(car engine revving)
- It was the car of tomorrow.
With futuristic engineering
and pioneering safety features,
that were way ahead of their time.
He was also a man with exceptional ideas
and an uncrushable spirit.
Together the two make for an epic story
of post war optimism, forward thinking automotive design
and government interference that brought down
a promising new car company.
This is everything you need to know
to get "Up to Speed" on Tucker.
- Born in 1903, Preston Tucker grew up outside of Detroit.
And like all good motor city kids,
he loved cars since he was little.
At 16 he was already buying used cars
to fix up and sell for a profit.
A few years later, he worked as an office boy
at Cadillac headquarters on the Ford assembly line
and ran a gas station.
Tucker would do anything as long as it involved cars.
He even had three separate stints as a police officer
just to drive the souped up cop cars.
His mom wasn't too stoked on that
but she didn't have to worry long
because he soon got fired for making
some customs mods on his police cruiser.
But it wasn't the kind of mod you're thinking of.
- Oh, God.
Man, it's freaking freezing in here.
I could really use some heat.
- Yeah that's better.
- Tucker, you can't cut holes in your police cruiser.
- But Chief.
- You're threw, Tucker.
I don't even know why I gave you this badge
and this gun three times.
You're like, 16-years-old.
I assume this is the past and thing are different back now.
But still, it seems very odd that a teenager would
have three different stints as a police officer.
- In the early 1930's, Tucker started spending
a lot of time at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Because what red-blooded, Detroit native, car lover
wouldn't also love the Indy 500?
There he met Harry Miller.
Miller was a great engineer, but not a good business man.
And he went bankrupt.
So, Tucker talked Miller into starting a business
developing race cars with him.
They worked together for the next 10 years
and Tucker became a well known name around the car biz.
He also meet John Eddie Offutt at Indy.
Another mechanic who would play a part
in the creation of Tucker's car of the future.
When the prospect of World War II loomed in 1939,
Tucker moved from Indianapolis back to Michigan
What the (beep) is that word?
Who the (beep) names a city that?
Back to Michigan and opened
the Ypsilanti Machine and Tool Company.
He and Miller dabbled in everything
from high-speed armored, combat vehicles
and gun turrets, to airplane engines throughout the war,
but none of panned out.
What Tucker really wanted to do, was build his
long held idea of the first completely new car in 50 years.
The Big Three Detroit automakers hadn't debuted
anything for several years.
You know, 'cause of the war.
The great one.
That gave smaller automakers an opportunity to fill the gap.
Tucker really wanted to be an automaker.
He had a stream line concept created
by designer George S. Lawson.
It had two doors that stretched up
into the slopping roof line, headlamps mounted
on pivoting front fenders that turned when cornering.
And a fixed center, that's right, center headlight.
The car was supposed to have a fuel-interjected,
rear-mounted 589 cubic inch, aluminum, flat-six engine,
with hydraulic valve train,
and two hydraulically driven torque converters
powering the rear wheels, instead of a normal drive train.
No traditional transmission or anything.
Tucker advertised the ultra modern safety oriented
torpedo concept in Science Illustrated Magazine
and the public ate it up.
But Lawson's design was too far fetched
and after two years of work, he still wasn't able
to give Tucker a real car he could show
to potential buyers.
So, in 1946, former Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg/Dub-Dub
two jet designer, Alex Tremulis, took over design.
What he sketched up in just six days,
ended up being the ultimate car's ultimate form.
Tremulis kept the modern fast-back look,
but turned it into a realistic design.
He added two more doors, and made
the center cyclops eye headlight pivot when
the steering angle was at more than 10°,
while the outer headlight stayed fixed.
- [Audience] Whoa.
- To get the car into production as fast as possible
the rotating fenders were axed.
Tuckers wish list called for magnesium wheels,
fuel injection, disk breaks, seat belts,
safety glass, a built-in roll bar,
a padded dashboard, and independent springless suspension.
By the time Tremulis came along, Tucker had already
signed a lease on the biggest factory in the world.
The Dodge Chicago Aircraft Engine Plant.
It had 475 acres that Tucker was sure could produce
an entire auto lineup.
But he had to raise $15 million in less than a year
to pull it off and that was going to be tough.
'Cause that's a lot of money now,
and that's even more money back then.
(soft piano music)
So, Tucker raised the money by arranging one
of the first ever company stock IPOs
and selling dealership rights for the car
that didn't even exist yet.
This was all pretty unusual.
And at the time the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission
was keeping a close eye on small, up-start automakers.
So, the SEC was like...
- Dude, there's a huge possibility
that this car is gonna flop.
- [James] And Tucker was all...
- No way, man, this is gonna be huge.
- Look, you put in those dealer contracts
that there's a good chance that this goes south,
or we're shutting you down.
I'll change the contracts.
I'm not trying to defraud anybody.
I'm trying to revolutionize the auto industry, man.
- Tucker started advertising the future Tucker '48
in early '47.
He called it a car ahead of its time
and made the ridiculous claim that 15 years
of testing had gone into it.
But even Tucker's wife, Vera, thought
the add was kind of misleading (laughs).
The SEC agreed with Vera and filed away
the misleading ad as ammunition in a looming investigation.
In the meantime, the first prototype was being built.
And development of the new 589, flat-six engine
was underway, with the help
of fuel injection expert, Ben Parsons.
It was designed to have 200HP and run
at an ultra low RPM, like 1,000 RPM at 60 miles an hour.
But the innovative hydraulic valve operation
required high oil pressure and a 24 volt electrical system.
The engine needed 60 volts to start-up
and cranked for a long time.
- A world premier party was scheduled at
the Chicago factory for June of 1947.
So, there had to be a working prototype
to show the crowd, regardless of problems.
Tucker's engineers managed to put together
a semi-functional car built around
a 1942 Oldsmobile, and called it the Tin Goose.
But the Tin Goose didn't have a reverse gear.
And two of the independent suspension arms
broke under the car's own weight the night
before the premier.
Ugh, talk about bad timing.
It was repaired so it could roll again,
but the 589 engine was extremely noisy
and difficult to start.
But Tucker would not be phased.
He told the band to play extra loud
to cover the thunderous engine noises.
And made sure they played the whole night.
The press reported that the car couldn't back up.
And that is drove goose-geese down the road.
Must be a hipster 1940's lingo.
- Ah, this is driving goose-geese down the road.
- Hey there, Governor, look you got
a little slack in your step.
You need a peppy pick up?
Try Edmond's Cocaine pills.
Is your baby making teething noises?
Give him some Edmond's Cocaine pills and bottle of whiskey.
That's medicine back now.
- Desperate for an engine, he found that
the 166 HRSPRS, Franklin, 0335 flat-six,
used in Bell 47 helicopters, would work.
Tucker's son, and his old Indy 500 buddy, Eddie Offutt,
converted it from air-cooled to water-cooled.
Though no one is sure why.
More than 18,000 miles worth of full-throttle testing
actual testing this time, proved the engine's reliability.
So, Tucker bought the entire engine company.
Then he canceled all their aircraft contracts
to focus on automotive engine production.
Turns out that was 65% of all the US's post-war aviation
engine production contracts.
The transmission was a whole nother boone doggle.
The only thing that seemed like it would work
was a 1930's Cord transmission.
So, they scavenged 22 of them from junk yards
and adapted some of them to work with
the Tucker 48's rear engine lay-out.
They were always fragile though.
And couldn't handle the power of
the 335 cubic inch, flat-six.
Engineers at Tucker's machine and tool company,
redesigned the Cord tranny and strengthened
it to create their own unit called, the Tucker Y1.
Because it was built in Ypsilanti.
The Y1 transmission had an electric vacuum shift
mechanism connecting it to the column shifter
instead of a mechanical linkage.
And it had problems too.
Tucker brought in Warren Rice, creator
of the Buick Dynaflo in the Road Master.
Rice and the engineering team, came up with
the Tucker-matic, which was really an early CVT.
It had two torque converters and only 27 moving parts,
compared with traditional modern day automatics.
It was revolutionary.
But only Tucker-matics were ever installed in the cars.
- The engine and transmission were mounted
on a separate sub-frame that only used six bolts.
So, the whole drive train could be dropped in half an hour.
Tucker imagined that engine needing work, could just
be quickly and easily swapped with a loaner engine.
That sounds a lot like Tesla's Battery Swap Program.
Only Tucker thought of it about 30 years before
Elan Musk was even born.
The strangeness continued with
the four-wheel independent suspension.
Instead of steel springs, components were made
of Firestone rubber, that was vulcanized to get
a specific spring ring.
Similar to the Indy 500 race cars Tucker had worked on.
They ended up being super stiff,
which was good for handling, but made removing
the rear wheels tough, since there wasn't
any suspension droop.
As with brand new cars development,
plenty of things didn't work out
the way Tucker hoped.
The fuel injection, disk breaks, magnesium wheels,
ad his fancy transmission, all hit the cutting room floor.
But a lot of his innovative ideas made
it through to production.
All the instrumentation and car controls
were within reach of the driver.
At the time, gauges and knobs were
usually spread out across the whole dash.
Glove boxes were on the door panels,
to keep the area under the padded dashboard
a clear crash zone for better safety.
It also kept the integrated roll bar in the roof,
and the pop-out, shatter proof windshield.
Concepts that were improved during endurance testing
at Indianapolis Motor Speedway,
when Ofutt rolled a Tucker '48 three times
at 95 miles per, and the car was still drivable.
Despite all the troubles, the Tucker corporation
had 1,900 employees and was actively building
And the public was still excited to see
the car of tomorrow become a reality.
The company needed more money,
so Tucker came up with the idea
for a Tucker Accessories Program.
It raised $2 million more dollars,
by guaranteeing buyers a spot on the waiting list
for the new car if they pre-purchased accessories
like radios, seat covers, luggage.
Who would do that? (laughs)
That was the final straw for the SEC.
And in 1948, a formal investigation
of Tucker Corporation began.
The government thought the company just
wanted to scam people out of their money
and never planned to build a car.
In 1949 all Tucker Corporation files were
turned over to authorities and Tucker
and six other company executives
were indicted on charges of violating
SEC regulations and conspiracy to defraud.
The SEC leaked its reports to the press.
And negative coverage cast doubt on
the company in the public's mind.
Tucker felt that government politics
had been foiling his plans all along.
And he was unfairly taking the brunt of their aggression.
In October, the Chicago factory shut down
after having built only 37 cars.
But about 300 of the most loyal employees
came back to build 13 more.
Some even without pay.
Over the course of the four month trial,
Tucker proved he really was trying to make
the car of tomorrow a reality.
And all charges were dropped in January of 1950.
Unfortunately, by then, both the Tucker Corporation's
reputation and it finances were ruined.
Amazingly, Tucker didn't let the whole debacle
crush his spirit.
Saying even Henry Ford failed on his first try.
Over the next few years, he linked up
with some Brazilian investors to develop
a new sports car called a Carioca.
After all the hardships he'd endured
right as the resilient Preston Tucker
was ready to try again, he learned
that his next battle would be one that
he couldn't win.
Lung cancer was the one thing that finally slowed him down.
He died in 1956.
He was 53-years-old.
And the Carioca never came to be.
Without Tucker, we might not have many
of the safety features that cars have today.
Laminated safety glass, and crumple zones,
are just two of the now standard elements
that Tucker pioneered.
Today, 47 of the 51 Tucker 48's are still around.
And they're some of the rarest classic cars
of all time.
A lot of them are on display in museums.
And they don't come up for sale often.
And when they do, they go for a lot of coin.
Like this one that sold at Barrett Jackson
for $3 million in 2012.
Though the company never got off the ground,
and the cars were few, Tucker's remarkable
story and innovative ideas made a lasting mark
on the auto industry.
Big thanks to the Petersen museum
for letting us shoot in their vault.
Tuckers are hard to find and they have
the only one we know of.
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