The Tucker 48: The Greatest Car That Ever Could Have Been
No other car has ever captured the public’s imagination quite like the Tucker 48. To millions of war-weary Americans, it was the automotive embodiment of post-war optimism, the evolution of Art Deco design that pointed the way to a bold, powerful future. Thanks to a charismatic and visionary founder, the Tucker had the potential to be a truly transformative car, and Americans believed it. Thousands of people invested in the company, and when it all collapsed in 1949, it caused one of the biggest automotive scandals in history.
In the decades since, the Tucker 48 has become an American icon. Though just 51 cars were built, they were raced in NASCAR, became the subject of the Francis Ford Coppola film Tucker: A Man and His Dream, and have become some of the most valuable cars in the world.
But to understand the Tucker, it is important to remember that the America that embraced it was vastly different than the one we know today. Think of a new car compared to a six-year old model: the advances in infotainment systems, and the improvements in fuel economy, safety, and design compared to the old model. Now imagine a gap where none of that evolution could happen.
Save for a few 1942 models that rolled off the line, the auto industry was largely suspended following the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II. When production resumed in late 1945, the industry, which was left to deal with a four-year development gap, updated models that were largely developed in the 1930s.
It was out of this environment that the Tucker emerged. Preston Tucker was a self-made man who came to prominence during the war with his “Tucker Turret,” a rotating gun turret that saw duty in everything from PT boats to B-29 bombers. By 1943, Tucker began work on a car that he hoped would be ready before the Big Three could introduce postwar models. In December 1946 (before the prototype was complete), Tucker had his car featured in the popular magazine Science Illustrated, with a model of the car photographed to look like it was production ready.
In early 1947, full-page advertisements were bought in major newspapers around the country with bold tag lines like “The First New Car In 50 Years,” and “The Car You Have Been Waiting For” – and it turns out, he was right. For millions, it was the first truly new car anyone had seen since Pearl Harbor, and they were ready to own one.
It was unlike anything the world had ever seen. Tucker claimed he had been working on the car for 15 years, and that it would have four-wheel disc brakes, a fuel injected 589 cubic-inch engine (that’s 9.6 liters) that was direct-drive, run-flat tires, seat belts, and a reinforced safety cell. By the time a prototype was completed, Tucker took his show on the road, and began a highly-publicized national fundraising tour.
Within a few months, Tucker had raised over $28 million, bought a plant in Chicago, and appointed a board of directors from around the automotive world. But even at this stage, things were beginning to fall apart; in order to keep cash flowing, Tucker took the company public, then began selling dealer franchises and accessories for cars that hadn’t been built yet. By the time the Tucker 48 was officially introduced to the world on June 19, 1947, it was already the beginning of the end.
Just before the unveiling, the prototype had snapped two of its suspension arms. The car lacked a reverse gear, and the engine was so loud, Tucker hired a band to drown out the noise. But people had begun to realize something wasn’t right. The media began to allege that Preston Tucker was a scam artist, and that the car was a dog. Thousands of people that put money down on Tuckers began clamoring for their cars, and eventually, the government got involved. The Securities and Exchange Commission shut the company down on March 3, 1949, Tucker and his board of directors were indicted for fraud. The company’s assets were auctioned off by the government in 1950.
In two years, just 36 Tuckers were built, with an additional 15 assembled before the government auction. The 48 wasn’t nearly as advanced as Preston Tucker hoped it would be (he never had the chance to properly develop it), but the car was still incredibly advanced for the late 1940s. With its pop-out safety glass windshield, padded dashboard, and reinforced safety cage, it truly was decades ahead of its time.
The Tucker remains such an enduring legend because of its brief moment in the spotlight, high-profile failure, and unique “what if” status in automotive history. As a result, most 48s have been museum pieces from the moment they were auctioned off. They rarely change hands, but when they do, it’s major automotive news. In 2014, the car pictured was sold by RM Sotheby’s for a whopping $1,567,500.
For a brief moment in postwar America, Preston Tucker occupied the same space in culture that Elon Musk does with Tesla today. Unlike Tucker however, Musk has vast resources at his disposal, and Tesla’s advancements are advancing electric car technology every few months. But this comparison only makes the Tucker more tantalizing; the idea of a car laden with disruptive technology transforming the automotive world back in 1948 is just too tantalizing not to think about. That’s why surviving Tuckers are so valuable – they’re a vision of a future that never was.