Sales Ad Saturday- The Tucker 48 debuts in Chicago
A big day for Preston Tucker for this week’s ‘Sales Ad Saturday’. 74 years ago today, Tucker’s hastily developed prototype, the Tucker 48 was unveiled before an impatient crowd of several thousand people in Chicago. The crowd had plenty of reason to be impatient, as the car was well over an hour late for its premier, and barely made it at all. Accounts differ somewhat about all the different issues plaguing the prototype on the day of its debut, but no one must have been more relieved than Tucker himself when the car finally made it to the stage in front of excited attendees.
Of course, everyone has seen the iconic maroon prototype, dubbed the “Tin Goose”. It’s the only Tucker originally fitted with the problem-plagued 589cid flat six-cylinder engine with direct drive torque converters. Shortly after its debut, the engine in the prototype was replaced with the modified Franklin 0-355 flat-six that would power all other Tuckers. The prototype is also the only Tucker sedan produced without suicide doors. Although the car was well received when first shown to the public, the methods by which Tucker produced the prototype would ultimately prove to be a mistake, as several of the prototype’s shortcomings were reported (and in some cases wildly exaggerated) by the press. Tucker had been advertising that the company would be building “The First Completely New Car in 50 Years”, so it was not helpful when it was reported that the prototype body was simply reworked from body panels sourced from a 1942 Oldsmobile, a damaging claim lacking context and nuance.
The ad featured this week is a favorite from my collection. It is one of the earliest design renderings of what would eventually evolve into the Tucker 48. The design renderings first appeared in the January 1946 issue of ‘Pic’ magazine. Published about 6 months before the Tucker Corporation was formed, and before Alex Tremulis was hired by Tucker, this rendering is a slightly altered version of a concept created by a designer named George Lawson. Lawson drew it in the late thirties when he was in charge of the Buick division of GM’s Art and Color Studio. For Tucker, Lawson updated the rendering with a larger greenhouse and headlights integrated into front fenders, fenders which were intended to turn with the front wheels. A fixed ‘Cyclops Eye’ headlamp graces the center of the front end. The ad was pure fantasy. The vehicle was intended to feature a horizontally opposed six-cylinder rear engine with direct drive hydraulic torque converters. With an anticipated curb weight of just 2,000 pounds and a body constructed of either aluminum or plastic, the car was intended to be capable of cruising comfortably at 100 mph, with a top speed of 130. Disc brakes were planned for use over conventional drums. The vehicle was said to be capable of delivering at least 35 MPG, which would have been a tremendous advancement at the time, as the national average fuel consumption in the era was about 15 MPG. The vehicle was planned to accommodate seven passengers; four in the rear and three in the front, with the driver sitting in the center, and front passengers sitting aside the driver on seats designed to swivel. The car was planned with no spare tire, planned instead with an experimental and never-produced primitive version of today’s run-flat tires with an estimated useful life of 100,000 miles. The ad also claimed the car was planned to sell in the $1000 range, about $800 less than the average cost of a new car in 1947 and slightly cheaper than the cheapest cars offered from Chevrolet, Ford, and Plymouth.
Tremulis would be instrumental in refining Lawson’s designs into a usable concept suitable for production. Tucker, who was hopelessly undercapitalized and soon under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission, managed to get just thirty-six cars produced between July 1947 and January 1949 when the factory closed. Fourteen more cars were then finished by loyal Tucker associates before the plant assets were liquidated, for a total of 51.
Put ten Tucker enthusiasts in a room together and you will hear ten different reasons why the Tucker failed. Some will claim underhanded interference from powerful forces in Detroit and Washington, as well as damaging press coverage, while others will point to Tucker's dubious tactics to raise desperately needed capital for the struggling company which caught the attention of the SEC, ultimately bringing the company down. Whatever you believe about the causes surrounding the failure of the Tucker, we are left with are 47 surviving cars to admire and a fascinating chapter in automotive history.