…and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow.
Preston Tucker may not be a name familiar to people outside of the auto industry or the business world, unless you happened to watch the 1988 movie, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.”
I never saw the movie, but have been long familiar with the story. Or at least I thought so.
That is until I read the book, “Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow,” by Steve Lehto (ISBN: 978-1-61374-953-1). In effect, Lehto exposed the entire story, going well beyond the man’s aspirations to show how industry leaders, politicians, and regulators colluded to destroy the company and perhaps the man who ran it.
I must say that the author’s story was infuriating — not for how he illustrated it, but for the hard truths exposed. Tucker himself weathered injustice after injustice as the three largest automakers of that era — General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler — did everything they could to wreck Tucker’s dream.
Unfortunately, the Big Three succeeded.
Attorney and Industry Expert
To his credit, Lehto brought not just an investigative touch to the story, but his legal expertise. Indeed, he is not only the author of the “Lemon Law Bible,” but he’s a practicing attorney based in Michigan. His website reveals his background in lemon law and consumer protection, areas where the auto industry has made significant changes following years of neglect or willful ignorance.
Preston Tucker was the consummate entrepreneur, born in 1903 just outside of Detroit. That proximity to Motor City meant that he had access to the emerging industry and everything related to it. Early on, he managed a service station near where he grew up with his wife, Vera. While Vera managed the station during the day, Preston worked on a Ford assembly line.
When the service station lease ended, Tucker quit Ford, joined the police force, then moved on to sell Studebakers, then Stutz and Chrysler. Stints at Pierce-Arrow and Dodge should also be counted, before his interest in race car development and military vehicles followed.
WWII: An Opportunity Emerges
During the Second World War, America’s car companies quit producing passenger vehicles and became assembly lines for all sorts of military vehicles and hardware. As the war labored on, pent-up demand for new vehicles surged and by the time the war ended, consumers were looking for new designs.
Unfortunately for the traditional manufacturers, the only “new” cars planned were based on designs used before the war. It would take several more years before the pre-war styles were retired.
A New Automaker: Tucker Corporation
Preston Tucker saw an opportunity and formed the Tucker Corporation even before the war ended. In quick succession, Tucker assembled a group of industry leaders to launch his enterprise, based on a 1946 design of the car. Soon, a “Tin Goose” prototype followed and the company acquired its first manufacturing plant.
But problems and opposition arose early on, including some of Tucker’s own making. Known as a consummate salesman, Tucker easily endeared himself to others and did an outstanding job of promoting the company’s stock. However, he soon found that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) would scrutinize the company, launching a formal investigation.
It is at this point in the story that the Tucker Corporation was racing against time. The company needed to get vehicles produced to convince detractors that production-ready models were possible. At the same time, at least one Michigan politician was hell bent against Tucker, and quite possibly in the pocket of at least one automaker threatened by what the Tucker entity might become.
Tucker 48: The Car of Tomorrow
What became known as the “Tucker 48” was truly a state-of-the-art conveyance. Tucker envisioned a car that wasn’t just modern, but equipped with safety equipment not offered in that day.
A padded dashboard, disc brakes, a pop-out windshield, and a third headlight which swiveled when taking corners, were just a few of the safety features offered. Its rear-wheel, rear-engine design was unusual too — altogether, the Tucker 48 had the potential to not just shake up the industry, but to transform it.
It became known as “the car of tomorrow” — a stark contrast to the aged designs offered by Detroit.
I won’t go into all the details about how the Tucker Corporation unraveled — you need to read the book — but I will say that there were enough doubters, backstabbers, and ne’er-do-wells to undermine the company. Sadly, the media was complicit, launching baseless critiques of the car or advancing a disproven narrative, e.g. — the car could not drive in reverse.
That Tucker was able to get 51 cars to the market before the whole thing crumbled is a tribute to the man. That there were only 51 cars built is a crying shame — without much interference, the industry could have transformed much faster, delivering safer cars and saving thousands of lives.
But consider this: safety features are costly and manufacturers long put share values above consumer safety, a problem that isn’t as prevalent today, but it still does exist.
The End of the Road
After several years of wrangling with the opposition, Tucker found himself without a company and with people launching civil suits against the company and himself, including dealers who lost their investment.
Though Tucker prevailed, he was destitute, yet he maintained the dream of launching a new company. At the same time, he was never quite himself and was later diagnosed with lung cancer, passing away at age 53 — just eight years after launching the Tucker 48.
Shades of Musk and Tesla?
There is much that can be gleaned from Letho’s work, which I think has an important place in chronicling Tucker history, even without the foreword by Jay Leno.
Some compare Tucker’s rise and fall to Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors. Although Musk is similarly imbued with entrepreneurialism, his personal wealth and the very favorable government backing for his electric vehicle initiative means comparisons between the two stops there. Indeed, although Musk’s long-term success is still in doubt, at least he hasn’t faced the same insurmountable headwinds as Tucker.
And that’s putting it all very mildly.
See Also – Book Review: The Allure of the Automobile