Magnetic Marketer

Preston Tucker worked his way up through the automotive ranks to produce his namesake car, but ambiguity persists over how everything went bust.
tucker with hat
Car Shark – Preston Tucker planned to sell his Tucker 48 automobile at a price of $2,450, but only 51 cars were produced. Today, the remaining cars can be seen at places like Stahls Automotive Foundation in Chesterfield Township or the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. // Courtesy of Mark Lieberman/Nostalgic Monitoring Ltd.

“We want the car!” the crowd chants during the reveal ceremony in the 1988 biopic, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.” Event attendees at Preston Tucker’s Chicago factory in June of 1947 represented the 150,000 prospects who wrote to express interest and the 1,700 dealers who signed up to sell the “Car of Tomorrow.”

Despite backstage mayhem, Tucker — portrayed by Jeff Bridges — remains suave, ad-libbing about changing the engine in 20 minutes. “What’s he saying that for?” asks a Tucker Corp. board member. When the ecstatic moment finally arrives, the Tucker 48 gets pushed, not driven, onto stage.

World War II had ended two years earlier, and the Detroit automakers lacked new products. Kaiser-Frazer Corp. and Tucker were brash startups. The launch of Kaisers and Frazers, built at Ford’s former Willow Run bomber plant, went smoothly in the summer of 1946. Nevertheless, despite their newness, the slab-sided cars disappointed. Folks had drooled over the 1938 Buick Y-Job concept car and futuristic renderings by Michigan illustrator Arthur Radebaugh. The Tucker 48 fit in between. 

“The First Completely New Car in Fifty Years,” proclaimed Tucker’s advertisement in the fall of 1947, noting that testing had occurred at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The features list included “Cyclops Eye.” This third headlamp, mounted just below the pointed hood, in a novel twist rotated with the front wheels. A padded dashboard and reinforced roof supported the claim that the Tucker 48 was “the safest car ever built.”

The horizontally opposed six-cylinder engine made by Aircooled Motors, a descendant of the once-great Franklin Automobile Co., sat in the rear. The output of 150 horsepower was needed, as the car weighed more than two tons and, at 18.2 feet, was longer than a hippopotamus.

Born in 1903 in Macomb County, Tucker matured in Lincoln Park. After dropping out of Cass Technical High School in Detroit, he worked as an office boy for the Cadillac Division, tried the assembly line at Ford Motor Co., and peddled cars of various brands. He was following an upward arc when he and racing engineer Harry Miller sold Ford on the idea of a fleet of single-seaters for the 1935 Indianapolis 500. Everybody went all out, but the exquisite failure of this undertaking left egg on many faces in Dearborn and earned disrepute for Tucker.

Yet Tucker, who stood six feet two inches, could turn his brown eyes on you — and beware of enlisting in his next pie-in-the-sky project. He would build 60,000 cars a year. He planned to add a gas-turbine car to the lineup. He also laid out an international sales and marketing team.

Things were seemingly going as planned, until the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission took exception to his financial maneuvers. The bad news caused the company’s share price to crater, and lenders stayed away. Tucker furloughed his staff, closed the plant, and faced an onslaught of lawsuits. After a long trial, Tucker and his board members were acquitted of fraud and conspiracy charges, but it came too late, and the company was dead. Corporate assets — including the 51 pilot-production cars — went for 18 cents on the dollar.

“The idea that Tucker was railroaded is actually very easy to support,” says Steve Lehto, an attorney in Southfield and author of “Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow.” “Tucker was a legitimate car guy trying to build cars. There’s no question that people in government were out to get him. We just don’t know why.”

In late 1956, Tucker died in Ypsilanti, leaving behind his wife, Vera, and five children. He’s buried in Flat Rock. The mark he made in the auto industry was big — and oddly similar to the one left by his successor at Cass Tech: John DeLorean.