Preston Tucker’s automobile company, the Tucker Corp. of Chicago, built only 51 of its three-headlight, rear-engined Torpedos. One of those 51 American classics is being offered at a Barrett-Jackson auction for the first time in a decade. In 2002, a Tucker crossed the block at Barrett-Jackson’s auction at the Petersen Museum on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. Now, another of those 51 Torpedos will cross the block here at WestWorld in Scottsdale.
As if Tuckers weren’t highly prized by car collectors on their own merit, they have become symbols of American culture since the debut of the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola movie, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” starring Jeff Bridges as the automotive innovator.
“The movie created a great deal of awareness,” said Barrett-Jackson’s Vice President of Consignment Gary Bennett, who at one time or another has owned three of those 51 Tuckers.
Bennett said the car’s desirability is partly the result of movie lore, partly because so few were built, and partly because of the car’s amazing architecture and well beyond state-of- the-art safety features.
He added that the car’s innovation goes beyond such obvious things as the rear-mounted engine or the big Cyclops’ headlamp. There are nuances as well.
“This was the first car I know of that had integral drip rails [on the doors],” Bennett said. “We didn’t see that again, to the best of my knowledge, until 1963 on the Sting Ray coupe. Now you see it on everything. But that car had them in 1948.
“It’s just a neat piece,” he summarized.
The man behind the Tucker was Preston Tucker, a former office boy for Cadillac head D. McCall White who also worked as a car salesman and a Detroit police officer before he entered the car-building business in the 1930s with famed race car engineer Harry Miller. Tucker-Miller, Inc. built a high-speed armored car. Tucker and Miller collaborated on Ford Motor Company’s planned fleet of 10 cars for the 1935 Indianapolis 500.
Tucker and Miller also developed Tucker “Tiger,” a high-speed armored combat car proposal for the Dutch government and a gun turret that was used on American boats and aircraft during World War II. Tucker also was involved in building aircraft and boat engines.
Miller died in 1943. Two years later, Tucker launched the Tucker Corp. to build a revolutionary car based on engineering principles pioneered by Miller and with a body designed by Alex Tremulis, who worked on the Cord 810 and 812 before becoming chief designer at Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg. Tremulis also designed custom cars for Hollywood stars, worked at American Bantam until that company started building wartime Jeeps and was involved in the styling of the famed Chrysler Thunderbolt concept in 1941.
After working on advanced projects for the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II — including what are believed to be the first saucer-shaped spacecraft, Tremulis worked with Tucker. After Tucker’s death in 1956, Tremulis worked on concept vehicles at Ford, then launched his own company, where his designs included the Subaru Brat pickup truck.
Based on Miller’s early work and that of engine designer Ben Parsons, the Tucker Torpedo was to be equipped with a rear-mounted, 9 1/2-Liter (nearly 590cid) horizontally opposed six cylinder engine that connected to the rear wheels via a pair of torque converters instead of a traditional transmission.
From Tremulis, the Torpedo got a long-and-low aerodynamic coupe body with the pair of traditional headlamps augmented by a central light that turned with steering wheel inputs.
The car had independent suspension and revolutionary safety features including padded dashboard, seat belts front and rear, the driver seat in the middle of the car, four-wheel disc brakes and a pop-out windshield.
Problems with the engine and some of the other features led to changes, including the use of a smaller but more dependable, aircraft-based 5.5-Liter 6 cylinder; installation of an automatic transmission; movement of the driver’s seat to a more traditional position; a revised four door body design; and the elimination of the seat belts — because some might think including them sent a message that the car was not inherently safe.
Tucker was not wealthy, and to fund the company he sold stock to investors. However, the Securities and Exchange Commission accused him of fraud. Though he would be cleared of those charges, it didn’t save him or the company before bankruptcy ended production after just 51 vehicles had been built.
— By Larry Edsall