American automotive history is littered with one-hit wonders: automakers that turned out a handful of vehicles and then closed. Few, though, ever caught the public’s attention the way the Tucker did.
There are probably several reasons why Tucker, which turned out some 51 cars in 1948 before it folded, still resounds. For one thing, unlike many failed vehicles, it wasn’t a dawn-of-time horseless carriage, but a model that was wildly futuristic for its day. The cars made headlines in the 1980s when they brought huge prices at auctions. There was a 1988 movie, Tucker, starring Jeff Bridges. But perhaps more than anything, it was the rumor that the Detroit automakers, fearful of the innovative new model, had conspired to bring Tucker down.
Tucker was ultimately bankrupted as a result of fraud charges levied by the government, but it was doomed from the start, and it was all due to economics. It takes a huge amount of capital, a brilliant business plan, and economy of scale to start and maintain a car company. Tucker just didn’t have that combination.
Early Tucker brochure.
What was Tucker, anyway?
Preston Tucker was an engineer who worked with the military during the Second World War, producing the “Tucker Turret” tank turret, as well as a prototype combat car that the Army rejected because it went too fast. He’d collaborated on race cars with Indy driver and builder Harry Miller in the 1930s, and he wanted to build a car of his own. Familiar with hydraulics through his military work, he envisioned a car without a driveshaft, instead using pressurized fluid and hydraulic motors to turn the rear wheels. That design never materialized, but it was obvious that Tucker would never build a conventional vehicle.
His car passed through numerous designs and stages. Some of the elements he wanted, and which didn’t make the final cut, included a rear-mounted air-cooled engine, front fenders that turned with the wheels, a periscope for 360-degree visibility, and a centrally-mounted steering wheel. Some that he also floated, but which were still either impossible or too many years into the future for mass production, included fuel injection, disc brakes, a sealed cooling system, electronic ignition, a 24-volt electrical system, and a speedometer mounted in the hood.
However, the car did have such novelties as seatbelts, three headlights, interchangeable front and rear seats to reduce wear, a pop-out windshield (Tucker thought it was safer in a crash), and an unusual dash that clustered all the instruments around the steering wheel, leaving a large empty space on the passenger side. The idea of this “safety chamber” was that, in the face of an impending collision, a passenger could dive into it for protection.
“Luxury beyond comparison…”
“A word to women… who drive or ride”—text from an early Tucker brochure, cont’d below:
The Tucker is built with women’s own particular needs in mind. When you drive, you frequently have children in the car. Tucker safety features give you the EXTRA protection that means peace of mind in traffic and on the highway. For they help you avoid accidents as well as give you and yours added security in case of unavoidable mishaps.
You’ll glory in the effortless case of driving the new Tucker. It has true fingertip steering control. Ordinary traction jolts and jars are either eliminated or unbelievably softened. There are no fumes or heat to bother you because the engine is in the rear.
And what luxury inside! Seats you literally sink into and relax. A “shoppers’ shelf” behind the rear seat, designed specially for your needs. “No-stoop” doors that open up into the roof for graceful entrances and exits…even when wearing your frilly new hat.
The car debuts
As an all-new design, it would be a rarity. Needing supplies to fight the war, the U.S. government had turned to the automakers, which were already set up for mass production, and ordered them to switch their focus. Because of this, there were no civilian vehicles made for model years 1943, 1944, or 1945.
The automakers also had an agreement not to work on any new designs during the switch, and as a result, most 1946 models were 1942 designs with a few trim differences. Studebaker came out with an all-new 1947, having stuck to the legalities of the agreement but not its intent by hiring an outside firm to draw up new models during wartime. It, and Tucker, would be among the first redesigned postwar cars on the market – another reason, some say, for the bigger automakers to want to shut Tucker down.
But it’s highly unlikely that, under the circumstances, a new design from a small start-up would have incurred the wrath of the Big Three. (After all, although it was no secret that they weren’t pleased with Studebaker’s new outsourced design, that company managed to last until the 1960s.) The new Tucker was the least of their worries. Instead, they were busy just trying to get enough cars out the door. In some cases, it took years before supply finally caught up with demand.
The War Assets Administration, or WAA, had been formed by the government to dispose of surplus war equipment and real estate. Tucker leased a huge airplane engine plant from it in Chicago, at a cost of $500,000 per year. It was suitable for auto production, but its size – and its overhead – was far more than he needed. The lease also stipulated that he had to raise $15 million in capital, and so Tucker set up a dealer franchise program and a stock issue of $20 million.
Building the innovative car from scratch didn’t happen easily. The air-cooled engine wasn’t feasible, and the design became water-cooled. The new engine begat a new transmission design, and the first cars used front-wheel-drive transmissions from Cord, reengineered to fit the rear-mounted engine.
Cord production had ended in 1937, and some of the transmissions even came from scrap yards. Some of those earliest cars were retrofitted with the other two transmissions eventually used: a manual one, built in Michigan, and the “Tuckermatic” automatic, designed for the car. It didn’t help that the hastily-cobbled prototype didn’t have reverse gear, which led to rumors that the production models wouldn’t be able to back up.
The engine was a monster, generating 166 horsepower and a whopping 372 lb-ft of torque, but it presented a new economic problem. Tucker had originally balked at the price of the engines, and eventually he simply purchased the company, paying $1.8 million for it. But tooling costs were still a factor, and even with creative accounting, each engine cost about $1,500—and that was what Tucker planned to spend to build the whole car, which was expected to retail for $2,500. At least initially, until a less-expensive engine redesign could be implemented, the Tucker would be built at a loss.
And then there was the payroll. Throughout development, staff had grown from 300 people to 2,200, some of them engineers and fabricators who had been wooed from other auto companies with salaries two or three times what they had been making.
Chief stylist Alex Tremulis wrote in a 1965 article that while he had great faith in the car itself, “…we spent $28 million on the Tucker enterprise. To fully launch the car, we would have needed a total of $50 million.” Preston Tucker was even raising money by selling accessories such as radios and seat covers, before any of the cars were actually sold.
Cash, cash, cash
It’s uncertain how long the cash-starved Tucker Corporation could have limped along, but there’s no question that the government dealt a fatal blow. It began with Wilson Wyatt, who held a powerful position as head of the National Housing Agency. In spite of Tucker’s lease, Wyatt ordered the WAA to hand over the factory to a company that planned to make prefabricated houses in it. Tucker’s battle over the pending eviction earned him several enemies in the government.
Tucker also tried to buy two steel plants, both through the WAA, to ensure supply to his factory. On the first, the WAA upped the plant’s market price, without informing bidders—including Tucker—and sold it at the higher price. On the second, the WAA rejected bids, again including Tucker’s, and then leased it to Kaiser Steel. Perhaps coincidentally, on the day that Tucker was turned down for the second plant, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched an investigation against him, questioning the $20 million stock offering and the state of the company’s financing.
The SEC had been established in 1934 after the Great Depression to regulate the stock market and investigate discrepancies, and it could be ruthless in its quest to avoid the uncontrolled trading that had helped initiate the crash. Tucker’s company got its attention because it was selling stock and setting up dealers for a car that didn’t yet exist. When the news got out, Tucker stock fell, and the plant was idled to conserve operating funds.
Actual production, beyond the 51 hand-built models, never began. The company was forced into bankruptcy in March 1949. Tucker was found not guilty in 1950, but it was all over. He later tried to interest a Brazilian company in financing a new compact car, but nothing came of it, and he died in 1956.
Was it really a conspiracy by the Detroit automakers? In retrospect, if there’s any question of back-door politics, there might be more to Wyatt’s handing over the factory to a company that stood to reap considerable gain from the postwar housing boom, than anything from rival car companies.
An insider view
Philip Egan, one of the Tucker designers, wrote a 1989 book, Design and Destiny: The Making of the Tucker Automobile. He discounts the Detroit conspiracy theory entirely, pointing out that body stampings sourced in Detroit arrived in a “remarkably short period of time” and were of excellent quality; that suppliers that also made parts for the Detroit automakers delivered components without any significant hitches; and when Tucker changed his mind on a steering wheel design, delaying delivery of this vital part, Ford gave the company fifty steering wheels that were blemished and couldn’t be used for Lincoln production. There was no charge, just a request that they be destroyed once the Tucker wheels came in to replace them.
Tucker wasn’t the only company to start up after the war. In 1946, production began at the new Kaiser-Frazer company. Its owners had shipbuilding and industrial experience behind them, along with $52 million. It sold more than 144,000 cars in 1947, but lacked the funds to update its products. Sales gradually fell, and it ceased domestic production in 1955.
Henry Kaiser later said he should have initially raised $200 million to see the company through.
Tucker, meanwhile, started on one-tenth of what Kaiser estimated a car company needed to be successful, and that was his company’s downfall. Detroit didn’t destroy Preston Tucker’s enterprise.
Instead, it was all about the cash.