Review by Shane Kastler
Preston Tucker loved cars. Even as a child, when automobiles were a new and novel invention, Tucker was enamored with machinery and how it worked. As he got older he joined the Lincoln Park, Michigan police force because he wanted to be able to see and drive the patrol units. Eventually he was fired for tearing a hole in the firewall of a squad car and installing a heating system to keep him warm.
In addition to law enforcement, Tucker worked various odd jobs in the auto industry for both Cadillac and Ford. But Tucker had a dream to build and manufacture his own car, and this is the subject of Steve Lehto's book, “Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow.”
Lehto's book, with the foreword written by comedian and car aficionado Jay Leno, is interesting for both car enthusiasts; and business people. Tucker's story is an amazing account of a man who was ahead of his time in terms of innovations, but was eventually hamstrung by a lack of foresight, funds, and friends in high places.
Tucker's car, nicknamed the “Tucker Torpedo” was also known as the '48, having been slated to be built and sold in 1948. After acquiring the rights to a massive plant in Chicago from the War Department, Tucker eventually raised around $25 million through stock sales, to fund his efforts. The initial excitement over his “dream car” was profound, with salesman all over the country clamoring for rights to open a dealership. In addition to this, interest and orders abounded, long before the first car was ever produced. Favorable media coverage helped Tucker in the early days, but this quickly faded when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) began an investigation. Seizing records and shutting down production, the SEC accused Tucker of running a scam, bilking investors, while never intending to actually build a car. In the subsequent trial, U.S. Attorney Otto Kerner presented the government's case against Tucker, but the case had little merit. (Ironically, Kerner would later be imprisoned himself for fraud). While the prosecution spent several weeks in late 1949 and early 1950 presenting their 73 witnesses, the defense chose to completely forgo presenting it's case; choosing instead to proceed directly to closing arguments. Their reasoning was that the case boiled down to whether or not Tucker really intended to produce a car, and 51 had already been manufactured. Tucker drove one of his sedans to the court house every day during the trial and his defense attorney invited every jury member to walk outside the court house and take a ride in the Tucker '48 if they so desired. It took the jury less than 24 hours to acquit Tucker and his associates on all 31 counts. The government's case proved to be a waste of time and taxpayer money, but it mattered little to the SEC. Tucker's business was destroyed and this might have been the only intent anyway. Lehto writes: “Considering how much time and effort the SEC and the prosecution had expended accusing Tucker and his associates of criminal activities, the acquittals represented a colossal failure on the part of the government. The result vindicated Tucker on the grandest scale. And the defendants’ actions in not even bothering to mount a defense showed that everyone in the courtroom knew the government’s case had been bogus. But would that matter? Tucker’s career was in tatters. Government officials could move on as if nothing happened. And they did.” (Kindle loc. 2793)
Tucker himself believed that the “Big 3” auto makers (Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler) were to blame for his destruction. Michigan Senator Homer Ferguson was said to have put the pressure on the SEC to go after Tucker in order to eliminate competition. While this may very well be true, other Tucker associates believed the company was destined to fail for numerous reasons. Chief design engineer Alex Tremulis thought Tucker to be a poor business man who simply got in over his head. Others felt that Tucker had underestimated what it would take to produce a car in the post-WW2 world of American industry. Lehto points out that Tucker's main skill was salesmanship. He was neither an engineer nor a businessman; but if he had surrounded himself with more skilled people and given them the freedom to do their job the company might have succeeded. Still yet, Tucker considered the government to be his main antagonist, saying: “When government agencies become the tools of private monopoly, individual initiative and enterprise are doomed.” (Kindle loc. 3171)
Several lessons might be learned from Tucker's failed enterprise. The importance of planning and foreseeing potential problems in a business plan is vital. Lehto points out that Tucker was not a criminal, but he was naive. And this proved to be a major downfall.
Another lesson could be seen in the example of what happens when government entities become too intrusive into private enterprise. While the SEC might have a supposedly noble purpose in protecting investors, the fact is that their accusations and court case ruined a man and his company. From a free enterprise perspective, one might prefer to simply let the chips fall where they may and let the market determine “winners and losers.” In post-WW2 America, just as today, an argument could be made that the government spends too much time harassing business people, while also propping up certain, chosen companies by granting favors, including government loans, to whomever they wish. Kaiser-Frazer Motors stands as a prime example of a fledgling car company, in Tucker's day, who seemed to be awarded numerous federal loans, while the SEC badgered Tucker. A prescient conclusion would be that both companies (and ultimately investors) would have been better off if the government had simply stayed out of the fray and let the companies compete against one another.
Preston Tucker lived only a few years after his acquittal. The federal government auctioned off his plant and remaining tools and materials; and Tucker returned to his home in Ypsilanti, Michigan to live out his days, continuing to dream of building cars. His final plan was to produce a car “kit” that people could manufacture at home. Although he had some international investors interested in the idea, few Americans were. The idea eventually died, as did Tucker. Having contracted lung cancer, Tucker died on December 26, 1956.
A certain amount of posthumous vindication exonerated Tucker's legacy in a several ways. For one, many of Tucker's innovations did become industry norms. Placing a premium on safety, Tucker pushed for better braking systems and was one of the first to consider putting seat belts into cars (though he was eventually convinced not to). In the 1940's it was believed that the presence of seat belts suggested the car was unsafe and some drivers even feared the idea of being “strapped into” a speeding car. While seat belts are required today, they were not an industry standard until way after Tucker's time.
Another compliment to Tucker's legacy can be seen in the value of the 47 remaining Tucker cars. They are each worth millions, and are highly sought after for their uniqueness and beauty. One wonders how the automotive industry might be different today if Tucker had succeeded.
Finally, Tucker's name has been enshrined indefinitely by the 1988 Hollywood movie, Tucker: The Man and His Dream. The movie, which was produced by George Lucas and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, stars Jeff Bridges as Tucker and tells the story of his brave attempt to take on the established auto industry with an innovative, upstart idea. Coppola's father was an investor in Tucker's corporation, and Coppola himself owned two Tucker cars. While the movie is now out of print, and hard to find, it was considered a box office success and certainly succeeded in salvaging the Tucker name.
In the final analysis, Tucker's company failed, but he should be commended for having the courage to attempt something innovative and new in the automotive industry. Steve Lehto's book succeeds in telling Tucker's story and in pointing out the pitfalls that ultimately led to Tucker's downfall. You'll come away from this book with sympathy toward Tucker, irritation toward the government, and a deeper interest in cars and how they are made. And you'll probably come away from the book wishing you had a Tucker '48 sitting in your garage. In the end, Tucker's dream might very well be yours as well.
This article was republished with permission of Shane Kastler. Its original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.