Somewhere sits an automotive graveyard, filled with glorious failures. The motors of men like John DeLorean and Rust Heinz whose passion projects never managed to make it off the ground. Within this graveyard sits the car of Preston Tucker, though it’s likely the only car in this graveyard that got this close to revolutionising the automotive world.
Preston Tucker’s Tucker 48, more commonly known by its nickname, the Torpedo, is the product of an ideas men. A passion project born out of a love of cars, Preston Tucker made his fortune producing turrets for WWII fighter planes. Envisioning post-war America would be immediately crying out for new cars, Tucker set out to dethrone the big three; Chrysler, General Motors and Ford with the car of tomorrow, today.
With the public placing importance on new design, Tucker banked his car on radical design. An ideas man with no engineering or design training, Tucker sought the talents of George S. Lawson to style his car of the future, the job later falling to Alex Tremulis to complete the two-yearlong design. Publicly debuting in 1946, Tucker’s next step was to drum up interest around the car, no mean feat in post-war America. Looking for funds to put the Torpedo into production, Tucker floated his newly founded company on the stock market, netting $23 million, the equivalent of around $300 million today. Just falling short of the funds necessary, Preston Tucker devised a pre-order scheme to make up the remaining cash. Similar to a deposit, Tucker sold potential buyers the Torpedo’s accessories, purchasing them all got your name in the draw to buy one of the cars. With these funds Tucker was able to blueprint the remainder of his car, source parts and purchase the biggest factory in the US, based in Chicago.
The design finished, factory furnished, funds available, dealerships established and a mountain of orders, Preston Tucker was ready to give the go-ahead and realise his dream of creating the car of the future, only to immediately running into trouble. Tucker underestimated the importance of the big three to the Michigan economy, his fundraising being a very public affair, Tucker managed to garner attention from many unhappy Detroit residents. America’s automotive manufacturing having been established in Detroit, Michigan senator of Homer S. Ferguson didn’t take kindly to Tucker coming out of nowhere with plans to open the biggest automotive manufacturing plant in Illinois, far from the usual stomping ground of Motown. Understandably displeased with Tucker’s grand plan to become the biggest auto manufacturer in the US, the people of Detroit took Preston Tucker to court. Having sold accessories for cars that technically didn’t exist to fund the production, the courts were able to rule Tucker to be selling vaporware, reigning him in on fraud charges, freezing his assets and bringing the whole operation crashing down. A fast, messy end to a car just months away from becoming the most radical production car in the world.
The Tucker never made it into production, only pre-production, the 51 completed in 1948 technically prototypes finished and sold before the government caught up with Preston. The tragedy about the Torpedo’s failure to launch is its actually a very good car, even by modern standards. By far and a long way the most advanced car on the roads in 1948, the Tucker debuted features light years ahead of its competitors. Making good on his promise to put the safest car yet on the roads (albeit just 51 of them) Tucker’s Torpedo was fitted with a padded dashboard, a pop-out windshield to protect occupants, the Torpedo even fitted with a safety cell, an area in front of the passenger designed to allow them to throw themselves into to protect them from an oncoming accident. Even rallying to fit seatbelts, Preston eventually conceding due to added implications of the car being unsafe. Another ground-breaking feature being the Tucker’s swivelling headlights, the central ‘cyclops-eye’ turned with the wheel to light around corners, similar to the later Citroen DS. Turning the industry on its head again, Tucker fitted the engine in the rear, a Franklin 3.5-litre flat-6 from a helicopter. After struggling to develop their own flat-6 motor, Tucker came in contact with Howard Hughes who recommended the Franklin helicopter company to supply readily available engines for his car. After converting from air-cooled to water-cooled the engines ran perfectly in the saloon, producing 166 horsepower and a noise like no other. Hooked up to a Wilson preselector gearbox controlled through an Art Deco column mounted gaited shifter, the Tucker was far from a slow car thanks to its streamlined body and beefy power plant.
Despite its love it or hate it looks, Alex Tremulis’ styling is full of fantastic little details, truly showcasing how fleshed out and production ready the Tucker was. Sporting a Spartan yet stylish interior, the tucker’s padded dashboard gave way to a stunning selection of off-white switchgear swathed in cool art-deco fonts, every control available to the driver without taking their hands off the wheels.
“There’s nothing on the highway to compare with the bold, striking silhouette of the Tucker and the verve of grace of its forward-ploughing lines. This and this alone is the final word in motor-car styling.” An excerpt from the Tucker brochure which perfectly sums up the Tucker’s fascinating lines, the body oozes 40’s charm, flanked with gorgeous art deco grilles front and back, raised rear lights, a little 6-cylinder torpedo hood ornament, 6 exhaust pipes and streamlined front fenders that just go on and on. Tremulis’ stillborn motorcar effortlessly sets itself aside as a true design masterstroke, perfectly riding the line between everyday practicality and absolute absurdity.
Unsurprisingly with such a turbulent life story, Tucker Torpedo’s have endured as very desirable cars. With around 10 of the 47 surviving cars still in private hands, the rare event when a Tucker crosses the blocks is met with justified interest; the best of the Tucker’s changing hands for around $3 million.
It’s easy to daydream on what could have become of Preston Tucker’s fledgling motoring excursion. Would Tucker have joined America’s big three, or replaced them? Would Tucker have gone the way of Oldsmobile, Mercury and Saturn or would it have become a modern-day motoring powerhouse? The Tucker had potential, and whether it was torpedoed by the big three or a simple case of bad timing, the Tucker Torpedo will forever live in the great graveyard of automotive failures.