On December 26, 1956, the visionary carmaker Preston Tucker dies of lung cancer. He was just 53 years old.
Tucker began his career in the auto industry as a mail messenger at General Motors. He quickly worked his way out of the mailroom, however, and before he turned 30 he was the vice president of a Packard dealership in Indianapolis. There, he befriended racecar designer Henry Miller, and the two men chatted often about how to build a truly great automobile. They teamed up to build racecars for Ford in the 1930s, but when the United States entered World War II, Tucker turned his attention to the war effort. He invented and manufactured a gun turret for Navy ships.
As soon as the war ended, however, Tucker was ready to start production on his own line of cars–cars that, unlike the recycled 1942 models that most car companies were turning out, were entirely new. With their low-slung, aerodynamic teardrop shape, Tucker cars looked like nothing anyone had ever seen. (“It looks,” wrote one reporter, “like it’s doing 90 even when it’s standing still.”) They drove that way, too: Their rear-mounted engines were modified helicopter engines, and they had disc brakes, fuel injection, specialized transmissions, and a third “Cyclops” headlight that was connected to the steering wheel and swiveled with the car’s wheels. Ahead-of-their-time safety features abounded: padded dashboards, “pop-out” safety glass windshields and a reinforced carbon frame. (The car was even supposed to have seatbelts, until one of Tucker’s assistants convinced him that they would make the car seem less sturdy and less safe than it was.)
To build this amazing “Tucker Torpedo,” the carmaker leased an old Dodge plant near Chicago from the federal War Assets Administration, which had been building B-29 bombers there. While they waited for the WAA to clear out, Tucker and his team hand-built 50 prototype cars by hand. (The first one, called the “Tin Goose,” was hammered out of sheet steel because engineers could not find enough clay for a full-scale mockup.) Meanwhile, because the company was almost completely broke, they solicited investors any way they could. First, they sold dealer franchises; then they sold stock to the public; then they began to sell car accessories like radios and seat covers, all before the Torpedo had hit the assembly line.
This was apparently the last straw for the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, which launched an investigation in May 1948. The federal government’s argument was that Tucker never planned to build any cars–according to this line of reasoning, he was just going to bilk his investors and go out of business. As this was patently not the case, prosecutors struggled to convince the jury; in fact, the accusations were so specious that Tucker’s attorney did not even bother to mount a defense. Tucker was acquitted in January 1950, but the damage was already done: Tucker lost all his investors, had to fire all of his workers, and never built another Torpedo.
In 1988, director Francis Ford Coppola made a biographical movie called “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.” It received a good deal of critical praise, but–perhaps like Tucker’s cars–never really found its audience, and the studio ended up losing money on the film.
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