea was the windshield that was designed to pop out in a crash. And that center headlight did turn with the wheels, a take-off on the "pilot ray" headlamps of the 1920s and 1930s.
On the strength of the drawings and a prototype, Tucker did the American thing and went public. Some 44,000 shareholders bought into his dream by putting up their hard-earned cash. Tucker went to work lining up dealers to sell the car, a factory to build the car and vendors to supply parts. But the public, who had at first been so taken with Tucker and his dream, quickly turned on him when, fueled by the press, they began to believe that actual production was taking too long to ramp up.
With publicity turning against him, Tucker went on a blitz to produce a total of 51 cars. Weighing more than two tons and sporting a 128-inch wheelbase, the production Tucker was capable of 110 mph, but was far from an agile piece. Its vacuum-operated transmission linkage and four-speed transmission, which were to be replaced by an automatic in series production, were also troublesome, but, at $2,450, the Tucker Torpedo was an incredible value in advanced technology.
Unfortunately, the federal authorities were more interested in potential securities fraud violations than technological achievement. Tucker was indicted, went to trial and eventually was found not guilty. The trial, however, ruined what remaining feeble chances he had of success.
When all was said and done, Tucker's story and his car proved the twin truths that dreams can come true and dreams are fleeting. For Tucker, the dream was gone before it really started.