This Day In History: Legendary Carmaker Preston Tucker Dies

Illustration for article titled This Day In History: Legendary Carmaker Preston Tucker Dies
Screenshot: Jalopnik

On December 26, 1956, a man named Preston Tucker died at the age of 53. His name may not be immediately familiar to some of us, but he was one of the many people who made a substantial change in the automotive industry, whether folks at the time wanted to give him credit or not. And his goals were absolutely incredible.

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(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)

Tucker started working in the mailroom at General Motors and became the vice president of a Packard dealership in Indianapolis by the time he turned 30. There, he became good friends with Henry Miller, a racing driver who very likely planted all kinds of fabulous ideas in Tucker’s head.

While he did invent a gun turret for Navy ships that was used in World War II, Tucker is best known for something informally called the “Tucker Torpedo”—or, officially, the Tucker 48. Named after both its creator and its model year, the Torpedo was… a hot mess. Only 51 models were made before the company was forced to file for bankruptcy.

The media wasn’t particularly keen on the Tucker 48, nor were the Big Three (which Tucker believed had played a role in his demise). But that’s ignoring the fact that this car was innovative in so many different ways. In fact, the Tucker 48 was one of the first cars to have some of the first elements of modern cars that we’d recognize today.

Among other things that were revolutionary in the American auto industry at the time, the Tucker 48 included:

  • A rear engine
  • Rear-wheel drive
  • A third directional headlight that moved in the direction of the front wheels
  • Padded dashboard for safety
  • Fenders that pivoted defensively when the car turned
  • Disc brakes
  • A pop-out windshield designed to eject during a crash

Other features, like magnesium wheels and disc brakes, were envisioned for the car but ultimately didn’t make it to the final product due to the expense.

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The unveiling of the car was a disaster, with Tucker telling the band accompanying the launch to play extra loud to drown out the sound of the 589 cubic inch engine. The car also required a high-voltage starter, which was a pain in the ass to get started. The media at the time weren’t kind.

There was a bit of a scandal surrounding the further development of the car, though. Tucker had asked for large investments from countless donors, but many people thought that he never intended to build a car and that it was all just a ploy to make money. There are countless documents that suggest otherwise, but at the time, no one was particularly keen on Preston Tucker.

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But his Tucker 48, even if it didn’t get off the ground, made automakers think. They poached the safety features that worked and regulated away the ones that didn’t. They were able to use this one car as a way to leapfrog over years of development. While Tucker may have died with an air of scandal to his name, he’s since been recognized as a visionary and one of the founders of the automobile as we know it today.

Weekends at Jalopnik. Managing editor at A Girl's Guide to Cars. Lead IndyCar writer and assistant editor at Frontstretch. Novelist. Motorsport fanatic.

DISCUSSION

I remember seeing this as a young kid and finding it interesting. I don’t know if I’ve seen it since but it may be worth watching again just to see.

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0096316/