– PEOPLE WORTH REMEMBERING –
He was a man ahead of his time, creating cars with features like no one had before. Follow along as Tidbits explores the life of this visionary carmaker.
• Infatuated with automobiles at an early age, Preston Tucker learned to drive when he was 11. At 16, he began flipping vehicles, buying cars, repairing them, and re-selling. As a teen, he secured a job as a mail messenger at General Motors in Detroit, wearing roller skates to speed up his duties. At 20, he was working on the assembly line at the Ford Motor Company, while running his own gas station and selling Studebakers on the side.
• Tucker became a full-time car salesman for Stutz, Chrysler, and Dodge, then a regional sales manager for Pierce-Arrow, followed by the presidency of a Packard dealership. He was building race cars for Ford in the 1930s, but with the advent of World War II, he turned to inventing, creating and manufacturing gun turrets for Navy ships.
• Tucker returned to his love of cars post-war, with the goal of building his own automobile company. His design ideas were ingenious and futuristic, including a rear-mounted engine made from modified helicopter engines, a third “Cyclops Eye” center headlight that turned with the wheels to improve visibility around corners, disc brakes, independent springless suspension, and self-sealing tubeless tires. Doors curved into the roof for easier entry and exit. Tucker incorporated many safety features – a padded dash, all instruments within the diameter and reach of the steering wheel, a roll bar within the roof, a laminated windshield designed to pop out during an accident, as well as seat belts and a chassis that protected occupants in the event of a side impact. He called his creation the Tucker Torpedo, later to be known as the Tucker 48 sedan.
• Tucker obtained an enormous factory in Chicago, a former aircraft engine plant where Cyclone engines for B-29 Superfortress aircraft had been manufactured.
• The Tucker 48 was unveiled in an extravagant ceremony and a colossal marketing campaign in 1947. The sedan resembled a rocket ship with its swooping fenders and six exhaust pipes. Investors and dealers were enthusiastic and signed on. Tucker raised over $20 million through the sale of stock and franchises. He also had the idea of raising funds by selling accessories, such as radios and seat covers that could be purchased prior to owning the car.
• But the company was in financial straits from the beginning. Tucker was selling dealerships and stock before the car was ready for production. More than 2,000 dealers had bought into the company that had no cars at the time, with the cost approaching $30,000 for the franchise. Stock was sold to the public. It was then that the Securities and Exchange Commission stepped in and launched an investigation in May, 1948. It was their claim that it was never Tucker’s plan to build any cars, although by this time 51 cars had been manufactured.
• With the SEC’s allegations, the stock price plummeted, investors were lost, and the dealership owners began filing lawsuits to recover their money. The factory was closed down on the very day that Tucker’s trial for stock fraud began. After a lengthy trial, Tucker was found not guilty, but the damage was done.
• Tucker died at age 53 in 1956, and in 1988, his story was told in the movie “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” with Jeff Bridges in the starring role. Tucker’s former factory is now the corporate headquarters of Tootsie Roll Industries, along with the 135-store Ford City Mall.