When World War II ended, the auto manufacturing industry was basically stagnant, at a time when Americans were feeling optimistic and ready for new cars. The “Big Three” car companies – Ford, GM, and Chrysler – had been working for the war effort and hadn’t produced any new models in years. This opened the door for new, smaller auto manufacturers – and a man named Preston Tucker was ready to take advantage.
Tucker, a Michigan native with a lifelong fascination with automobiles, spent much of the 1940s designing a truly revolutionary automobile which would become the Tucker 48. The car had many notable safety features, including a perimeter frame and roll bar for crash protection; a third headlight that swiveled to light the way around corners; disc brakes; a windshield designed to pop out during a crash; a padded dashboard; and an emergency brake that locked with a key to prevent theft. These innovative features may explain why the car’s price reportedly ballooned from a planned $1,000 to nearly $4,000.
Sadly, only 51 of these innovative cars were built before the Tucker Corporation was brought down by a Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigation and the subsequent indictment of company executives. At issue was Tucker’s policy of selling dealerships, distributorships, and car accessories for future owners – all before any cars were actually available. All charges were eventually dropped, but the damage to the company was irreversible.
Many Tucker 48s are in museums around the world, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Henry Ford Museum, and the Toyota Automobile Museum in Japan. Francis Ford Coppola, who directed a 1988 film about Preston Tucker, owns a Tucker 48, as does his friend, the filmmaker George Lucas. Coppola’s interest in Tucker comes from a personal place: in the 1940s, his father invested $5,000 in Tucker stock and had even ordered a Tucker 48 – but the car, eagerly awaited by both father and son, never arrived, and the investment, a large one for a middle-class man, never paid off. Coppola says his father “didn’t blame Tucker. He loved innovation.”
A Tucker 48 was sold for nearly $3 million in 2012; another sold in August, 2014 for more than $1.5 million.
Photo by James Emery