A little history lesson

Jan. 1, 2020
Recently I had the opportunity to work on a 48 Tucker car.

Recently I had the opportunity to work on a 48 Tucker car. There were only 51 of these vehicles ever built, so it’s not like you walk into a parts store and get many parts for it. In the process of researching pieces to rebuild the water pump and carburetor, I learned quite a bit about Preston Tucker and the men who built the vehicle first, in a converted barn behind Tucker’s home and later in a decommissioned World War II B-29 factory. I thought that a little history lesson might bring a new vitality to what you do, even if you are familiar with Tucker’s story.

Tucker was an idea man above all of the various skills he brought to his ventures. He was good at looking at something and realizing a way to make it work better. One such example of the many innovations in the Tucker 48 involved lighting. In the 1940s, street lighting and vehicle headlights were nothing like they are today. Turning a corner at night was, no doubt, where the term “blind curve” came from. Tucker came up with an idea to turn the headlamps with the car, giving the driver a better view of what was around the corner. Originally Preston wanted the entire fender to turn. His designer, Alex Tremulis, was concerned that this would cause aerodynamic issues where the fenders would act like rudders. Interestingly, vehicles of the day, including the Tucker, could not navigate corners at speeds high enough to cause aerodynamic steering issues. Tremulis suggested the “Cyclops” solution where an additional headlamp in the middle of the grille would come on when the steering was turned 10 degrees or more. In solving the perceived problem the new design created another problem. Many states had a law against more than 2 headlights on a vehicle in 1948. To accommodate the laws in those states, the turning assist light had to have a cover over it. I bet Tucker owners took it off immediately.

I am sure you can draw your own conclusions about this engineering exercise, but I am going to share mine with you as well. Often a really great idea has considerable obstacles to overcome and ultimately it either perishes on the drawing board or does not realize its potential. My other observation is that what we don’t know can hurt us. If Alex Tremulis had given more thought to the speeds that vehicles actually turn their wheels and how much actual turning input is required as speed increases and decreases, he could have kept Tucker’s original and arguably very cool design.

Preston Tucker was probably the inventor of manufacturer-branded apparel and accessories as a statement about your station in life. The Tucker Torpedo prototype was an enormous hit with Americans hoping to buy a post war car with a fresh look and modern features. Tucker received hundreds of thousands of letters, according to Tucker in his “Open letter to the automotive industry” (June 15, 1948). Part of the agreement with the Department of Defense when Tucker Corporation was given the contract to use the Dodge B-29 plant in Chicago was that they raise $15 million by March 1947. This gave him about 10 months to put together this huge amount money. Again, the creativity and resourcefulness of Tucker provided a solution in a $20 million stock issue (one of the first IPOs), sales of dealerships before the car was in production and a very creative plan to sell potential customers a “guaranteed spot” on the Tucker 48 waiting list if they buy official Tucker accessories, most notably luggage and the radio for the car. This approach circumvented a law that favored sales of new vehicles to returning World War II vets. While it appears that it was not Tucker’s intent to short change veterans, it was clearly not an approach that had been considered fully.

PAGE 2

To his credit, Tucker raised $25 million. Everything was great for Tucker, except that he had raised the ire of many in the automotive industry, the Securities and Exchange Commission and a Michigan U.S. Senator. The result was delays in moving into the Dodge Plant, suspicious inability to acquire steel — even by buying the company — constant interference in business operation and spies placed within his staff. Ultimately Tucker’s over-the-top approach and his tendency to jump into something without enough due diligence was his undoing both on the engineering and business parts of his company.

The sad truth is that if Tucker had a trusted “what if” guy watching out for him and closing the loopholes, the automotive industry today might look quite a bit different. Tucker left this world too early, but right up to his death in 1956 he was planning for the next “car of tomorrow.” There are many things both good and bad to be learned from these automotive entrepreneurs that apply to everything from the smallest one-man business to the largest among us. You will find extensive information about Tucker through any search engine. Take a little time to read about him, and I am pretty sure his love of the automobile will jump right out of the stories. Call it a pick me up for the conference call and email weary automotive professional.

Recently I had the opportunity to work on a 48 Tucker car. There were only 51 of these vehicles ever built, so it’s not like you walk into a parts store and get many parts for it. In the process of researching pieces to rebuild the water pump and carburetor, I learned quite a bit about Preston Tucker and the men who built the vehicle first, in a converted barn behind Tucker’s home and later in a decommissioned World War II B-29 factory. I thought that a little history lesson might bring a new vitality to what you do, even if you are familiar with Tucker’s story.

Tucker was an idea man above all of the various skills he brought to his ventures. He was good at looking at something and realizing a way to make it work better. One such example of the many innovations in the Tucker 48 involved lighting. In the 1940s, street lighting and vehicle headlights were nothing like they are today. Turning a corner at night was, no doubt, where the term “blind curve” came from. Tucker came up with an idea to turn the headlamps with the car, giving the driver a better view of what was around the corner. Originally Preston wanted the entire fender to turn. His designer, Alex Tremulis, was concerned that this would cause aerodynamic issues where the fenders would act like rudders. Interestingly, vehicles of the day, including the Tucker, could not navigate corners at speeds high enough to cause aerodynamic steering issues. Tremulis suggested the “Cyclops” solution where an additional headlamp in the middle of the grille would come on when the steering was turned 10 degrees or more. In solving the perceived problem the new design created another problem. Many states had a law against more than 2 headlights on a vehicle in 1948. To accommodate the laws in those states, the turning assist light had to have a cover over it. I bet Tucker owners took it off immediately.

I am sure you can draw your own conclusions about this engineering exercise, but I am going to share mine with you as well. Often a really great idea has considerable obstacles to overcome and ultimately it either perishes on the drawing board or does not realize its potential. My other observation is that what we don’t know can hurt us. If Alex Tremulis had given more thought to the speeds that vehicles actually turn their wheels and how much actual turning input is required as speed increases and decreases, he could have kept Tucker’s original and arguably very cool design.

Preston Tucker was probably the inventor of manufacturer-branded apparel and accessories as a statement about your station in life. The Tucker Torpedo prototype was an enormous hit with Americans hoping to buy a post war car with a fresh look and modern features. Tucker received hundreds of thousands of letters, according to Tucker in his “Open letter to the automotive industry” (June 15, 1948). Part of the agreement with the Department of Defense when Tucker Corporation was given the contract to use the Dodge B-29 plant in Chicago was that they raise $15 million by March 1947. This gave him about 10 months to put together this huge amount money. Again, the creativity and resourcefulness of Tucker provided a solution in a $20 million stock issue (one of the first IPOs), sales of dealerships before the car was in production and a very creative plan to sell potential customers a “guaranteed spot” on the Tucker 48 waiting list if they buy official Tucker accessories, most notably luggage and the radio for the car. This approach circumvented a law that favored sales of new vehicles to returning World War II vets. While it appears that it was not Tucker’s intent to short change veterans, it was clearly not an approach that had been considered fully.

PAGE 2

To his credit, Tucker raised $25 million. Everything was great for Tucker, except that he had raised the ire of many in the automotive industry, the Securities and Exchange Commission and a Michigan U.S. Senator. The result was delays in moving into the Dodge Plant, suspicious inability to acquire steel — even by buying the company — constant interference in business operation and spies placed within his staff. Ultimately Tucker’s over-the-top approach and his tendency to jump into something without enough due diligence was his undoing both on the engineering and business parts of his company.

The sad truth is that if Tucker had a trusted “what if” guy watching out for him and closing the loopholes, the automotive industry today might look quite a bit different. Tucker left this world too early, but right up to his death in 1956 he was planning for the next “car of tomorrow.” There are many things both good and bad to be learned from these automotive entrepreneurs that apply to everything from the smallest one-man business to the largest among us. You will find extensive information about Tucker through any search engine. Take a little time to read about him, and I am pretty sure his love of the automobile will jump right out of the stories. Call it a pick me up for the conference call and email weary automotive professional.