The Tucker Torpedo may very well be the most unique vintage car ever produced in the United States. Preston Tucker, the car’s founder and ultimate designer, produced an automobile that was in many ways very far ahead of it’s time. The problem was, and perhaps one reason why the Tucker cars are so valuable today, that only fifty-one were ever built. The Tucker car shown here is on permanent display at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma County California.
Preston Tucker was interested in building race cars and spent a lot of time in the 1930′s with people connected with Indy Racing. While he failed to sell his “fast combat vehicle” prototype to the U.S. government, he did make a fortune with the designing and patenting of a gun turret for World War Two bombers and Navy vessels. It was named the “Tucker Gun Turret“. For a few years during the war, Tucker was also involved with an aviation start up but soon turned his attentions to the automotive industry.
After the war, Preston Tucker introduced a radically different automobile. Referred to as the “48 Tucker‘, or “48 Torpedo“, the Tucker cars were about as futuristic as you could get in a post World War Two car in 1948. Just for starters, the 1948 Torpedo was designed to use a Bell Helicopter engine mounted in the rear of the vehicle. In addition to that, the Tucker Torpedo came with four-wheel independent suspension and a pop out safety windshield.
The Tucker car was low and sleek, perhaps as high as a man’s shoulder. The aerodynamic flow was much better than anything else on the road. The roof was tapered in two directions and the drag coefficient was something like 0.30. Fuel efficiency was more than excellent with a reported 30 MPG and the automobile has a top speed of 120 MPH.
It was said that the public delighted over the Tucker Torpedo because, for one reason, the design was totally different than anything before. A lot of car lines stayed with certain basic designs and the Tucker automobile presented something totally new and different. Along with Tucker, the design of the Tucker Torpedo was a creation of Alex Tremulis who was a former designer for Auburn-Cord-Dusenberg. An example of this all new design was found on the front end. Featured was a fixed headlight lens that turned as the steering wheel turned. Another reason for the public attraction was the car’s reported safety advantages. This included an exceptionally wide track that helped cornering much easier.
There were major glitches with the Tucker automobiles. One big one was with the Bell Helicopter 589 cid engine. The engine was advertised to produce 150 HP and was only capable of about 88 HP. After many attempts with aircraft engines, Tucker bought the Air-Cooled Motors company and decided on their flat 6 cylinder engine. The “Tuckermatic” transmission was developed to work with the new engine and because of the size and design, the gas tank had to be relocated. It was moved from the rear of the vehicle to in front of the dashboard. It seems that all major problems developed because of the failure of the original helicopter engine to perform.
The short lived Tucker automobile was produced from a leased former Boeing Superfortress factory in Chicago. Tucker acquired some $8 million by franchising 1,800 dealerships before he even had a working prototype of the vehicle available. That alone was astonishing.
The downfall came for Preston Tucker when securities fraud charges were leveled against him. Tucker’s aim was to raise capital through the issuance of stock. The charges had to do with the stock prospectus and the fact that it included many features of the new car which was not built on the production models. In other words, the SEC claimed the prospectus misrepresented the product. Eventually, Tucker automotive was unable to get loans for the needed production because of the SEC charges and he had to liquidate the company in March of 1949. Thirty-seven vehicle had already been built and another fourteen were added by volunteer workers for a total of only fifty-one cars built.
The Tucker automotive Torpedo was supposed to be a symbol of an entirely different automobile that marked the end of the war and the progress that was to follow. Most historians will say that it was too much, too soon and what there was was under financed. Just about any story you might read about the downfall of Preston Tucker’s auto company points out that many thought the Big Three automakers in Detroit had something to do with it. The theory is that the new design, which was what the public really wanted after the war, was lacking from the big Detroit automakers and the Tucker Torpedo represented a real threat. Nothing has ever surfaced to point to direct involvement from Detroit and the degree of threat his company posed to Detroit is unclear. Even so, the Tucker Torpedos that have survived the years are valuable. It’s said by some that a Tucker Torpedo in absolute mint condition might fetch up to $300,000.
See our article and photos of the Auburn Automobiles.
An excellent place to see the Tucker car on the west coast is the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Sonoma County California. Visiting the winery is not only a chance to see the rare Tucker automobile but the winery is one of the finest in northern California and a great addition to your California Wine Country vacation or side trip. The winery is located just west of US Hwy 101 in Geyserville California. This is about 75 miles north of San Francisco proper and 20 miles north of Santa Rosa.