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1948 Tucker Torpedo, ahead of its time

Torpedo is a fitting name for a car

Torpedo is a fitting name for a car that was claimed to have been undermined by Big Business. Regardless, the car cost a lot to build, which might have just as much to do with its undoing. Photo Credit: Wheelbase Media

ADVETORIAL - Preston Thomas Tucker was a clever and passionate man with a strong automotive background who dared to dream the impossible dream.

In this case, the dream was to build an automobile so advanced that the public would fall all over themselves in a stampede to buy one.
However, only a few dozen Tucker cars trickled out of the Chicago, Ill.,-area plant before a lack of funds, questionable business practice and public skepticism forced the company into receivership and ultimately consigned its chief inventor/promoter as a mere footnote in automotive history.

However, the few cars Tucker did manage to make before his world prematurely collapsed were, for their time, rather spectacular. Penned by Alex Tremulis, a noted stylist who had worked for a number of automobile companies including Auburn, Ford and Chrysler, the Tucker stood apart from the crowd in terms of size, shape and features. It also stood a mere 60-inches tall thanks to a ground-hugging four-wheel independent suspension. It also possessed a wide stance that maximized the car's interior space.

In its final configuration, the 1948 Tucker sported a four-door steel body that appeared rather streamlined despite its above-average 128-inch wheelbase and 219-inch overall length. The 335-cubic-inch horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine, originally designed for helicopter duty, was converted to liquid cooling from its original air-cooled design and was actually positioned behind the rear wheels.

The expensive-to-produce motor made an impressive 166 horsepower and an astounding 372 pound-feet of torque. That was considerably more power than Ford's flathead V8 or the inline six-cylinder powerplants used in Chevrolet or Chrysler products.

With a zero-to-60-mile-per-hour time of 10 seconds and top speed of about 120 mph, the Tucker was one of the fastest cars around.
A four-speed manual gearbox or optional three-speed Tuckermatic (automatic) transmission completed the drivetrain.

Tucker was obsessed with safety and his namesake included a padded dashboard, a windshield designed to pop out on impact and a middle headlight that would pivot according to the direction of the front wheels. Unfortunately, a number of states declared the cyclops light illegal so a cover-up metal shield was created for such instances.

It's seems laughable now, but one of the Tucker's strangest features was its "Safety Chamber," essentially a large footwell below the dash where front passengers were expected to dive into in the event of a collision.

In July 1948, Tucker tested the first seven production cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with astonishing results. Each was driven for 5,000 miles at speeds of up to 115 mph without a breakdown.

Tucker's real troubles began just as his production line began to ramp up. Egged on by powerful Detroit-backed political interests, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began investigating Tucker and his somewhat shaky financial structure. The stock offering failed, dealers began suing to recover their franchise fees and supplier credit evaporated. By March, 1949, after only 51 cars had been completed, the Tucker Corporation was forced into bankruptcy and Preston Tucker himself was removed as head of the company.

Tucker, along with his associates were charged with numerous counts of fraud. But following a four-month long trial, all were acquitted and the SEC came under scrutiny for its overly aggressive methods in the case. By the time the Tucker case was finally adjudicated in January, 1950, Tucker's hopes of building his revolutionary rear-engine wonder had been completely and utterly extinguished.

Was the Tucker Torpedo as good a car as it was claimed at the time? In the final analysis, it was a solid first effort but, at its $2,450 asking price, would have never have returned a profit for its investors (the engine alone cost Tucker $1,500 to buy). As well, the one fatal engineering flaw was its massive oversteer, or a tendency for the rear wheels to want to break loose, no doubt caused by the weight of the engine hanging off the rear of the car.

Perhaps if the company had begun on a more solid financial footing these and other problems might have eventually been sorted out. Preston Tucker certainly thought so and in the early 1950s he made one last stab at developing his own car, which was to be named the Carioca and was supported with Brazilian financing. However, the 53-year-old would-be automotive tycoon was diagnosed with lung cancer shortly after and died at his Yipsilanti home on Dec. 26, 1956.

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