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The Tucker 48: “The Car You Have Been Waiting For”

February 9, 2018

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The 1948 Tucker
The Tucker '48 automobile, brainchild of Preston Thomas Tucker and designed by renowned stylist Alex Tremulis, represents one of the most colorful attempts by an independent car maker to break into the high-volume car business. Ultimately, the Big Three would continue to dominate for the next forty years. Preston Tucker was one of the most recognized figures of the late 1940s, as controversial and enigmatic as his namesake automobile. His car was hailed as "the first completely new car in fifty years." Indeed, the advertising promised that it was "the car you have been waiting for." Yet many less complimentary critics saw the car as a fraud and a pipe dream. The Tucker's many innovations were and continue to be surrounded by controversy. Failing before it had a chance to succeed, it died amid bad press and financial scandal after only 51 units were assembled.

Much of the appeal of the Tucker automobile was the man behind it. Six feet tall and always well-dressed, Preston Tucker had an almost manic enthusiasm for the automobile. Born September 21, 1903, in Capac, Michigan, Preston Thomas Tucker spent his childhood around mechanics' garages and used car lots. He worked as an office boy at Cadillac, a policeman in Lincoln Park, and even worked for a time at Ford Motor Company. After attending Cass Technical School in Detroit, Tucker turned to salesmanship, first for Studebaker, then Stutz, Chrysler, and finally as regional manager for Pierce-Arrow.

As a salesman, Tucker crossed paths at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the great engine designer Harry A. Miller, and in 1935 they formed Miller-Tucker, Inc. Their first contract was to build race cars for Henry Ford. The company delivered ten Miller-Ford Indy race cars, but they proved inadequate for Ford and he pulled out of the project.

During World War II, automobile companies' operations were dedicated to the war effort. Denied new car models for four years, by the war's end Americans were eager for a new automobile, any new automobile. The time was right for Tucker to begin his dream. In 1946, he formed Tucker Corporation for the manufacture of automobiles.

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Tucker Corporation employee badge. THF135737

He set his sights on the old Dodge plant in the Chicago suburb of Cicero, Illinois. Spanning over 475 acres, the plant built B-29 engines during World War II, and its main building, covering 93 acres, was at the time the world's largest under one roof. The War Assets Administration (WAA) leased Tucker the plant provided he could have $15 million dollars capital by March 1 of the following year. In July, Tucker moved in and used any available space to build his prototype while the WAA inventoried the plant and its equipment.

The fledgling company needed immediate money, and Tucker soon discovered that support from businessmen who could underwrite such a venture meant sacrificing some, if not all, control of his company. To Tucker, this was not an option, so he conceived of a clever alternative. He began selling dealer franchises and soon raised $6 million dollars to be held in escrow until his car was delivered. The franchises attracted the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and in September of 1946 it began an investigation, the first of a series that would last for the next three years.

The agreements were rewritten to SEC satisfaction and the franchise sales proceeded. In October, Tucker began another proposal: a $20 million stock issue contingent upon a completed prototype and clearance by the SEC. That same month, Tucker met his first serious obstacle. Wilson Wyatt, head of the National Housing Agency, ordered the WAA to cancel Tucker's lease and turn the plant over to the Lustron Corporation to build prefabricated houses.

Tucker may have been an unfortunate pawn in a bureaucratic war between the housing agency and the WAA, but the battle continued until January of 1947. Franchise sales fell, stock issues were delayed, and Tucker's reputation was severely damaged. In the end, he kept his plant, but the episode made him some real enemies in Washington, including Michigan Senator Homer Ferguson. But Tucker did find some allies. The WAA extended Tucker's $15 million cash deadline to July 1 and Senator George Malone of Nevada began his own investigation of the SEC.

Meanwhile, Tucker still had a prototype to build. During Christmas 1946, he commissioned Alex Tremulis to design his car and ordered the prototype ready in 100 days. The time frame was unheard of, but necessary. Unable to obtain clay for a mock-up, engineers – many from the race car industry – began beating out sheet iron, a ridiculous way to build a car but a phenomenal achievement. The first car, completely hand-made, was affectionately dubbed the "Tin Goose."

THF135047Preston Tucker unveils his car, June 19, 1947. THF135047

The Tucker '48 premiered June 19, 1947, in the Tucker plant before the press, dealers, distributors and brokers. Tucker later discarded many of the Tin Goose's features, such as 24-volt electrical system starters to turn over the massive 589-cubic-inch engine. For the premier, workers substituted two 12-volt truck batteries weighing over 150 pounds that caused the Tucker's suspension arms to snap. Speeches dragged on as workers behind the curtain tried feverishly to get the Tin Goose up and running. Finally, before the crowd of 5000, the curtains parted and the Tucker automobile rolled down the ramp from the stage and to its viewing area where it remained for the rest of the evening. Stock finally cleared for sale on July 15.

By the spring of 1948, Tucker had a pilot production line set up but his stock issue had been $5 million short and he again needed immediate money. He began a pre-purchase plan for Tucker automobile accessories such as radios and seat covers. Although he raised $1 million, advanced payment on accessories to a car not yet in production was the final straw for the SEC. On May 28, 1948, the SEC and the Justice Department launched a full-scale investigation. Investigators swarmed the plant and Tucker was forced to stop production and lay off 1,600 workers. Receivership and bankruptcy suits piled up, creditors bolted, and stock plunged.

THF208633A Tucker stock certificate for 100 shares, dated May 3, 1948. THF208633

The SEC's case had to show that the Tucker car could not be built, or – if built – would not perform as advertised. But Tucker was building cars. Seven Tuckers performed beautifully at speed trials in Indianapolis that November, consistently making 90 mph lap speed. However, after Thanksgiving, a skeletal crew of workers assembled the last cars that the company would ever produce. In January 1949, the plant closed and the company was put under trusteeship.

"Gigantic Tucker Fraud Charged in SEC Report" ran the Detroit News headline in March. The article related an SEC report recommending conspiracy and fraud charges against Preston Tucker. Incensed, Tucker demanded to know how the newspaper had seen the report even before him. SEC Commissioner John McDonald later admitted he delivered the report to the paper in direct violation of the law. Feeling tried and convicted by the press, Tucker wrote an open letter to many newspapers around the country.

On June 10, Tucker and seven of his associates faced a Grand Jury indictment on 31 counts – 25 for mail fraud, 5 for SEC regulation violation, and one on conspiracy to defraud. The trial opened on October 5, 1949, and from the beginning the prosecution based its entire case on the "Tin Goose" prototype. It refused to recognize the 50 production cars and called witness after witness who, under cross-examination, ended up hurting the government's case. In the end, Tucker's defense team merely stated that the government had failed to prove any offense so there was nothing to defend.

On January 22, 1950, the jury found the defendants innocent of any attempt to defraud, but the verdict was a small triumph. The company was already lost. The remaining assets, including the Tucker automobiles, were sold for 18 cents on the dollar. Seeking some recompense, Preston Tucker filed a series of civil suits against news organizations that he believed had defamed him in the months leading up to his trial. His targets included the Detroit News, which he hit with a $3 million libel suit in March 1950.

In preparation for its defense, the Evening News Association – publisher of the Detroit News – acquired Tucker serial number 1016 for examination. But the suit never reached the courtroom. Preston Tucker was diagnosed with lung cancer and died December 26, 1956. The Evening News Association subsequently presented car 1016 to The Henry Ford, where it remains today.

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