CONCORD, N.C. (March 29, 1999) – History and collector interest have redeemed Preston Tucker’s Torpedo automobile – the revolutionary, aerodynamic sedan that suffered a short, controversial life in the late ‘40s. Its status as a true automotive icon has earned it a place in the “America’s Cars of the Century” display at the Food Lion AutoFair, event to be held at Lowe’s Motor Speedway at Charlotte, April 8-11.
If it’s true that America loves an underdog, then the whole country must have been pulling for aspiring empire-builder Tucker in 1948 as he struggled to build a company around his futuristic Torpedo.
Tucker’s failure was spectacular and has been the subject of much controversy. Automotive historians either paint him as a martyr put out of business by the Big Three automakers who feared his innovative ideas about safety and design or an egomaniacal con man whose growing industrial momentum was built from smoke and mirrors. A 1988 film, “Tucker: A Man and His Dream,” portrayed the flamboyant promoter as the victim of corporate conspiracy, but the consensus of hindsight is that Tucker’s attempt to produce a revolutionary car from the ground up was doomed from the start for reasons of mass-production economics.
Preston Tucker grew up in Michigan, where the influence of Detroit’s awesome car-building culture colored everything in his young life. From his birth in 1903 until the end of World War II in 1945, Tucker worked his way through technical school, got a job with the Cadillac division of General Motors, worked briefly for Ford and established a reputation for himself selling Studebakers, Chryslers, Packards and Pierce-Arrows.
In 1940, he formed the Tucker Aviation Corporation with hopes of producing a vehicle for military use. His prototype was turned down, but the government contracted his company to build the powered gun turret Tucker developed for the car. He prospered from several government contracts during the war and, before fighting ceased, began dreaming of a passenger car that would some day bear his name.
Initially, the Tucker automobile was to be a sports car, as announced in 1945, although it quickly evolved into a family sedan. No matter the car’s final shape, Tucker claimed it would have advances that put it miles ahead of the competition, according to information released by the company.
The powerful engine was to be positioned in the rear of the car – the first such design for a full-sized American car – and would be air-cooled for low maintenance. A complicated torque converter system would eliminate the need for a conventional transmission. Three headlights would not only improve nighttime visibility (with the inboard unit pointing in the direction of the steering wheels), but it would announce to the world that something very new was coming down the road. The driver would sit in the center of the car – this area being deemed the safest in an accident by Tucker’s research – with the entire passenger area described as a “crash-proof compartment.” Aluminum and plastic would keep curb weight to 2,000 pounds.
The War Assets Administration let Tucker take over a retired Dodge plant in Chicago and his fundraising began in earnest. The innovative promoter almost immediately ran afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), with some of his schemes deemed illegal, such as his dealer deposit program. Many millions of dollars flowed into the Tucker Corporation from the selling of Class A and Class B stocks, as well as official Tucker “accessories” – the most popular being radios and luggage – going to anxious customers. Unfortunately, the amount of money required to jumpstart a new car company in 1948 was thousands of times more than the bankrolls that had underwritten the births of Ford, Chevrolet, Buick and Cadillac.
As money began to run out for Preston Tucker, the Torpedo began to drop innovations like luggage off a sinking ship. Gone was the huge 589-cid, air-cooled, aircraft-derived engine in exchange for a 166-hp/335-cid, water-cooled powerplant; the center-driver position was converted to the tried-and-true left-hand drive setup; and a transmission and differential took the place of the scrapped twin torque converter system.
What the changes produced was an attractive, low-slung family sedan with distinctive “Cyclops” front styling and an unusual, but practical, engine in the rear — nothing nearly as revolutionary as the early advertisements had promised. Still, the car’s styling might have carried the Torpedo to success in the marketplace if not for constant organizational problems within the Tucker Corporation and a federal grand jury probe that indicted several of the company’s members, including Preston Tucker himself, for mail fraud conspiracy and violation of securities laws. The Tucker trial began late in 1949, with the corporation being acquitted after a jury determined that all had acted in good faith, even if the resulting car was not as promised by advertisements.
The decision kept Tucker and his associates out of prison, but did nothing to help the company, which promptly went out of business. An auction in 1950 scattered the remaining cars, parts and tooling to the winds and Preston Tucker died of cancer in 1956.
Only 51 Tucker Torpedos were produced, with a remarkable 46 still in existence 51 years after introduction. One of the cars, a dark green example wearing serial number 15, will be displayed at the Food Lion AutoFair in the pavilion on the speedway’s pit road. It belongs to Bobby Protsman, who owns the collector car museum in Stone Mountain, Ga., and was used in the ’88 Tucker movie. Protsman’s family found the car in Miami in 1971 and towed it back to Georgia, where it was restored and put on display in the museum.
“Restoring the Tucker was not as hard as you might think,” Protsman said. “There’s a strong network of Tucker owners out there. These people have hoarded any parts they could find and there are several pieces on the car that Preston Tucker ‘borrowed’ from other companies, just to get production started. The door handles are from a Kaiser. The carburetor is a Buick model. Delco [GM] supplied the electrical system and the distributor came from a Hudson.”
Protsman’s No. 15 sports the matching accessory luggage in its front storage compartment. Although early, pre-production hype promised the Torpedo would be sold for around $1,000 (at a time when a “comparable” Hudson went for $2,300 in the showroom), the few customers lucky enough to get something for their deposits paid $2,450 for the privilege of Tucker ownership. Because of its unique place in American automotive history, a Tucker in good condition is valued today at around $260,000. A brief, post-movie frenzy inspired a Japanese collector to pay $850,000 for one that has since returned to the United States and is currently on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday. Ticket prices are $8 for adults; children under 12 are admitted free when accompanied by an adult. Parking for the event is $5. For more information, contact the speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit www.lowesmotorspeedway.com.