Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Tin Goose


Two views of a surviving Tucker, taken by my wife, Bonnie, outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania, 1994


According to company promo brochures in the late 1940s, it was “The Most Talked-About Automobile in the World Today.” It was supposed to be “The Car of Tomorrow Today” and the “Motoring Thrill of Your Life.” In other words, a cut above the rest. Too good to be true? The vehicle had many new innovations. The styling was ten years ahead of its time. It was long, low and sleek. Built strongly, it was extremely safe, with the driver and passengers coming first. Now comes the bad news...only 51 were ever built. Nevertheless, 47 still survive in 2014. Comedian talk-show host Jay Leno owns #1003, the fourth one assembled. Collector items today, one of these cars netted almost $3 million at an auction in 2012.

Envisioned by entrepreneur Preston Thomas Tucker, he named the car after himself…the Tucker.

Born in Capac, Michigan on 21 September 1903, and raised in the Detroit suburb of Lincoln Park, Tucker loved automobiles at an early age. Like Henry Ford, Tucker liked to tinker. He learned to drive by age 11 and worked on cars in his middle teens. In 1922, he joined the Lincoln Park Police department because--he admitted later--he wanted to drive the fast police cars and motorcycles. He also worked on the Ford assembly line, then owned a gas station, plus sold Studebakers, Chryslers, Stutz Bearcats,  Pierce-Arrows and Dodges. In the early 1930s, he made his way to Indianapolis where he met and built race cars with his new partner, Harry Miller, a well-known Indianapolis 500 engine manufacturer who had many wins to his credit.

Later in the decade, with war in Europe a distinct possibility, and subsequently was, Tucker designed an armored combat car prototype for the Dutch government. It was a rugged, compact, armor-plated,  3-man vehicle powered by a Packard V-12, complete with a 360-degree gun turret on top. Top speed was well over 100 miles per hour for the car nicknamed the “Tucker Tiger.” Trouble was, the war in Europe started and Holland was quickly overrun in 1940 by Nazi Germany before Tucker could cut a deal and begin manufacturing in a New Jersey factory that was up and ready to go with orders. Instead, Tucker pitched it to the US military. But they thought it was “too fast” for them. However, other powers-that-be were interested in the gun turret, which became known as the “Tucker Turret.” In World War II, it was used in the B-17, B-24, and B-29 bombers as well PT boats, and landing crafts, such as the ones used in the vital D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944.

During the war, no car new models had come out since 1941. After the war, however, the race was on to manufacture new cars for a demanding public, and Tucker wanted to beat everybody else, including Detroit’s Big Three (GM, Ford, and Chrysler) to the finish line. For his car, he wanted 2 things, safety and style, a car with a futuristic look to it. In December 1946, he hired auto stylist Alex Tremulis, who had worked for Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg in the 1930s. In a record-pace 6 days, he came up with a revolutionary design that eventually became the Tucker 48. The next March, Tucker ran a full-page advertisement in national newspapers showcasing the design sketch. Result…the public went crazy for it!

In order to manufacture his new car, Tucker made a deal with the War Assets Administration (WAA) to lease the huge, 475-acre Dodge Plant on South Cicero Avenue in Chicago, which was built earlier in the war for $170 million, and at that time was the largest factory in the world under one roof. Tucker believed in Chicago, whole hog, as the only American city outside Detroit that could build cars. Chicago was a noted rail center and a sea port. It had steel mills, foundries and a more-than-qualified industrial labor force. Previously used for building the 18-cylinder Wright Cyclone R-3350 radial engines for the huge B-29 Superfortress bomber, the Dodge Plant was considered too big for any industry once the war was over. Nobody wanted this White Elephant…except Tucker. He signed the lease in July 1946, on the WAA condition that he raise at least $15 million in capital by the following March. Which he did, after a slight extension. He eventually moved into the building the following year.  Some of the capital came from selling dealerships---2,000 in 21 states at anywhere between $7,500-30,000 each--before a single car had even come off the assembly line.

With a ton of hype, the car’s world premiere on 19 June 1947 was an event that almost didn’t happen. Although 3,000 people were expected for the gala event, over 5,000 came instead for the luncheon and a tour of the massive Chicago plant. But, really, everyone came to see the car. Last minute problems to the first prototype prevented the unveiling on time. This first prototype was extremely heavy due to hundreds of pounds of solder used. The night before, the suspension arms broke from under the car’s tremendous weight and they had to be fixed on site.  More than 2 hours behind for the unveiling, the first Tucker 48 finally did roll out. The engine for it--a rear-engine, experimental flat-6 cylinder 589 cubic inch monster with hemispherical combustion chambers, fuel injection, and  2 torgue convertors on each end--was very noisy. To disguise the sound, Tucker told the band to play extremely loud when the car was wheeled out. When it did appear, the antifreeze boiled over and steam escaped from the car. But no one in the cheering crowd even noticed.

By the time production began on the other 50 prototypes, the big 589 was dropped for a smaller, more economical 334 cubic inch helicopter engine that Tucker thought so highly of that he purchased the engine company’s manufacturer--Air-cooled Motors of New York--for nearly $2 million. The transmission was a modified Cord version called a TuckerMatic. Besides having an aluminum rear engine, the car had many innovations such as the “Cyclops” headlight in the middle of the front end that turned with the steering wheel to light up the driver’s path when taking a corner.  Also, the car  had  individual wheel suspension, torsion springs, doors that opened into the roof, seat belts, a collapsible steering wheel, a solid frame that went completely around the car’s perimeter, a padded dash, a roll bar built into the roof, and a shatterproof glass windshield that popped out upon a heavy collision, to name a few, all in a 4,200-pound, 126-inch wheelbase car that was only 60 inches high, giving it that low, sleek look. Tucker loved the front bumper because it reminded him of the “horns of a Texas steer.” And, we can’t forget the six individual exhaust pipes, 3 on each side of the back bumper.

That same year came some bad press from well-known American journalist and radio host Drew Pearson, who tagged the Tucker 48 prototype the “Tin Goose.” He called the Tucker one huge lemon, making it clear the auto failed to even back up. Pearson also told the public that Preston Tucker was being investigated for fraud. True, the first prototype did not have a reverse gear at the unveiling but that was corrected later. It’s interesting to note hear that Drew Pearson was still trying to get his reputation back on track after US President Franklin Roosevelt had once called out Pearson as a “chronic liar” and also said, “It’s a pity that anyone anywhere believes anything he writes.” All these years later, we now know that Pearson printed too many rumors as truth and that his fact-finding expertise was the equivalent of the modern-day National Enquirer.

But 1947 was a different time. The damage was done and Tucker had to face the court of public opinion. Tucker reacted to Pearson by paying big dollars for full-page ads in large number of national newspapers to state a conspiracy was out to nail him. A negative media reaction followed and the Tucker stock tanked.

The "Tucker Tiger" armored car considered too fast for the US Army
(United States Public Domain)
Then the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) got on Tucker’s back, alerted when Tucker’s Accessories Program raised money by selling accessories to buyers before the car was manufactured. These buyers were placed on the dealer waiting list for the new car. This maneuver, combined with selling the dealerships ahead of time, was too much for the powerful SEC. On 10 June 1949, Tucker and six other executives were charged with 25 counts of mail fraud, five counts of SEC violations and one count of conspiracy.  In the meantime, Tucker had hired over 2,000 employees, who were ready to build the cars. The trial began 6 months later on 6 October 1949 before a grand jury in Chicago. The Tucker factory closed that same day, with only 37 Tucker vehicles finished. Over the course of the next few weeks, 300 loyal employees returned to the factory and completed another 13, totaling 50 plus the first prototype. The trial went on until 22 January  1950, all the time the SEC trying to accuse Tucker and his car company executives of having no intention of ever mass-producing a car. In his closing arguments, William T Kirby, the lawyer who defended Tucker, invited the jury to take a ride in one of the 8 Tuckers parked in front of the courthouse before deciding on whether Tucker and his associates were trying to rip the public off.  The jury found no wrong doing and the verdict was “not guilty” on all counts for all the accused. Tucker won, but was broke and without his precious car company.

So, was Preston Tucker a fraud or not? According to Tucker Vice President Lee Trees, who testified at the trial, the car company was 90% ready with the manpower and the machinery to begin production, if not for the SEC case against Tucker putting a halt to the operation.

Was it a good car? In the January 1949 issue of True, this in the midst of Tucker’s legal problems, the magazine’s automobile editor Ken Purdy took one of the Tucker vehicle’s for a good run and found that it did 125 miles per hour top end, and could accelerate from a standing start to 30 miles per hour in 3 and a half seconds, while 0 to 60 in 10 seconds. In regular driving, the gas mileage was 26 miles per gallon at 45 miles per hour. He ended his article with, “It is the safest car ever built, period.”

While in a Yipslanti, Michigan hospital December 1956 (where he died of cancer on the 26th), Tucker received a letter from an enthusiastic Tucker owner, Bill Hamlin of Ontario, California. Hamlin claimed his car had 120,000 miles on it and was asking Tucker where he could purchase a pair of headgaskets for the engine. To date, his engine had not been apart, not even for a valve job. Hamlin had taken the car to the quarter-mile drag strip at Pomona, California in 1954 where it went 82 miles per hour from a standing start. Hamlin finished the letter by saying, “I have never owned so thrilling an automobile.”  Tucker must have died happy hearing this.

My wife and I saw a Tucker at a car museum outside Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1994, as evidenced by the photo. What a buzz it was for me, and this was shortly after watching the 1988 movie,
Tucker: The Man and His Dream, starring Jeff Bridges as Preston Tucker and directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

By the way, Coppola owns the #1014 and #1037 Tucker models today. Filmmaker George Lucas is another Tucker owner, with #1009 in his garage. The movie hints at a Detroit Big Three conspiracy, using Michigan Senator Homer S Ferguson as their spokesman to shut Tucker down. That was maybe Hollywood conjecture. Or was it? Or was Tucker an underfinanced genius? Everyone needs backers. Henry Ford did.

Unlike another hyped-up car (the Edsel) 10 years later, the Tucker may have just been too good of a car.

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