Most of us know the story of Preston Tucker and his Tucker Torpedo. This amazingly advanced car was scuttled by the Big Three and their friends in the Senate and SEC in an attempt to fight off potential new competition. Tucker was investigated out of business (at considerable taxpayer expense) and the Big Three went on to an easy couple decades of success and stagnation.
But what if that didn't happen?
Welcome to Altern-auto-ve Universe, our semi-regular feature taking a look at the "What If?" of the automotive world. We start with a hypothetical car suggested by you, I draw it, and then try and think through the world it would be in. It's fun.
The really important factor about the survival of the Tucker Motor Company would have been the man, not the car. Sure, the Tucker Torpedo was full of technical and safety innovations way ahead of its time, but the reason for that is Preston Tucker himself was looking that far ahead. Tucker was more than a visionary– he was a loud, charismatic visionary, and had the same sort of public presence we know about today, with industry personalities like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and, say, Richard Branson.
In our boring reality, the biggest innovations in the 1950s were about styling and planned obsolescence*. American cars were huge, thirsty machines, with relatively primitive (if generally reliable) mechanicals when compared to what was happening in, for example, Europe. Just compare a 1957 Citroën DS to a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air.
With Tucker in the picture, though, everything is different. America would have had a very innovative company pushing the technical limits of what was possible with cars, and a very outspoken and visible head of that company to keep the public interested. If there were Tuckers in 1957, with pop-out safety glass, lightweight aluminum boxer engines, disc brakes, steerable headlights, padded dashboards, and all the other Tucker innovations, there's no way Ford or GM or Chrysler could have just sat back and cranked out the same old barges with bigger and bigger tailfins. Tucker would have brought the whole industry's state-of-the-art up.
That also means by the time the Japanese cars started to arrive in the US in the late 60s, they would not have found a stagnating US car industry, so ripe for attack. They would have found four major companies in heated competition, with real innovations. When the oil crisis of the mid-late 70s hit, US firms would be ready for it, adapting the Tucker-style lightweight opposed engines to four-cylinder models with less displacement, in aerodynamic bodies. The Japanese (or Germans, or whomever) would have found much more formidable home-team adversaries.
That means less of a recession in the 1980s, and an overall stronger America. I mean like moonbase-level stronger. All this, if only Preston Tucker had more friends on the SEC.
What if Tucker had actually thrived and survived and made it into the throws of the muscle car era?
With that in mind, at the top is the Tucker muscle car from 1971, the Tornado. The Tornado (the name is a nod to the Toronado, which inspired some of the look) has a rear-mounted aluminum flat-8, of about 4 liters displacement, and I'll say making about, oh, 325 hp. Why not? This is the pre-oil crisis muscle car era. There's still the three headlights in the front (center one steers with the wheel), on a grille-less panel, and for that extra safety effort Tucker was known for is an integrated roll bar, which also houses air intakes for the radiator, mounted just aft of the passenger compartment, in front of the engine. It's also fed by the Tucker-traditional rear fender-mounted intakes.
I'm a big rear-engine fetishist, and I really do wish Tucker had survived to produce a long line of American ass-engined machines, like this one. I bet it would be awesome off the line, as the acceleration would just put more grip on the drive wheels, but probably a hoon-slaughtering, oversteering nightmare in the corners. Though I bet old Preston would have figured out a way around that, too.
As always, give some suggestions for more cars from alternative universes, and we'll pick one to explore further.
* As some commenters have pointed out, this isn't really fair. There were plenty of US innovations, like a really workable automatic transmission, among others, that deserve mention. So here's a mention.
Image Credits: Illustration — Jason Torchinsky; Preston Tucker portrait courtesy The Tucker Historical Collection and Library, retouched by W. Guy Finley; Blueprint courtesy of Archives.gov