Back in 1948, a new auto company began production. After just 51 cars, it ceased production. But, oh what cars! Preston Tucker’s dream car, all it took to bring it into existence, and its abrupt downfall is the subject of a new book by Steve Lehto titled, "Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow."
“Preston Tucker became a household name,” Lehto said. “People fell in love with the idea – a guy who will build a car that is different and remarkable.”
Lehto is a lawyer by profession and also the author of a fantastic book titled, "Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation." Several books have been written about Tucker, so why tackle the topic?
“I have a friend who is a world-renowned Tucker expert,” Lehto said. “He said, ‘You have to write a book about Tucker.’ There had never been an independent book written about Tucker. The ones that were written were by Tucker associates. I couldn’t believe nothing had been written. I talked to my publisher and they said ‘Yes’.”
It took Lehto just under two years to write the book because there was a lot of material and Lehto had to wade through all of it. Being a lawyer came in handy when he went to court to have a 600-page SEC report about Preston Tucker and the Tucker Corporation unsealed. Lehto admits the research was mind-numbing.
Those who know the Tucker story likely do so through the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola film, "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (Coppola owned several Tuckers; his father ordered one in 1948.) “I wondered how accurate the movie is,” Lehto said. “The movie was fairly accurate. What Tucker accomplished in 1948 – a guy with an idea to doing an IPO that raised $20 million is amazing.”
Promise Realized, Then Snatched
Preston Tucker promised a car that would cruise at 100 mph, get 65 MPG, and innovate with a rear engine, fluid drive, and corner-following headlamps. The production ’48 Tucker, designed by Alex Tremulis, featured futuristic fastback styling, doors wrapped into the roof, and curve-following center headlamp. A pop-out windshield, padded dash, and “crash compartment” enhanced safety. The car employed a rear-mounted helicopter engine from Air Cooled Motors to run 0-60 mph in 10 seconds and reach 120 mph. Unfortunately, the elation wouldn’t last.
On June 14, 1948, the SEC’s Harry McDonald subpoenaed all of the Tucker Corporation’s documents as part of a fraud investigation. This brought operations to a halt. Amid rumors the SEC was investigating Preston Tucker, his company’s stock crashed and credit ceased. He eventually beat the charges, but it was too late for the cars. In the final tally, Tucker raised $28,491,652 and spent $28,309,280 primarily on salaries, rent and material. He was no fraud and there were 51 cars to prove it.
“Photos of Tucker’s assembly line stuns people,” Lehto said. “Tucker was a car company prepared to build cars. People still think he is a criminal. The headlines when Tucker was acquitted weren’t nearly as large as when he was indicted. His plan was to build a bunch of cars, put them out there, then approach banks again. McDonald went out of his way to shut down Tucker.”
Enduring Tucker Popularity
Preston Tucker always believed the investigation started at the behest of Michigan Sen. Homer Ferguson as a way to protect his constituents – The Big Three automakers. There’s virtually no evidence to support that, but people still have fascination for Tucker nearly 70 years later – evidenced by Tuckers going for up to $3 million at auction.
“Enough people out there look at Tucker and think there is something wrong with the story; he should have been able to build his cars,” Lehto said. “Of the 51 cars built, 48 still exist…and we know where the other three went. Look at a 1948 Tucker and other cars from 1948. It was advanced. The guy had a nice product.”
Tucker never gave up. He was developing a new car called “Carioca” when he died in 1956. Given the longevity of the Tucker ’48, it’s a shame we never saw it on the road.