Tucker 48

Since birth, I've been trained to root for the underdog. Blame my socialist/communist liberal Jewish Montreal roots if you must, but there is something just so much better about the little guy beating the big guy. George Washington defeating the full might of the British Empire. Joe Namath beating Johnny Unitas. Rocky. Rudy, etc. In terms of the Fantasy Garage, we've already inducted the car that I consider to be the greatest underdog of them all, the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe, which by the way kicked Ferrari's ass. And of course who can forget the Honda 1300 Coupe 9? This week's nominee, the Tucker 48, would have been an even better underdog tale. Sadly however, Detroit and Washington tag teamed Preston Tucker's "Car of the Tomorrow" into submission before it ever had the chance to fight. Sigh...

If you want to know more about the controversy, watch the movie, Tucker: A Man and His Dream. The long story told short is that after WW2 Preston Tucker decides to build the best car in the world (funny side note — Tucker's prototype combat car was rejected by the US military for going too fast — 120 mph). Through connections and some pretty savvy (some say questionable) salesmanship he raises millions of dollars, buys an old Dodge factory and sets to work on his dream. Detroit gets nervous as word starts leaking out that Mr. Tucker is really up to something. That or Michigan's powerful Senator Ferguson (whose wife owned tons of Chrysler stock) had it out for Preston. The SEC and the US Attorney relentlessly hounded Tucker until they eventually indicted all the company executives for fraud. Later, everyone accused was found to be totally innocent but the damage had been done. Just 51 Tucker 48s (50 production cars plus the "Tin Goose" prototype) were ever built. The end. Thing is, despite the dramatic back story, the Tucker 48 — also known as the Tucker Torpedo — is a one hell of an automobile.

Preston Tucker: A Man with Dreams

Tucker 48

Tucker's original vision called for a rear mounted 589 cubic inch (9.7-liter) Hemi flat-6 that was to be fuel injected and have overhead valves operated by hydraulic pressure as opposed to cams. How far ahead of its time was that? Well, fuel-injection didn't show up in a passenger car until 8-years later in the form of a Bosch mechanical unit in the 1955 MB 300 SL. While I can't think of a case where oil pressure was used to run valves (correct me if I'm wrong), oil pressure is used to vary valve timing. The 589 was so massive that it required a 24-volt electrical system to get it to crank. However, the monster engine turned out to be a little too innovative — they couldn't make it work.

What do you do if your name is Preston Tucker and your nearly 10-liter flat-6 don't work? That's right, you try and cram a Lycoming aircraft engine into the engine bay. Did I mention the Tucker 48 was rear engined? Only trouble was, it wouldn't fit. So, you grab an air-cooled helicopter engine that does. After his engineers converted the 335 cu. in. Franklin flat-6 to water-cooled, it pumped out a pretty healthy for the day 166 hp (Tucker had promised 150 hp from his 589 cu. in. beast) and an insane (for 1947) 372 ft-lb of torque. How insane? Under full acceleration, first gear could rip teeth off the transmission. Just to make sure that no one else got a crack at the engine, Tucker bought Franklin (which was later sold to Poland in 1975). Despite its size and potency, the 48 weighed 4,235 pounds, essentially the same as contemporary cars from Lincoln, for instance. Both the engine and transmission were mounted in a subframe held in place by just 6 bolts. The idea was that while the engine was in the shop, a new powertrain could be swapped in so the customer could go about his/her business.

Six Pipes, Baby

Tucker 48

A rear mounted detachable helicopter engine wasn't the only innovation. Like most everything else with his car, Tucker's vision far exceeded the technological and financial realities of the day. Still, you can never fault a man for dreaming. The original design for the car called for both headlights and fenders that moved with the wheels. The driver was to sit in the middle, a notion brought to life 50-years later by Gordon Murray and his McLaren F1. He also wanted 4-wheel disk brakes, lightweight magnesium wheels and a very innovative automatic transmission (dubbed the "Tuckermatic") that had only 27 parts, 90 less than typical slushboxes. Only there was no way it could handle the mountain of torque served up by the Franklin motor. Ironically, the Tuckermatic box did as much to sink the company as anything else. The engineers never bothered to put a reverse gear in the prototype. Tucker always claimed that he was being spied on, and when word of this leaked out, the motoring press had a field day making fun of the car that couldn't go backwards. Sort of reminiscent of Tesla and their transmission woes, no? In the end, Tucker was forced to go with a conventional Cord tranny.

But the real innovations had to do with safety. Preston Tucker was obsessed with building a safe car. To that end, he fitted a padded dashboard, decades before the rest of the industry was mandated to do after the publication of Unsafe at Any Speed. While the moving headlights (and fenders) never panned out, a third headlight was added — dubbed the "Cyclops Eye" — that moved with the steering wheel illuminating the road in the direction the car would be traveling. Today, 60 years on, moving headlights are only now becoming the norm, and only on upscale makes. All of the controls, including the radio, were grouped around the steering wheel ensuring that in the event of an accident protruding bits wouldn't impale passengers.

Tucker 48

The vehicle also had a perimeter frame that surrounded the passenger compartment. As the engine was out back, there was a large carpeted box ahead of the front seats that passengers could dive into when an accident was imminent. OK, so that last one is a little silly. Tucker also wanted to fit seatbelts to the 48 but his staff convinced him that doing so would give off the impression that the car was unsafe. Tucker's car was anything but. When a test driver crashed and rolled one at 100 mph during a public demonstration at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, then walked away with only bruises, the public was sold. And then became angry at the press and the government for essentially slandering the 48.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the Tucker 48 was beautiful. Tucker hired the legendary Alexander Sarantos Tremulis of Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg fame. Tremulis was given the lets just say far fetched task of completing the design in just six days (because of promises made to investors to reach timelines, everything at Tucker was done on a frenzied schedule). The results not only aesthetically speak for themselves, but were pretty aerodynamic, too. In fact, the 48 had a drag coefficient of just 0.27 (they rounded it up to 0.30 for print materials) and that made it the most aerodynamic car in the world. Just for comparison's sake, Tremulis's design was pen drawn under duress and the finished cars were hand formed with hammers. The Toyota Prius, designed on lots of computers and whose modus operandi is to generate as little wind resistance as possible, has a drag coefficient of 0.26.

Tucker 48

Calling a stillborn machine a tragedy may seem a touch insensitive or like an exaggeration. Though in the case of the Tucker Torpedo, I think it is warranted. Forward thinking, powerful, safe and utterly gorgeous, Americans and car lovers around the world were robbed by corporate shenanigans, government incompetence and an overzealous press. And just think of what future Tucker cars might have been, like the sportier Talisman model he had in the works. The central theme of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo is pulling a 300 ton boat over a hill in Peru without any machinery. Herzog wanted the audience to "believe their eyes," so he really did pull a 300 ton boat over a hill using ropes and men. It took years, and halfway through filming he was called back to civilization to face his financial masters. They asked that he give up his foolishness, and just build a model of the boat in a studio. Herzog refused, stating, "But then I would be a man without dreams." Even though Preston Tucker's plan for the "Car of Tomorrow" was crushed, his dream wasn't. He moved to Brazil and began working on a lightweight sportscar called the Carioca. He died before it was completed. Do the man a solid and vote the 48 into the Garage.

Tucker's Unfinished Carioca. (Sadly just a rendering — but notice where he stuck the headlights)

Tucker 48

Read "An Open Letter from Preston Tucker"

(Tip of the playoff bound, NFC North Champ Green Bay Packers cap to UDman for the pictures and the push)

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