Historic Car Brands
The Tucker 48, often referred to as the Tucker Torpedo, was an automobile conceived by Preston Tucker while in Ypsilanti, Michigan and produced in Chicago, Illinois in 1948.
Only 51 cars were made, including the prototype, before the company was forced to declare bankruptcy and cease all operations on March 3, 1949.
The reasons for the demise of Tucker are manifold, but essentially the car was highly innovative and the whole operation was underfunded. Also, there were post-World War II shortages of basic raw materials that hampered many manufacturing endeavours at the time.
Had Preston Tucker been an engineer, instead of a salesman, he would have taken a more progressive approach, rather then trying to re-invent the American car virtually overnight.
His design specifications included a water-cooled, aluminium-block, flat-six, fuel-injected rear engine, disc brakes, four-wheel independent suspension, ergonomic controls and instruments, cornering headlight, pop-out safety windscreens and a padded dashboard. The disc brakes and fuel injection were steps too far in 1948 and didn’t make it to production.
Although his Tucker 48 concept borrowed heavily from pre-War European vehicles designed by Ferdinand Porsche and Tatra’s Hans Ledwinka, it was a clean-sheet-of-paper exercise in the USA.
Apart from Cord’s radical front wheel drive layout, nearly all pre-War American cars had front-engine, live-axle, leaf-sprung rear wheel drive and recently adopted independent front suspension.
In the early post-War years, none of the Big Three came out with post-War designs, because they had to re-tool their factories after wartime production ended and also because of raw material shortages.
Studebaker was the first US maker to come out with a true post-War car design and Preston Tucker also saw a chance to catch the traditional makers napping.
Unfortunately, Tucker tried to go too far, too fast.
The Tucker legal saga
Having raised US$17 million in a stock issue, Tucker needed more money to continue development of the car. He sold dealerships and distributorships throughout the country.
Pre-release advertising by Tucker claimed: ’15 years of testing produced the car of the year’, despite the fact that there was no running prototype at the time. That prompted a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation.
The SEC also focussed on Tucker’s Accessories Program that raised funds by selling accessories before the car was even in production. Tucker’s program allowed potential buyers that purchased Tucker accessories, like seat covers, radio and luggage, before their car was built, to obtain a guaranteed spot on the Tucker dealer waiting list. This scheme brought in an additional US$2 million.
This concept led to an indictment of company executives. Otto Kerner, Jr, the US attorney who aggressively pursued the Tucker Corporation, was later convicted on 17 counts of bribery, conspiracy, perjury and related charges for stock fraud. He was the first federal appellate judge in US history to be jailed, being sentenced to three years in prison and fined US$50,000.
Although all charges against Tucker were eventually dropped, the negative publicity destroyed the company and halted production of the car.
The Tucker 48
Despite a serious lack of necessary funding, the Tucker 48 was born and became a sensation.
Before the War’s end, Preston Tucker began working on plans for his new automobile and in 1944, he hired noted car designer George S Lawson to style his new car. Lawson worked on the project for over a year and a half, before resigning and was briefly replaced by stylist Alex Tremulis. His update to the Lawson concept were revised by five more designers from the New York design firm J Gordon Lippincot.
A perimeter frame surrounded the vehicle for crash protection, in addition to a roll bar integrated into the roof. The steering box was behind the front axle, to protect the driver in a front-end accident. The dashboard was padded and there was a unique ‘crash chamber’, padded area in front of the passenger seat. The windscreens were made of shatterproof glass and designed to pop out in a collision. The doors extended into the roof, to ease entry and exit.
The engine and transmission were mounted on a separate subframe which was secured with only six bolts. The entire drive train could be lowered and removed from the car in minutes.
Tucker 589 engine and torque converter transmission – Nickshu
Tucker’s initial engine was designed with help from Ben Parsons, who later became Tucker’s VP of engineering. This 589 cubic inch (9.65-litre) flat-six had hemispherical combustion chambers, fuel injection and overhead valves operated by oil pressure rather than by a camshaft. An oil pressure distributor was mounted in line with the ignition distributor and delivered appropriately timed oil pressure to open each valve.
The engine had aluminium pistons, running in magnesium castings with steel cylinder liners.
This unique engine was designed to idle at only 100rpm and cruise at 250-1200rpm, with direct-drive torque converters on both driving wheels, instead of a transmission.
It was designed to produce almost 200bhp (150kW) and 450 lb ft (610Nm) of torque at only 1800rpm. When cruising at 60mph (97 km/h), it would rotate at approximately 1000rpm. However, as engine development proceeded, problems appeared. Six 589 engines were built, but were installed only in the test chassis and the first prototype.
Theory and practice were in great contrast at the launch event that was preceded by panic to repair the prototype’s front suspension that had collapsed. The engine also proved to be difficult to start without external power; was extremely loud and boiled at idle. It also was reluctant to go in reverse.
The resulting negative publicity didn’t help Tucker’s marketing chances.
Behind the scenes, the engine suffered valve-train and oil pressure problems and was good for only 88bhp (66kW). After year’s effort trying to make it work, Tucker looked around for an alternative. The company tried the Lycoming aircraft engine, but it would not fit, so Tucker settled on the 166bhp (124kW) air-cooled, 5.5-litre, flat-six Franklin O-335 helicopter engine.
Tucker 335 engine and Y1 transmission – Nickshu
For some reason Tucker’s engineers spent a great deal of time and money converting it to liquid cooling, so very few parts of the original Franklin engine were retained in the final Tucker engine.
Tucker bought Air Cooled Motors for US$1.8 million to secure this engine source, then cancelled all of the company’s aircraft contracts, so it could focus on making automotive engines. This was a crazy decision, since at the time of Tucker’s purchase, Air Cooled Motors held over 65-percent of post-war US aviation engine production contracts. The loss of income was substantial.
With the horizontal 589 motor and its double torque converter drive system abandoned, Tucker needed a transmission for the Franklin O-335. It was discovered that the Cord 810/812’s Auburn Gear, front-wheel-drive, four-speed transmission, with electro-vacuum shifting mechanism, could be used to get cars on the road, while a future Tucker-built transmission was worked out.
The Cord box fitted, but it wasn’t the finest product to come from Auburn-Cord. However, it worked well enough. Tucker found and reconditioned more than 20 of these stopgap transmissions, while a strengthened Tuckermatic version with dual torque converters was designed and built in-house.
Tucker 335 engine and Tuckermatic R12 transmission – Nickshu
Tucker’s suspension designs were plagued with severe stiffness throughout development, which, while good for handling, caused front-wheel lift when cornering on uneven surfaces. Three versions of the front suspension were installed in the cars and Tucker finally settled on a rear suspension design, using a modified version of the rubber torsion tube.
Stahls Automotive Collection – 1948 Tucker 48 – Michael Barrera
With the final design in place, Preston Tucker took the pre-production cars on the road to show them in towns across the country. The cars were an instant success, with crowds gathering wherever they stopped.
To prove the road-worthiness of his cars, Tucker and his engineers ran several cars at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in several endurance tests.
During this testing, car #1027 was rolled three times at 95mph (153km/h) and the driver (chief mechanic Eddie Offutt) walked away with only bruises. During the crash, the windshield popped out as designed, verifying Tucker’s safety feature. Afterwards, the car started and was driven off the track.
The first Tucker produced was a prototype sedan, known as the Tin Goose and 58 more frames and bodies were built at the factory. From these parts, 36 sedans were finished before the factory was closed. After the factory closed, but before liquidation of his assets, Tucker retained a core of employees who assembled an additional 14 sedans, making a total of 50.
In the early 1950s, a fairground owner, Nick Jenin, purchased several Tuckers, numerous Tucker parts, photos and documents and developed a traveling display called The Fabulous Tuckers.
Today, Tuckers rarely come up for sale, but when they do, the price is high.