The Tucker Torpedo…What if?
By Chris Hussey
As a native of Tupelo, Mississippi, one of my favorite places to frequent is the Tupelo Automobile Museum. While I love perusing the entire collection, I am always drawn to one vehicle: Preston Tucker’s 1948 four-door sedan, affectionately known as the Tucker Torpedo. Billed at the time as “The Most Completely New Car in Fifty Years,” the Tucker surprised the entire automobile industry by living up to that billing. The Tucker 48 represented the car of the future to a car-starved post-WWII America.
The 128-inch wheelbase Tucker was only 60 inches high, which is much lower than other automobiles of the era. However, Tucker didn’t stop there. He added an independent suspension and a rear-mounted flat six engine derived from a war-time air-cooled helicopter unit featuring a fully sealed water cooling system, another first in the automotive industry.
The Tucker was also years ahead in terms of safety features. With a padded dash, front passengers had a “safety chamber” where they could “dive” in case of pending collision, and the windshield was designed to pop out harmlessly upon impact. The most noticeable difference was the central “Cyclops” headlight which turned with the front wheels. Luxury automakers have just recently (60 years later) attempted similar rotating headlights.
All of the above are facts and statistics that you could read anywhere. You’ll never appreciate the Tucker for what it is until you see one in person next to product offerings from other automakers of the period. The body styling is stunning; it appears to be muscular and sleek at the same time. The massive chrome bumpers and vents speak to the car’s luxury, and the fastback four door design calls to mind the forthcoming Aston Martin Rapide. When you sit in the driver’s seat of the Tucker 48, every control falls to your fingertips, as all of the instruments are mounted on the steering column. This innovation allowed for the access space under the dashboard dubbed the “safety chamber.” It’s as if Preston Tucker and the car’s designer, Alex Tremulis, studied Detroit’s contemporary offerings and found ways to improve on nearly every facet.
It’s a shame to think of what happened to the Tucker. Always just a few dollars away from having enough money to successfully build his company, Tucker tried some innovative capital raising schemes such as pre-selling franchises and accessories before the cars were delivered, some of which ran afoul of the SEC. In an open letter published in major newspapers of the day, Preston Tucker contended that his more established competitors from Detroit, along with their allies in Washington, knew that Tucker had designed was a better car, and it scared them. Eventually, Tucker and seven of his associates faced a Grand Jury indictment on 25 counts of mail fraud and 5 counts of violating SEC regulations. The prosecution had to prove that there was no possibility of building the car, but the problem was, the car was under production prior to the trial, in spite of over a thousand workers having been laid off when the SEC swarmed the plant. The jury found the defendants not guilty on all counts, but the company had already been lost to bankruptcy, and the Tucker Corporation no longer existed. Isn’t it ironic that today, state and local governments will give foreign automakers hundreds of millions of dollars just to build a single plant in the U.S., while in Tucker’s day, parts of the government did everything possible to keep the Tucker 48 out of production?
After sitting in the beautiful Ivory Tucker now retired in the Tupelo Automobile Museum, I can’t help but wonder, ”What if? What if Preston Tucker wouldn’t have succumbed to one of the Big Three? What would the Tucker be today? Would it be another sad example of brand proliferation, or would the innovation spurred by the Tucker have kept Detroit at the center of the automobile world?” Sadly, we will never know the answers to any of these questions. All we have left are 47 of the original 51 production Tuckers still in existence today; an attractive reminder of some very unattractive times in automotive history.
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