After WWII, the public was ready for totally new car designs, but the Big Three Detroit automakers had not developed any new models since 1941. This provided great opportunities for new, small automakers who could develop new cars more rapidly than the huge legacy automakers. Studebaker was first to introduce an all-new postwar model, but Tucker took a different tack, designing a safety car with innovative features and modern styling. His specifications called for a water-cooled aluminum block flat-6 rear engine, disc brakes, four-wheel independent suspension, fuel injection, the location of all instruments within reach of the steering wheel, seat belts, and a padded dashboard.
Tucker's first design for the car appeared in a December 1946 Science Illustrated magazine article entitled "Torpedo on Wheels", showing a futuristic version of the car with a hydraulic drive system designed by George Lawson, along with a photo of a 1/8 scale model blown up to appear full sized. This was only an early rendering of the proposal, with its design features yet to make it off the drawing board, but the article helped make the motoring public aware of the Tucker.
To finish the prototype design and get construction under way, Tucker hired famed stylist Alex Tremulis, previously of Auburn/Cord/Duesenberg, on December 24, 1946 and gave him just six days to finalize the design. On December 31, 1946, Tucker approved Tremulis' preliminary design. Tucker's future car became known as the "Tucker Torpedo" from the first Lawson sketch, but because Tucker did not want to remind the public of the horrors of WWII, he quickly changed the name to the "Tucker '48". With Tremulis' design sketch, a full page advertisement was run in March 1947 in many national newspapers, proclaiming "How 15 years of testing produced the car of the year". Tucker said he had been thinking about the car for 15 years. This second advertisement specifically described many of the innovative features Tucker proposed for his car, many of which would not make it to the final version. This advertisement helped generate considerable public enthusiasm for the car, but Tucker had much work to do before a prototype was complete.
To finalize the design, Tucker hired the New York design firm J. Gordon Lippincott to create an alternate body. Only the front end and horizontal tail-light bar designs were refined for the final car. Tremulis gave the first prototype car the nickname of "Tin Goose".
Innovative Design Features
Some components and features of the car were innovative and ahead of their time. The most recognizable feature of the Tucker '48, a directional third headlight (known as the "Cyclops Eye"), would activate at steering angles of greater than 10 degrees to light the car's path around corners. At the time, 17 states had laws against cars having more than two headlights. Tucker fabricated a cover for the cyclops center light for use in these states.
Tucker envisioned several other innovations which were later abandoned. Magnesium wheels, disc brakes, fuel injection, self-sealing tubeless tires, and a direct-drive torque converter transmission were all evaluated and/or tested but were dropped on the final prototype due to cost, engineering complexity, and lack of time to develop. The car was rear-engined and rear wheel drive. A perimeter frame surrounded the vehicle for crash protection, as well as a roll bar integrated into the roof. The steering box was behind the front axle to protect the driver in a front-end accident. The instrument panel and all controls were within easy reach of the steering wheel, and the dash was padded for safety. The windshield was made of shatterproof glass and designed to pop out in a collision to protect occupants. The car's parking brake had a separate key so it could be locked in place to prevent theft. The doors extended into the roof, to ease entry and exit. The engine and transmission were mounted on a separate sub frame which was secured with only six bolts. The entire drivetrain could thus be lowered and removed from the car in minutes. Tucker envisioned loaner engines being quickly swapped in for service in just 30 minutes.
Tucker initially tried to develop an innovative engine. It was a 589 cubic inches (9.65 L) flat-6 cylinder with hemispherical combustion chambers, fuel injection, and overhead valves operated by oil pressure rather than a camshaft. An oil pressure distributor was mounted inline with the ignition distributor and delivered appropriately timed direct oil pressure to open each valve at the proper interval. This unique engine was designed to idle at 100 rpm and cruise at 250-1200 rpm through the use of direct drive torque converters on each driving wheel instead of a transmission. These features would have been auto industry firsts in 1948, but as engine development proceeded, problems appeared. The 589 engine was installed only in the test chassis and the first prototype.
The world premiere of the much-hyped Tucker '48 car was set for June 19, 1947. Over 3,000 people showed up at the Tucker factory in Chicago for lunch, a train tour of the plant, and the unveiling of the first Tucker prototype. The unveiling appeared doomed, however, as last-minute problems with the car cropped up. The night before the premiere, two of the Tin Goose's independent suspension arms snapped under the car's own weight. (The Tin Goose was extremely heavy; much heavier than the other Tucker '48's.) Minor engine problems were fixed, and the car was presentable by the time of the premiere. However, the experimental 589 engine was extremely loud. Tucker told the band to play as loud as possible to drown out the noise. As the car was driven on to the platform, the liquid coolant boiled over and some steam escaped from the car, but no one seemed to notice.
A skeptical journalist named Drew Pearson reported publicly that the car was a fraud because it could not go backward and that it went "goose-geese" going down the road. This hurt the public view of Tucker's car, at a time in history when journalists and public officials were more trusted than they are today. Despite the fact that this problem was limited to the first prototype only, a symptom of the speed with which the first car was put together, the damage was done in the court of public opinion. A negative media feeding frenzy resulted.
Tucker suffered another setback when his bids to obtain two steel mills to provide raw materials for his cars were rejected by the War Assets Administration under a shroud of questionable politics.
Tucker had promised 150 hp (112 kW), and his innovative 589 engine was not working out. The large 589 cu in (9,650 cc) engine functioned, but the valvetrain proved problematic and the engine only produced approximately 88 hp (66 kW). The high oil pressure required a 24 volt electrical system and long cranking time at start-up. Having wasted nearly one year trying to make the 589 work, Tucker started looking for alternatives.
The company first tried the Lycoming aircraft engine but it would not fit in the car's rear engine compartment. A Franklin air-cooled flat-6 engine, the O-335 made by Air Cooled Motors (and originally intended for the Bell 47), fit, and its 166 hp (124 kW) pleased Tucker. He purchased four samples for $5,000 each, and his engineers converted the 334 cubic inches (5,470 cc) engine to water cooling (a decision that has puzzled historiographers ever since). The Franklin engine was heavily modified by Tucker's engineers, including Eddie Offutt and Tucker's son Preston, Jr. at his Ypsilanti machine shop. Using an aircraft engine in an automotive application required significant modification; thus, very few parts of the original Franklin engine were retained in the final Tucker engine. This durable modification of the engine was tested at maximum power for 150 hours, the equivalent of 18,000 miles (29,000 km), at full throttle.
Tucker quickly bought Air Cooled Motors for $1.8 million to secure the engine source, then canceled all of the company's aircraft contracts so that its resources could be focused on making automotive engines for the Tucker Corporation. This was a significant decision, since at the time of Tucker's purchase, Franklin held over 65% of post-war U.S. aviation engine production contracts. The loss of income was substantial.
With the 589 and its torque converters (and no reverse) out, Tucker now needed a transmission to mate with the Franklin O-335. They decided to try adapting designs intended for front-engine/front wheel drive use. The Cord 810/812 4-speed electro-vacuum manual transmissions fit the design requirements and were used initially. The Cord 810/812 could not handle the power and torque of the O-335 engine, shearing off the teeth from first gear if the engine was gunned off the line. In an effort to solve this problem, Tucker and his engineers modified the Cord 810/812 by installing stronger gears and lengthening the case. The modified Cord was named the Tucker Y-1 (Ypsilanti-1) and was installed in most Tuckers. The Cord 810/812 and Tucker Y-1 used a Bendix electric vacuum shift mechanism, with no mechanical linkage to the steering column shift lever. These versions had problems with electrical connections and vacuum leaks which hindered shifting, so a new design was needed.
A Borg-Warner 3-speed automatic was tested and was installed on car #1048, but Tucker ultimately wanted to design his own transmission for the car.
Three versions of the Tuckermatic were made, the R-1, R-1-2, and R-3, (R for Warren Rice, its designer). The first version, the R-1, was not installed on any of the final cars. It required the engine to be off in order to select a gear. The R-1-2 was improved by adding a lay-shaft brake to allow gear selection while the engine was running. This version was installed on cars #1026 and 1042 only. The R-3 version had further improvements including a centrifugal clutch to help shifting between forward and reverse even further, however it was never installed in any of the final cars.To solve the transmission problems with a new design, Warren Rice, creator of the Buick Dynaflow transmission, was consulted. A unique continuously variable automatic transmission called the "Tuckermatic" was designed, which was strong enough to handle the Franklin O-335's power and torque. It was a simple but effective design with double torque converters and only 27 parts, about 90 fewer than normally required for an automatic. The double torque converters allowed a continuously variable drive ratio with only one forward gear and one reverse gear which used the torque converters to vary resistance based on load.
Because the two torque converters on the Tuckermatic made the engine/transmission unit longer, the fuel tank in the Tucker '48 had to be moved from behind the rear seat to in front of the dashboard for all Tuckers from car #1026 forward, even though only two of them actually had the Tuckermatic installed. This had the added advantage of improving weight distribution on the car.
Suspension and Body
Suspension designs, especially the front suspension, had to be changed throughout development. Rather than springs, Tucker used an elastomeric (rubber) 4-wheel independent suspension similar to that which was used on the race cars he developed with Harry Miller at the Indianapolis 500. The rubber elastomers were developed with assistance from the Firestone Tire Company and used a special Vulcanization process to produce a specific spring rate.
Tucker's suspension designs were plagued by severe stiffness throughout development which, while good for handling, caused front wheel corner lift when cornering on uneven surfaces. The test bed and the Tin Goose had a double-rubber disc type front and rear suspension, similar to Miller's race cars, which was too weak for the weight of a passenger car. On cars #1001 and 1002 the rear wheels could not be removed without removing the fender or suspension due to the stiffness of the suspension and the rear wheel arch fender design. On cars #1003-on the rear fender shape was changed so the tire could be removed easily. Aside from the fender changes, the rear suspension remained the same from car #1001-on.
The front suspension was installed in 3 versions on the car (aside from the rubber-disc style used on the Tin Goose). Cars #1001–1002 used a rubber torsion tube design which suffered from severe toe-in during heavy braking. Tucker then switched to a rubber sandwich-type suspension (with a rubber block sandwiched between upper and lower A-arms) on cars #1003–1025, however this type was severely stiff. On cars #1026-on Tucker finally settled on a suspension design with a modified version of the rubber torsion tube with the toe-in braking problem corrected.
The front bumper of the car was lengthened from car #1003-on to prevent the center headlight from being the forwardmost point on the car. The lengthened bumper protected the center headlight from being crushed if the car were pulled too close to a wall or barrier.
Original Tucker Paint Codes:
- 100 – Black
- 200 – Waltz Blue
- 300 – Green
- 400 – Beige
- 500 – Grey (Silver)
- 600 – Maroon
Funding and publicity
Having raised $17,000,000 in a stock issue (equal to $176,941,878 today), one of the first speculative IPOs, Tucker needed more money to continue development of the car. He sold dealerships and distributorships throughout the country. Another money maker was the Tucker Accessories Program. In order to secure a spot on the Tucker waiting list, future buyers could purchase accessories, like seat covers, radio, and luggage, before their car was built. This brought an additional $2,000,000 (equal to $20,816,692 today) into the company.
With the final design in place, Preston Tucker took the pre-production cars on the road to show them in towns across the country. The cars were an instant success, with crowds gathering wherever they stopped. One report says that Tucker was pulled over by a police officer intent on getting a better look at the car.
To prove the road-worthiness of his cars, Tucker and his engineers ran several cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in several endurance tests. During this testing, car #1027 was rolled three times at 95 miles per hour (153 km/h), and the driver (chief mechanic Eddie Offutt) walked away with just bruises. During the crash, the windshield popped out as designed, verifying Tucker's safety features were effective. Afterwards, upon replacing a damaged tire, the car started up and was driven off the track.
SEC Investigation and Demise of Tucker Corporation
One of Tucker's most innovative business ideas caused trouble for the company, however. His Accessories Program raised funds by selling accessories before the car was even in production. After the war, demand for new cars was greater than dealers could supply, and most dealers had waiting lists for new cars. Preference was given to returning veterans, which meant that non-veterans were bumped down on the waiting lists indefinitely. Tucker's program allowed potential buyers who purchased Tucker accessories to obtain a guaranteed spot on the Tucker dealer waiting list for a Tucker '48 car.
This concept was investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the United States Attorney, and led to an indictment of company executives. Although all charges were eventually dropped, the negative publicity destroyed the company and halted production of the car.
Tucker '48 Legacy
The first Tucker ever produced was a prototype sedan, known as the "Tin Goose". Fifty-eight frames and bodies were built at the factory. From these parts, 36 sedans were finished before the factory was closed. After the factory closed but before liquidation of his assets, Tucker retained a core of employees who assembled an additional 14 sedans for a total of 50. A 51st car was partially completed.
In the early 1950s, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida fairgrounds owner Nick Jenin purchased over 10 Tuckers, the original Tucker test bed chassis, numerous Tucker parts, photos and documents. He developed a traveling display called "The Fabulous Tuckers". He hauled the cars and memorabilia around the country for nearly 10 years displaying them at fairgrounds and car shows. His display highlighted the questionable policies and SEC fraud investigation which brought Tucker down.
When the cars appear at auction, which is rare, they command prices attained by only a few marquee cars. In August 2010 Tucker #1045 sold for $1.127 million while Tucker #1043 went for $2.915 million at auction in 2012.
In 1997, Rob Ida Automotive started work on a replica of the Tucker '48 Sedan, which culminated in the release and marketing of the 2001 Ida Automotive New Tucker '48. This replica faithfully recreates the Tucker's external bodywork, but is built on a hotrod chassis with resin infused plastic body panels. The paint and wheels reflect modern hotrod styling, and the interior is fully modern. It is powered by a rear-mounted Cadillac Northstar V8. Claimed performance is 0–60 in 7 seconds, with a top speed in excess of 120 mph (190 km/h). Ida has built three cars.
Alleged Convertible Prototype
A convertible Tucker, alleged to be a partially completed prototype developed in the company's waning days, was completed by car collector Justin Cole of Benchmark Classics in Madison, Wisconsin. There is considerable debate as to the car's authenticity as a convertible and no documentation has ever been provided to show the Tucker Corporation ever built a convertible prototype. The restorers proved unable to document the supposed convertible prototype's provenance and the Tucker Automobile Club of America stated it had been provided with no proof of its authenticity and was unable to verify it as such. Tremulis denied there was ever a factory convertible project, official or otherwise, but did state he had been working on body #57 when the plant shut down and said specifically, "we were changing the rear window to a full wrap around and had already started cutting the opening for the (1949 model year) re-style job". Tucker #57 was the only 1949 model produced, as referenced in the Tremulis records, with the rear window styling change. All the other Tuckers were 1948 models including the Tin Goose." The convertible part, whether it happened at the factory or after factory closed is still in dispute.
The convertible was part of a Russo and Steele auction, January 20–24, 2010. Bidding climbed to $1.5 million, but never reached the sellers reserve.