History of Tucker
It was a fairy tale that went disastrously wrong. Millionnaire Preston Tucker, a car industry man through-and-through, decided that America needed an advanced and modern car that would wow the world, and secured the backing of several well-heeled investors to help fund the project. The Torpedo was unveiled in 1948 and caused quite a stir, with its striking styling, amazing aerodynamics, rubber-sprung suspension and distinctive middle headlight, which turned with the steering wheel to help drivers see round corners. But in reality, the Torpedo was a financial disaster that took far too long to develop, and the project was aborted when Preston Tucker was indicted on fraud charges. He was later acquitted, but investors lost confidence and the project stalled after just 37 cars were made, although a further 14 were constructed from leftover parts.
The Tucker '48 automobile, brainchild of Preston Thomas Tucker and designed by renowned stylist Alex Tremulis, represents one of the last 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 fifty-one 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 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 anxious 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.
He set his sites on the old Dodge plant in Cicero (south Chicago). Spanning over 475 acres, the plant built B29 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 dollar 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 pre-fab 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."
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 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 $2 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 1600 workers. Receivership and bankruptcy suits piled up, creditors bolted and stock plunged.
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 remaining 50 cars 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 to 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, 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. And incredibly, Preston Tucker began again. In 1951, he went to Brazil to seek backing for another new car. With the new project almost underway, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died December 26, 1956.
An Open Letter from Preston Tucker
This letter appeared in many newspapers in the United States on June 15, 1948.
An Open Letter to The Automobile Industry In The Interests Of The American Motorist By Preston Tucker President, Tucker Corp. Gentlemen; As you know, we are building a completely new motorcar - the rear engine Tucker. Being new-comers in the field we have had to start from scratch and work harder and faster than most of you. For example, instead of the 20 months you usually take to produce a new model of conventional design, my engineers have taken less than 10 to perfect a car which I firmly believe opens a new era in motoring.
In this same year, we have completed a nationwide dealer organization, acquired the largest most modern automotive plant in tile world, and cleared the decks for mass production. These things have been done - and well done - in spite of persistent and unfair opposition from within the automobile industry.
Please don't misunderstand me. Many of you have gone out of your way to be friendly to the Tucker Corporation. It's true, some of you have not shared our conviction that a rear-engine car is the car of the future, but you have been willing to let the American motorist judge that for himself, in the firm belief that what's best for the motorist is best for you in the long run.
But there is another group-a very powerful group - which for two years has carried on a carefully organized campaign to prevent the motoring public from ever getting their hands on the wheel of a Tucker.
These people have tried to introduce spies into our plant. They have endeavored to bribe and corrupt loyal Tucker employees. Such curiosity about what goes on in the Tucker plant should be highly flattering, I suppose. But they haven't stopped there.
They even have their spokesmen in high places in Washington. As a direct result of their influence, Tucker dealers all over the country - men of character and standing in their communities - have been harassed and grilled by agents of the government and Congressional Investigating Committees.
My associates and myself and the Tucker Corporation have been investigated and investigated, time and again. Millions of dollars of the taxpayers money have been squandered in an utterly fruitless effort to kill the Tucker, to bar us from needed raw materials, to keep us so busy defending ourselves and our efforts that the motoring public would tire of waiting for a completely new rear-engine car. But they haven't been able to stop us.
You know, perhaps, that our bid on a government owned steel plant in Cleveland was recently refused. Let me tell you the inside story of that; Sealed bids were called for, in accordance with law. Only two were submitted, one by the steel company operating the plant, the other by the Tucker Corporation. The bids were opened nearly five months ago. The Tucker Corporation's bid was high. If Tucker's bid had been accepted, it could have given taxpayers as much as four million dollars more for the plant than the steel company offered.
This plant would provide ample raw materials for volume production of the Tucker and would serve numerous small businesses now starving for steel.
You would think our high bid for the plant would have been accepted long ago. For five months political pressure, ruthless and barefaced, has forced delay after delay. We're still waiting. We don't know who is responsible for this. But who do you suppose is getting the raw material from this plant we want for Tucker and small business? None other than some well known - and unfriendly - automotive manufacturers.
Most of the political pressure and investigations we have had to face these last two years can be traced back to one influential individual who is out to "get Tucker". If he acts from honest conviction in his efforts to prolong the motorcar, then I hope he will have the courage to tell the public just that.
But personally we believe he has more obvious motives. Evidence in Tucker files, for example shows the controlling interest in a large sales agency of an automotive corporate subsidiary is in his wife's name. And when he gave an elaborate party at a Washington hotel a few months ago, who do you suppose paid the bill? None other than an official of an automobile manufacturer - - a manufacturer distinctly unfriendly to the Tucker Corporation. Is all this, too, just coincidence?
Now once more we are being investigated. Just at the time we are getting into production on a car that has won the hearts of the million motorists who have seen it, just when the job of making automobiles demands all our time and energy, my associates and I are asked to take time out again and again ever since we had the temerity to suggest America is eager for a completely new car.
What would you think in our place? Would you say it was just coincidence - or would you think it was planned that way.
You wonder, perhaps, why I have made these statements in an open letter. Here's why; As President of Tucker Corporation, I'm responsible to 1,872 Tucker dealers and distributors and nearly 50,000 Tucker stockholders. These people have put $25,000,000 into the Tucker Corporation. And I am going to protect their interests.
In addition, we have promised American motorists a completely new rear-engine motorcar, and hundreds of thousands have written us that they are ready and waiting to buy it. Every day letters come to us from people who know that in fighting to put the rear-engine Tucker on the road we are, at the same time, fighting for their right as motorists to get the finest engineering American ingenuity can produce.
We are going to justify the support these motorists so generously have given us. We are going to give them the car they want at a price they can afford, and without paying tribute to the Black Market. How this will be done will be announced today.
But in the meantime, I want to register the fact that we have just begun to fight. We have been patient so far, but our patience is wearing thin. We can give names, dates and places to prove our charges of unfair competition, and if necessary we will do it.
When the day comes that anyone can bend our country's laws and lawmakers to serve selfish, competitive ends, that day democratic government dies. And we're just optimistic enough to believe that once the facts are on the table, American public opinion will walk in with a big stick.
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