Who Killed the Tucker Torpedo?
The mysterious death of the Tucker Torpedo is one of the great automotive scandals of all time—the downfall of the short-lived safety car was later made into an award-winning film, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Jeff Bridges as the doomed Preston Tucker. The 1948 Tucker Sedan—known as the Tucker Torpedo only during the design process—faced fatal reviews in the press as well as a messy and embarrassing SEC scandal, rumored to have been conjured up by the Big Three to knock the Tucker out of the running in the post-WWII market. What do you think? Was Tucker taken down by big business interests? Did the government turn its head while GM, Ford, and Chrysler wiped out a potential competitor? (Are you at least inspired to add Tucker: The Man and His Dream to your Netflix queue?)
So, why did Tucker—an independent automaker with just a little bit of capital and only one car—pose a threat to the Big Three in the first place? The Tucker Sedan was set to debut in 1948, just a few short years aft the end of WWII and a time when no one had the ability to experiment. After a federally-mandated dry spell, Americans wanted cars and they needed utility. The Big Three, having been committed to the war effort, had not been able to design any fresh, new cars. Tucker, on the other hand, had been hinting at a totally new, “car of tomorrow” since 1946 and, thus, the Big Three were scared that Tucker might steal customers with its cutting edge promises.
The Tucker Sedan’s Disappointing Debut
After much ado, the Tucker Sedan premiered in Chicago on June 19, 1947—a safety car with all the trappings and a bevy of never-before-seen advancements that would pave the way for safety features of the future. When the Tucker unibody welded to the frame, it created a type of cage that promised extra protection for passengers in the case of a crash and the frame itself was angled so as to deflect any other collision-related damage. Passengers were protected by bulkheads positioned at the front and rear of the car and the Tuckers’ rims were made to gracefully withstand a flat tire without veering off the road.
Perhaps one of the most novel safety features was the Tucker’s third headlight—often called its “Cyclops Eye”—which shone when the car turned at least 10 degrees making it easier to corner in the dark. The Tucker also featured some of the industry’s first seat belts as well as anti-theft protection in the form of a separately locking parking brake. Additionally, “the car of tomorrow” had fuel injection, an independent suspension, and a padded dash well before such features were adopted industry-wide.
As for the engine, Tucker went all out, purchasing an aircraft engine company to produce specially-designed O-335 engines. Even the transmission was special to the Tucker—the Cord 810/812 was modified and renamed the Tucker Y-1 or the “Tuckermatic.” The combination produced incredible power and torque.
With such impressive safety features and a helicopter engine under the hood, everything seemed like it was in place for the 1948 Tucker Sedan to celebrate big success. Yet, the night before the car’s unveiling, engineers encountered a few glitches. The prototype’s suspension arms cracked and the 589 cubic inch engine was unbearably noisy. The next day, the press didn’t take too kindly to the much-anticipated car.
A short while later, the Tucker had another hiccup. In an attempt to garner more capital to keep production going, Tucker came up with an accessories program that allowed buyers to purchase items for their car while waiting for it to be built. Buyers could also guarantee their future receipt of a 1948 car at a time when big automakers were forced to create long waiting lists. That’s when the Securities and Exchange Commission stepped into investigate, creating a firestorm of press and essentially dooming the tiny company.
No one knows if the Tucker was sabotaged or just headed for failure from the start, but in the end, only 51 “cars of tomorrow” were built with 47 Tuckers surviving. With such scant numbers, it’s also quite difficult to say if the car’s safety features would have indeed saved lives and prevented accidents. In 1954, Bill Hamlin decided to put the Tucker Sedan to the test, positioning it against the Oldsmobile 88. The Tucker held its own, not that surprising given the fact that its helicopter engine had been tested to run for over 1,500 hours without needing any type of rebuild.
Today, automotive historians look back and wonder how else Tucker technology might have influenced the industry were the automaker to have survived. We know that Tucker had been planning on launching magnesium wheels, disc brakes, self-sealing tubeless tires, and a direct-drive torque converter transmission in its upcoming Tucker models—and he was just getting started.
Some have compared the quick fall of Tucker to the premature “death” of the electric car in the 1990s, explored in the documentary film, Who Killed the Electric Car? Like with Tucker, the Big Three are said to have been threatened by the early electric car, and it was rumored to have been in the political interests of various state leaders, like the governor of California, that the electric car be “taken out.” Did the electric car and Tucker share a similar fate—offed by their own government and the country’s wealthiest corporations? What made “the car of tomorrow” a relic of the past—nearly overnight?
And perhaps, maybe more importantly, have you ever seen one of the 47 surviving Tuckers with your own two eyes?
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