Preston Tucker looks pleased with a sketch of his soon-to-be pride and joy: The Tucker ’48. (Courtesy The Lincoln Park Police force in 1920. Preston Tucker is pictured in the front row (crouching), far left.Preston Tucker
Preston Tucker’s dream became very apparent in life at a very early age. Growing up in Lincoln Park, before he was even a teenager, the young man was drawn to the automobile as his life’s work. From humble beginnings, he would quickly become known by the auto giants, would make a name for himself in the auto racing field, and would be recognized by his efforts in improving the quality of equipment used during wartime. His prized contribution was the extremely rare Tucker ’48 automobile, which occupies a historic spot today at Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. His fall from grace was just as startling, but in his last years he did much to save his reputation. Tucker’s story provided the impetus behind the movie Tucker: The Man And His Dream, a 1988 release starring actor Jeff Bridges.Tucker learned to drive at age 11, and parlayed that interest into his first solo business venture at age 16: purchasing late-model cars, refining them, and selling them for profit. Having dropped out of Cass Technical High School, and after a time working at Cadillac as an office worker, he found what he believed to be a good career choice, enabling him to drive the cars at the higher speeds he dreamed about: a police officer in Lincoln Park. He applied and gained the position, but victory was only short.

The likelihood of young Mr. Tucker having stretched the truth about his age on the police officer application was high, as his mother knew that age 19 was too young to join the force. She removed him from the force out of rule and of concern for his safety.

The following year (1920) Tucker married, and he & his wife took over the lease at a Lincoln Park gas station (its exact location is currently unknown). For six months his wife would work the gas station while Tucker worked on the assembly line at Ford. He gave the Lincoln Park police force another try, but ended up banned from driving police vehicles due to an unauthorized modification made using a blowtorch. Selling Studebakers at the gas station earned Tucker the attention of an auto salesman from Detroit. This long-distance job did not sit well with Tucker (even though he was doing quite well in sales), so he would ultimately return to the Lincoln Park police force one final time. A further persuasion from his Detroit partner, Mitchell Dulian, to move to Memphis and begin a new business there ended up swaying Tucker.

For the next couple years he played the part of a wandering salesman, as he never established himself in one area for too long… although he remained relatively successful in most any position he held. But it ultimately was Tucker’s never-ending desire for automotive speed that led him to begin once-monthly treks to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, starting as a transportation manager (representing a beer company), before becoming involved in designing high-quality racing engines with Harry Miller. Tucker would meet the Chevrolet brothers and the man who would end up working on the Tucker ’48 design before the end of the 1930s. The young man’s reputation in the auto world was very strong.

Moving back to Michigan just before the start of pre-World War II uneasiness in Europe, he established Ypsilanti Tool & Die Company, developing the “Tucker Tiger” armored combat car. Reception to this vehicle was not favorable, mostly due to timing. The Dutch were heavily involved with the Germans as they had invaded the Netherlands in 1940. Tucker then tried selling the U.S. Military on the combat car’s advantages (a top speed of 115 MPH, for example); the military believed that was too fast. A weaponry part on the combat car, nicknamed the “Tucker Turret,” did interest the U.S. Navy, and it became known for its use in PT boats and various B-series bombers used during the war.

Mainly due to the ongoing war escalation, Tucker turned his interests to the aviation & naval fields, forming Tucker Aviation as a beginner company in 1940 to develop engines for aircraft and marine vessels. He later developed the Tucker XP-57, billed as a lighter fighter aircraft (to promote more military agility in the skies), but his intended audience (the U.S. Army Air Corps) allowed the contract to lapse. Tucker’s final war effort was in partnership with Andrew Jackson Higgins, the builder of Liberty ships. Higgins bought out Tucker Aviation, but the duo would split only a year later. Then in 1943, he decided to move back to Michigan and work on the dream he always had: The Tucker Corporation.“The world’s greatest salesman. When he turns those big brown eyes on you, you’d better watch out!”
Higgins Industries (1943)

After the war, the public was ready for totally new car designs. But the Big Three Detroit automakers had not developed any new models since 1941, and were in no hurry to introduce them. This provided great opportunities for new, small independent automakers. Tucker saw this as his opportunity to develop and bring his “car of tomorrow” to market. His first design appeared in Science Illustrated magazine in December 1946 and became known as the “Tucker Torpedo.” This name was quickly replaced to avoid horrifying thoughts of the war; the new name would be the “Tucker ’48”.

Tucker and his partners would score big right away as, in July 1946, the lease was signed for what was the largest factory building in the known world: The Dodge Chicago Aircraft Engine Plant. Once they were moved in, Tucker got to work on what he hoped would consist of his revolutionary specifications.

  1. Rear Engine (low-RPM 589) with hydraulic valves (instead of a camshaft)
  2. Fuel Injection
  3. Direct-drive torque converters on each rear wheel (instead of transmission)
  4. Disc brakes
  5. All instruments were to be located within reach of the driver and the steering wheel
  6. Padded dashboard
  7. Self-sealing, tubeless tires
  8. Independent spring-less suspension
  9. Roll bar (within the roof)
  10. Laminated windshield (in case of accident, it would pop out of the frame instead of break)
  11. “Cyclops” headlight (which could turn at angles while driving at night to improve visibility)

Items #1-4 were dropped from inclusion among the 51 initial prototype designs.

Any initial trouble which would affect Preston Tucker’s operations was not necessarily his company’s doing: they were targeted by the Security and Exchange Commission the same way other similar companies were. There was plenty of money-squandering among the up-and-coming automakers. World War II may have made the fields ripe for expansion with the financial generosities of the Federal government, but that would not result in many companies following federal guidelines.
Tucker (at left) with attorney Frank McAdams as they venture to Federal Court in Chicago.

Initially, Tucker’s company would not take a dime of Federal assistance.

It would not be long, however, before they were in the crosshairs. Tucker’s company began selling auto accessories from its prototype models before the inventory even began production. People who purchased these parts (without having seen the car themselves) were promised a prime spot on the waiting list for the new “Tucker ’48.”

The same backhanded deals were starting in regards to purchasing dealer outlets – again, done before any inventory had been mass-produced.“(Tucker ‘s car)… does not actually run, it just goes ‘goose-geese’… I don’t know if it can back up.”

Perhaps the Chairman of Tucker’s board – Harry Aubrey Toulmin, Jr. – could foretell what could happen. He resigned his post and wrote a letter to the SEC in a sign that he was distancing himself from the Tucker company and its increasingly shady deals. He then did a likely about-face on his opinion of Preston Tucker himself, while Tucker was of the opinion that he pulled the trigger on Toulmin, seeking a more experienced hand to guide the company: Himself.

Introducing the Tucker ’48.

The first prototype lacked a reverse gear because Tucker had not had time to finish the direct torque drive by the time of the car’s unveiling. This was corrected in the final driveline, but the public damage was done and a negative media feeding frenzy resulted. Tucker responded by publishing a full page advertisement in many national newspapers with “an open letter to the automobile industry”, where he subtly hinted that his efforts to build the cars were being stymied by politics and an SEC conspiracy. Nonetheless, dealership owners began filing lawsuits to recover their money, and Tucker’s stock value plummeted.

In 1949, Tucker surrendered his corporate records to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, which began a grand jury investigation in February 1949. On March 3, 1949, a federal judge handed control of the Tucker Corporation over to Aaron J. Colnon and John H. Schatz. Soon thereafter on June 10, 1949, Tucker and six other Tucker Corporation executives were indicted on 25 counts of mail fraud, five counts of violations of SEC regulations and one count of conspiracy to defraud. Tucker publicly called the charges “silly and ridiculous” and hailed the indictment as “an opportunity to explain our side of the story.”

Prior to the start of the trial in October 1949, various national magazine publications such as Collier’s and Reader’s Digest began leaking facts from the SEC’s initial report, which spurred much negative reaction among potential customer bases and the general business world.

The very day the trial began (October 4th), the Tucker company closed up operations. A grand total of 37 “Tucker ’48s” had been built. An employee base of 300, loyal to a fault, would finish production on an additional 13 cars. Including the prototype mentioned above, the total production ended at a paltry 51 vehicles. Former employees were called to testify against the production procedures Tucker employed. One reveal showed that suspensions were re-installed twice in the vehicles (three times in all) before they would work to specifications.

Finally, after nearly five weeks of back-and-forth testimony and bickering, Judge Walter J. LaBuy finally demanded the representatives for the SEC to “get down to the meat of the case” and bring on the formal accusations. They came through the star witness, former Tucker dealer Daniel J. Ehlenz, although he would bow during cross-examination. He claimed he lost $28,000 in the deal to carry the Tucker brand, yet drove a Tucker ’48 – 35,000 miles’ worth. With the tide now turning in Tucker’s favor, the defense called Joseph Turnbull to the stand. This appeared to be an error on paper, as Turnbull admitted Tucker ended up taking $28 million, spending only a small fraction of that on vehicle research, kept $500,000 for himself and never got a working model off the ground.According to the prosecution, Tucker was given several million dollars to locate a place to build his car, and then to produce it. Despite claims he pocketed some of the money for himself, it could not be proven in court. QUESTION FROM THE DEFENSE: “You are not here suggesting these figures are figures of monies taken fraudulently, are you?”

JOSEPH TURNBULL: “Not exactly, no.”

This was in spite of the fact there were in fact 51 vehicles in operation. When asked to prove this, Turnbull was not able to come up with that evidence.

Claiming that it was “impossible to present a defense when there has been no offense,” attorney William T. Kirby became very emotional during the ensuing closing arguments. He claimed that Tucker either “intended to cheat,” or honestly wanted to produce his automobile. What followed was an invitation to the jury to ride in one of the eight Tucker ’48s parked in front of the courthouse! Twenty-eight hours of deliberation resulted in a clear slate for Preston Tucker on January 22, 1950.

He was not a broken man per se. But his company was: he longer had the vested resources necessary to continue production. All of his money would likely need to be geared toward lawsuits which were coming in from disgruntled potential Tucker dealers, who received nothing for their investments.

The reputation would continue to sour despite the victory. The court win could not mask the annoying fact people did not trust what Tucker truly intended to do. Did he really want to produce the car he dreamed about, or did he want to make the money associated with doing so… without doing so?

A large selection of blueprints would prove – in time – that Tucker did set out to create a unique automobile for the road. A total of 1,900 employees were trained and ready to go, plus the assembly plant was 90% prepared to mass-produce the car to a waiting population.

Most importantly of all was the state of Tucker’s mind: remarkably optimistic, he set about to work on his next project after assets of his failed production company were auctioned off in Chicago.

He would end up with one of the few remaining Tucker 48s, and his mother also received one.

“Even Henry Ford failed the first time out.” Preston Tucker perseveres

His next project would eminate from South America.  Teaming up with Brazilian investors and auto designer Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, the intended product would be a sports car called the Carioca.  The Tucker name, which Preston most likely wanted to attempt at a revival, could not be used as the rights now belonged to the firm of Dun & Bradstreet.

Again, imagination could not turn into reality, as the Carioca was never developed.  To this day, it is assumed that even a blueprint of the proposed vehicle does not exist. 

Although Tucker’s overall enthusiasm would never waver, the numerous trips he would make between the United States and Brazil took a toll on his endurance.  Eventually diagnosed with lung cancer, he passed away at the age of 53 on December 26, 1956.  He is buried at Michigan Memorial Park.