Justin Cole stands like a proud parent beside the car he shepherded through a meticulous restoration process, turning it into something it never was — a completed automobile. Or is it really a complete hoax?
Cole is president of Benchmark Classics in Middleton, Wisconsin, and the project that has consumed so much of his attention is among the rarest of cars: a 1948 Tucker convertible. It is, in fact, the only one in existence. The car, and Cole, are also the center of a controversy in the world of classic cars with some doubting the car's authenticity.
The Tucker Corporation built 51 complete cars including the initial prototype before production ceased in 1948. Enough body shells and parts for eight more cars remained in the factory when it closed. Cole refers to his convertible as Tucker #57 as that number is stamped on a number of the body panels.
According to the story that comes with the car, Preston Tucker secretly planned to build a convertible version of his car. Work was begun at the Tucker facility but the car was later moved to Lencki Engineering, the firm that Tucker had employed to build his first prototype, the Tin Goose. Unfortunately, removing the top had weakened the structure significantly so Lencki engineered a new frame from thicker gauge steel and welded a tubular steel insert in it for additional strength.
Work on the convertible was abandoned when the Tucker company shut down and its founder was about to face a grand jury over allegations of fraud. The car remained at Lencki until a retiring employee bought it. In 1981 Al Reinert of Burlington, Wisconsin, purchased the car and planned to finish the job that Tucker and Lencki had started some 32 years earlier.
Reinert worked on the car off and on but never finished it. He did find an authentic Tucker engine and a correct Cord transmission, which were missing, and replaced the car's troublesome elastometric rubber suspension system with a modern coil over setup, an alteration that a other Tucker owners have made.
Cole acquired the Tucker in December of 2008 after running into Reinart at a swap meet earlier in the year. What he got was a rolling chassis and an assortment of body parts as well as the car's instrument cluster and seat frames. Missing were the rocker panels, the rear quarter panels in front of the rear fenders and the panel between the convertible top and the rear deck lid. The car also had no upholstery and no convertible top fabric.
Over the next year he and his staff at Benchmark Classics spent more than 5000 hours restoring the car to its current condition. Cole painted the car Waltz Blue, one of Tucker's original colors and said to have been the color of one of Vera Tucker's favorite dresses. The interior is upholstered in a cream-colored leather loosely patterned after the Tucker's original design.
With the work essentially complete, Cole took it to the Russo and Steele auction in Scottsdale last January. The bidding on the car reached $1.4 million but didn't hit Cole's reserve price. He also listed it on ebay in March where bidding approached $900,000 but, again, didn't meet the reserve. The car is still listed for sale on Benchmark's Web site.
While there are those who doubt the authenticity of the car, and thus its value, Cole has no regrets about taking on the project.
"Ever since I was a little boy, I've always been stubborn," he says. "I was always going to see this through."
Even doubters admire the car and admit that it truly is a Tucker and truly is a convertible. The question, really, is just when its conversion took place. The answer to that question could have a profound impact on the value of the car. But as Cole observes, his Tucker will always be "a super star in the car world, no matter what."
But Is It the Real Thing?
The Tucker Automobile Club of America has this to say about the Tucker convertible on its Web site:
"While TACA is certainly not ready to completely dismiss the possibility that a Tucker convertible could have been built by the Tucker Corporation, we have never discovered nor been presented with sufficient evidence to prove such a car was planned for or started at the factory."
The position of the club is that the Tucker was probably converted to an open car well after the company went out of business. The club goes on to admit, though, that the convertible is built from "many authentic Tucker parts" and that it probably represents "what a Tucker convertible would have looked like had one been produced".
Cole counters that the convertible was a secret project and that Tucker purposely kept no records related to it. He also has a number of documents including sworn affidavits supporting the contention that there was an in-house Tucker convertible project.
A third explanation recently surfaced on a Tucker discussion board related to the convertible. According to this theory, Preston Tucker ordered that two of the body shells be altered as props to show the grand jury as proof of his intentions to establish an ongoing manufacturing operation. One was to be a supposed 1949 prototype and the other a convertible.
The purported props were never needed and were kept hidden away until long after litigation was finished, according to this theory. This reasoning is purely conjecture and there is no hard evidence to support it but it is quite plausible, given Tucker's propensity for theatrics.
In the end, it may not matter. A car as unique and striking as the Tucker convertible will take on a life of its own and will find its own value. Classic cars, as with any collectible, are worth whatever a potential buyer is willing to pay. And in this case, that could be a lot.