Threatening the Big Three with the 1948 Tucker Torpedo

When competition threatens the status quo, the business world can be full of mystery. There are a lot of hypotheticals surrounding the legend of the 1948 Tucker Torpedo but its legacy lives on. A 1988 film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, attempts to set the record straight.

Officially, the Tucker 48 was never called the Torpedo. This name was briefly chosen during development but never officially used. The correct name for this stylish 40s sedan is the Tucker 48.

As the story goes, Preston Tucker designed this automobile while living in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Production and assembly of the Tucker 48 would take place in Chicago, Illinois in 1948. Unfortunately, they would go on to make only 51 total Tucker 48 sedans before filing for bankruptcy. 

On March 3, 1949, the Tucker Corporation ceased all operations while declaring bankruptcy. Negative publicity, whether it was accurate or not, spread like wildfire through mainstream media outlets. Shortly thereafter, the Securities and Exchange Commission launched a full investigation into the start-up automotive company. 

From there, they took Tucker to trial in a widely publicized stock fraud case. Interestingly enough, allegations were baseless thus acquitting Preston Tucker completely. Tucker suspected the Big Three American automakers played a role in his company’s demise.

Dreaming the Torpedo in Post-War America

After World War II, society was ready to rebuild. The public wanted new things, not old reminders of a war-torn past. Major automakers had not developed any new models since 1941, opening the door for new ideas from smaller operations. 

Preston Tucker had a new vision for the industry, perhaps that is why he made so many enemies. Taking a look at the features Tucker wanted to implement into cars, you realize how far ahead of his time he was:

  • Water-Cooled Aluminum Block Engines
  • Flat-6 Rear Engine Design
  • Disc Brakes
  • Four-Wheel Independent Suspension
  • Fuel Injection
  • Controls Near Steering Wheel
  • Seat Belts
  • Padded Dashboard

It’s safe to say that Tucker wanted to build a safer automobile. Today, most of these features are standard or common practice. Why did he face so much resistance within the industry?

Preston hired automotive designer George S. Lawson to pen the Tucker 48. In December of 1946, a disagreement between the two led to Lawson’s resignation. Preston went on to hire Alex Tremulis to finish the design.

From there, Preston and Tremulis eventually parted ways and a new design team updated the Tucker 48 even more. Eventually, Tremulis rejoined the team. With so many different hands working on it, it’s no wonder the Tucker 48 has such unique flair to it.

Even though its first internal name was the Torpedo, Preston chose not to use that name for the Tucker 48. He did not want to remind people of the tragic events and consequences of the war.

Celebrating the Innovation of the Tucker 48

At the time, cars with a rear-engine, rear-wheel drive layout came from Europe. The Tucker 48 would be a first for a 40s American production car to feature this layout. It also features three headlamps.

In the late 40s, 17 states had laws against vehicles having more than two headlamps. Tucker provided a cover for the third headlamp in the states where it was illegal. On the Tucker 48 there are two normal headlights and then a third directional headlamp located in the middle. 

This bonus headlamp activates and turns when the steering wheel moves at least 10 degrees. Theft-deterrence took a major leap forward with the Tucker’s separate key used to lock the parking brake in place. 

Continuing their commitment to safety, the Tucker 48 even features a roll bar built into the roof design. The windshield features shatterproof glass and even pops out in the event of a collision to protect passengers. 

One of the most famous things about the Tucker 48 is its “crash chamber”. It is a padded area in front of the passenger seat that occupants can use for safe haven during an accident. 

Tucker only used six bolts to mount the engine and transmission on the sub-frame. This allowed for 30-minute engine swaps when service required it. They scrapped several of Preston’s other brilliant ideas such as disc brakes or fuel injection due to production costs.

Their original engine choice was a huge 589 cubic-inch flat 6-cylinder. This 9.65L engine features hemispherical combustion chambers and could produce close to 200 horsepower. It can produce a massive 450 pound-feet of torque.

Tucker produced six prototypes of the 589 engine but only two of them ever found their way into a Torpedo. One of them was in the prototype for all the world to see. Things didn’t go very smoothly that day.

On June 19, 1947, a crowd of nearly 3,000 gathered to witness the debut of the Tucker 48. After experiencing several problems at the premiere, negative publicity quickly doomed the project. 

One of the biggest problems was the engine. It was too heavy and unreliable. Tucker spent a lot of money trying to source a new engine. 

Ultimately he chose an air-cooled flat 6-cylinder engine manufactured by Air Cooled Motors. This engine, the O-335, is 334 cubic inches and produces 166 horsepower. Most Tucker 48 models besides the two prototypes feature this engine.

From here, the Tucker 48 required a new transmission. After some trial and error, they found a transmission that would work. It meant converting the Tucker 48 over to a front-engine, front-wheel drive sedan. 

The 4-speed manual enabled Tucker to release the 48 publicly. There were other transmissions used across Tucker 48 production models, including one with a Tuckermatic unit. Smaller automotive companies usually do feature less consistency across their lineup, they can afford to make changes on the fly.

Getting Your Hands On the Tucker 48

Finding a 1948 Tucker Torpedo for sale is never easy. Chances are nobody is selling one. In 2012, you could get a Tucker 48 for about $3 million.

Even though Tucker made 51 Torpedos, only about 47 of them exist anymore. If a current owner wants to sell theirs, chances are they will choose an auction. By now, this car is entering blank check territory. 

There are a few replicas built on a modern hot rod chassis out there. A few of the original Tucker 48 cars raced in NASCAR Grand National events in the 1950s. Since then, this historic automobile is slowly fading from the community’s memory. 

From the Cyclops Eye headlight to putting safety in the limelight, the Tucker 48 has a place in any automotive museum. Should you ever display a Tucker 48 in your collection or at a car show, many people will wonder what it is. Brush up on its history so you can tell its story. 

In only a few decades, the Tucker 48 will be an antique. Perhaps if Tucker never went out of business, the Torpedo would be more recognizable. Although it was never given the chance to achieve timeless status, many Tucker 48 concepts stand the test of time.


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