Thursday, April 18, 2013

Yet another Tucker 48 story

For a car that only had a total of 51 examples ever built, the Tucker 48 really secured a big chunk of automotive history.  The cars themselves were pretty interesting, but when you combine that with a charismatic founder, legal issues, and competitive pressures, you have end up with a compelling story.

The futuristic car was of course the brainchild of Preston Tucker, a man who was part visionary and part snake oil salesman.  Designed by George Lawson and Alex Tremulis, the Tucker really was quite advanced in its day. 

Tucker #1000 was the prototype.  Known as the “Tin Goose,” it was really kind of a mess, and did not hint at the quality that the later cars would possess.  The suspension even collapsed under the weight of the car just minutes before it was to debut in an entertainment-packed extravaganza before a crowd of 3,000 people.  Unfortunately, the shoddiness of this car didn’t make the best first impression to the journalists in the crowd.

Really, every Tucker was a prototype of sorts, though.  They just kept making changes and improvements as they went along.  But the core car was definitely innovative.  They had a rear-mounted, 334-c.i.  Franklin flat-six that was actually designed for the Bell 47 helicopter.  The engine was chosen in part because it was air-cooled, but in the end, Tucker converted them to be water-cooled.  Incidentally, the Batcopter in the ‘60s Batman TV show was a Bell 47.

The cars were designed to be safe, with things like pop-out windshields and that cyclops middle headlight that turns with the front wheels.  It also had a roll bar built into the roof and a padded dashboard. 

But as good as the cars were, the company obviously didn’t survive.  There was an SEC investigation into the company because of an accessories program that they developed to raise funds.  Some claim that the “Big Three” automakers were working together to squash Tucker.  There was also a stock fraud trial.  Whatever.  Not many little auto manufacturers survive, and it usually comes down to money.  You can see one version of how things went down in the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola-directed movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream starring Jeff Bridges.  As I understand it, they made some adjustments to the facts for entertainment purposes, but it’s still a fun movie to watch.

I have never seen a Tucker at a car show that I can recall, but I have had the opportunity to see three of them in different museums.  The first was #1016, this black example, that is permanently on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich.    Supposedly, when these cars were new, Preston Tucker sued the Detroit News for printing negative commentary about Tucker automobiles.  The newspaper bought this car to disassemble and prove that it was a pile of junk in order to defend themselves in the lawsuit.  The story goes that they really never found anything wrong with the car, but it was too late to save the company.  It was eventually donated to the museum by the Detroit News.  This car looks like it has been sitting in this same place for a very long time.  It’s also surrounded by so much display material that it’s hard to get a picture. 

I just recently saw Tucker #1024.  It has been part of Bill Smith’s collection in the Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Nebr., since 1997.  Before that it was in the Gast Museum in Pennsylvania.  It also spent many years living in Ann Arbor, Mich.  This is the closest I’ve ever gotten to one of these, as it wasn’t roped off or anything while I was there.  It was sold new from Dallas Tucker Sales in 1948, and the total invoice price was exactly $5,000.  In 2012, Tucker #1043, also finished in this pretty Waltz Blue color, was auctioned off from the Ron Pratte Collection at the Scottsdale Barrett-Jackson auction for an incredible $2,650,000—so that’s some pretty lofty company.  This car was nice, but had obviously been living the museum life for a long time with yellowing white walls and fine, California Car Duster-style scratches in the paint.  It was one of the 21 original Tuckers that was featured in the movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream.

The other Tucker that I had a chance to check out was #1028, this beige example that is in the Tupelo Auto Museum in Tupelo, Miss.  This was another nice car that has obviously been sedentary for a long time, with those tell-tale yellow whitewalls and weak suspension.  This was one of several Tuckers that was famously tested at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway between September 15 and October 15, 1948.  In fact, Tucker #1027 (the car built just before this one), crashed and rolled over several times.  All Tuckers have some kind of interesting history, but I think this Indy connection makes this one particularly stand out.  Incidentally, in the movie, the car that rolled was actually a Studebaker modified to look like a Tucker.  That car is supposedly in a museum in Florida.

The slideshow below has my usual mediocre photos of the Tuckers that I’ve seen, along with some scans of Tucker brochures, ads, and magazine articles.  You can just watch them here, or click this link for a better version.


  1. Great story. Three more Tuckers are headed to museums:

    Only one I've seen was on a road trip to find rust free 62 Chev parts in the early 90's in western SD. A buddy and I stumbled onto an unusual car museum with a Tucker along I-90.

  2. I saw one on I-80 near the Bay Bridge in Emeryville CA. This was in the 60's, I was about 5 years old. I remember asking my dad why the car next to us had a third headlight. Of course I didn't recognize the significance of the Tucker sighting at the time. Parts of the movie were filmed in downtown Oakland CA and I saw a small number of Tuckers on the set when I worked for a burglar alarm company responding to alarms. We knew the police and they me get close, but not too close.