BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP) - Sean Tucker is building the car of his great-grandfather’s dreams.
With a curvy body and “Cyclops eye” center headlight, the Tucker Torpedo was the vision of automobile pioneer Preston Tucker 70 years ago as he sought to build the passenger car of tomorrow. It would be built with aluminum, giving the car better mileage and speed. The fenders would turn with the wheel, the mounted headlights shining in the direction of the turn. The driver would sit in the center seat, flanked by passengers.
The concept was handed off to another designer, resulting in not the Torpedo but in the legendary rear-engined Tucker 48, which was set to premiere in 1948. The car inspired the 1988 Francis Ford Coppola film “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” which dramatizes fraud allegations against Tucker, who ended up winning the trial but losing his reputation and business.
Although the Tucker 48 never went into full production, prototypes would later be prized by collectors and one sits in the Smithsonian.
Meanwhile, the concept car that started it all was nearly forgotten.
Tucker called the experience surreal.
“To be able to work on something that my great-grandfather started working on so long ago . and pick up where he left off is really kind of cool,” he said.
He and Ida appeared recently at SteelStacks in Bethlehem with a Tucker 48 to speak after a special screening of the Coppola movie at the Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas.
Car of tomorrow
Raised in a Detroit suburb when the automobile was in its infancy, Preston Tucker grew up when Henry Ford was revolutionizing the industry. Ford devised an assembly-line process that made cars affordable to the common man, debuting the Model T in 1908.
Tucker cut his teeth in the industry, working on the Ford Motor Co. assembly line before collaborating with Harry Miller to design race cars. During World War II, he started Tucker Aviation Corp. and built the Tucker Turret, which was used on PT boats and bombers.
The American war machine made incredible technological innovations, and Tucker sought to bring some of those advances to the passenger car.
Handsome and magnetic, Tucker knew how to work a room and promised he would deliver “the car of tomorrow,” billing it as fast, safe and affordable. The United Press called him the “Cinderella boy of the automotive world,” but critics questioned whether he could deliver.
“He was a promoter who had a good pulse on what the people wanted and tried to give it to them,” said Hampton C. Wayt, a design historian who has studied Tucker.
Tucker had a quarter-scale model of the Torpedo photographed and airbrushed to look real. The photograph, which was published in magazine advertisements, showed an attractive, sleek car in an era when individual style mattered.
It was designed like the “fuselage of a fighting plane,” the ads said, and marketed for safety and comfort. A brochure called it the “smartest looking car in America.” It would get 35 miles a gallon, have no gears to shift and be roomy enough for six people plus storage.
Those ads caught the attention of Joe Ida in Yonkers, N.Y., who later opened a Tucker dealership with his brothers, dreaming the venture would secure his family’s future.
“My grandfather saw the Torpedo - that style - and that’s when he decided that he somehow wanted to become part of,” Rob Ida said.
That original airbrushed model was the work of George Lawson, an automobile stylist who got his start at General Motors and would later patent the retractable headrest. Wayt said Lawson was among the best automobile stylists of his day, though he hadn’t even a cameo in the Coppola movie.
“The Lawson design - more than any other proposed car of its time, including the final variation of the Tucker - embodied the automotive hopes and dreams of the post-war American consumer,” Wayt said.
Lawson was “years ahead of his time,” said Alex Tremulis, who would later be credited with the Tucker 48 design. While others described Lawson as a gadgeteer with a penchant for engineering, Tremulis told Special Interest Auto, “I’ve always considered him an imagineer - the best of all worlds.”
Lawson worked with Tucker for 21/2 years until they had a falling out in 1946. Lawson then patented his design and settled a legal dispute with Tucker over it for $10,000, according to published reports.
Tremulis and other stylists were brought on to finish the design, which became the Tucker 48. Gone were the turning fenders, three front seats and other details, but it remained sleek and futuristic looking.
As it happened, 1948 came and went without the Tucker 48 going into full production. Meanwhile - by Tucker’s account in a letter to newspapers - distributors and nearly 50,000 stockholders had put $25 million into the company.
Tucker was working out the kinks in the car’s mechanics and dealing with steel shortages as he tried to deliver what he promised. Some in Washington were beginning to question Tucker’s unconventional fundraising methods, such as selling dealership rights before the car was built; Hollywood suggests the automotive lobby played a hand.
The Securities and Exchange Commission got involved, characterizing some fundraising methods, such as pre-selling car accessories, as “fraudulent” and ordered production stopped.
Tucker addressed those allegations in an open letter published in newspapers across the country.
In the letter, Tucker argued that there was a “powerful group” bent on derailing his effort. He suggested spies were sent into the plant and his “loyal employees” were offered bribes. He said the “powerful group” had influenced congressional investigations.
The following year, Tucker and his associates were charged with mail fraud and security law violations. They were accused of using false promises to get $28 million from stockholders and dealers.
Tucker called the charges “the biggest rape of the free enterprise ever perpetrated on this country.”
At the three-month trial, prosecutors called 73 witnesses. The first witness, Wayt said, was Lawson.
Prosecutors pointed to the company’s “glowing advertising” that said the car had “revolutionary features,” which were not found on the 40 cars that were produced, The Associated Press reported in 1950.
According to AP, 50 spectators erupted in cheers when the not guilty verdict was read, prompting security guards to restore order in the courtroom. Newspapers across the country - including The Bethlehem Globe-Times - ran front-page stories of the acquittal and Tucker’s promise to finish the “car of tomorrow.”
But tomorrow never came.
Tucker’s business was in bankruptcy, and Tucker was forced out of the company. He staged a comeback, promising a sports car that would be even more advanced than the Tucker 48.
“One of these days we’ll be rolling down the highway and the head of every motorist will be turned admiringly in our direction,” Tucker wrote in Car Life magazine in 1954. “That Tucker car will be the answer to an American dream.”
He never built the car. Stricken with lung cancer, Tucker died of pneumonia in 1956. He was 53.
Coppola, whose father was a Tucker stockholder, cast Jeff Bridges as Tucker in the movie, which painted the legendary auto pioneer in sympathetic light as a small-time entrepreneur going up against the Big Three automakers - GM, Ford and Chrysler. And in 1993, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History landed a Tucker 48 seized in a narcotics raid, cementing the automobile’s place in history.
According to the Smithsonian: “Its design epitomized automotive trends that were new and significant in the immediate postwar years: avant-garde styling, innovative mechanical features, awakening interest in passenger safety and efforts by small manufacturers to capture a larger share of the new-car market. The Tucker was an exaggeration of these trends and evidence that the desire for change was strong enough to move some fairly radical ideas from the drawing board to the production stage.”
Car enthusiasts pack auto shows and conferences for a treasured peek at a Tucker 48, one of which rolled into Lehigh University in 2000 for the Concours d’Elegance of the Eastern United States.
Today, 47 of the 51 Tucker 48s produced survive.
Fulfilling the dream
None of the Tucker 48s was ever delivered to Joe Ida, who returned the deposits of the 130 people who placed orders at his dealership.
Ida moved his family to Florida, where he bought an orange grove and started a trailer rental business, but he never let go of the Tucker dream. Rob Ida grew up listening to Tucker stories at his grandfather’s knee. So often he heard his grandfather say he regretted never purchasing a Tucker at a government auction.
Rob Ida said he knew he would never be able to buy him a Tucker, which can sell for upward of $1 million.
But what the Idas lacked in cash, they had in skills. Bob Ida, Rob’s father, is an auto repair mechanic and body technician. Rob Ida, a hot rod die-hard who built his first car at 11 years old, joined his father in 1990 at Ida Automotive, a hot rod shop they still operate in Monmouth County, N.J.
Together, they built a Tucker 48 as a gift to Joe Ida, who had waited decades to be in the driver’s seat. But weeks before he was to pick up his dream car, Joe Ida died at age 82. The hand-built automobile was used in his funeral procession.
Afterward, the Idas searched for a place to debut the car. They found the Orphan Car Show in Ypsilanti, Mich., a showcase of cars no longer made. But organizers rejected their car because it was a replica, not an original.
Rob and his dad brought it anyway. They called the Tucker family, whom they consulted on the Tucker 48 project. The family owned a small ice cream shop - Tucker’s Cafe/Expresso - nearby and that’s where the Idas parked their car.
“They stole the show because a Tucker was there,” recalled Sean Tucker. “If you see a Tucker on the street, people just freak out.”
Many thought it was an original. The engineering and basic layout were accurate, Tucker said.
The Tucker family is personally vested in promoting the Preston Tucker story; Sean Tucker’s father, John, is now president of the Tucker Automobile Club of America, a nonprofit that promotes Tucker’s legacy. And Sean, who was 8 when the Coppola movie came out, has always been aware of his family’s claim to fame.
Sean Tucker became an engineer and worked in the automotive industry for 15 years. He moved to the Lehigh Valley in 2011, following his future wife, who landed a job as a Lehigh University psychology professor the year before. The move also put him within an hour’s drive of the Idas’ garage.
When Tucker, who now works for Lutron, married Amanda Brandone last year, Ida drove them in a rebuilt Tucker 48 to their wedding at SteelStacks.
Resurrecting the Torpedo
There was a reason the Tucker Torpedo didn’t make it into production, Ida noted. Every part is a challenge. The reverse concave curves along the sides are difficult to produce, at least by hand. The three front seats, with the driver in the center, require a strangely shaped roof that would leave a person’s shoulder sticking out the window. And aluminum is hard to work with.
Even more challenging with a concept car is that there is no engineering. It hadn’t been figured out. All they had was Lawson’s two-dimensional design.
But Lawson made a quarter-scale clay model of his design as well as a plaster copy of it. Wayt, who was doing research on the auto stylist, found Lawson’s widow and tracked down the model in a Ohio tobacco barn. He bought the model and later sold it to a California museum.
Ida and Tucker were able to take a three-dimensional scan of the model, working out the dimensions to create a life-size plywood pattern on which to shape the aluminum exterior.
“We have to make that shape - that little bit of information that does exist, we have to keep it intact,” Tucker said. “We’re forced then to find a way to make all of the things fit and make them work within that envelope. We don’t have the opportunity to negotiate with Preston Tucker at this point.”
Using computer-aided design software, Tucker is engineering his great-grandfather’s dream car for New Jersey car collector Bob Kerekes. Kerekes already owns an Ida-built Tucker 48 and was in the market for something different.
Calling it some of the purest and most rewarding engineering work of his career, Tucker said he relishes finding solutions to the design challenge. For example, in addressing the three-front seat design, Tucker devised a rotating floor so the driver can enter the car from either side and wind up in the center driver’s seat.
“We get to the point where you kind of run out of what they had and you have to sort of make decisions on your own,” Tucker said. “Those are kind of my favorite moments.”
One of the more time-consuming pieces was the rear fender. Ida originally made it in five pieces, after many errors. But when he was finished, he decided to discard them all and make it in one piece. He’s accumulated equipment over the years that allows him to shape the aluminum to fit it to the car.
Another big challenge was the front turn signal. It’s an unconventional, cylindrical shape, and to be true to the concept, the 7-inch-long light had to be in glass. Tucker turned to his new hometown for a solution. The Hot Glass Studio at the Banana Factory could custom-make one.
Dennis Gardner, studio manager, called it one of his more unusual but fascinating commissions.
“It’s difficult to describe,” said Gardner, who shaped the glass from an aluminum mold Ida made. “It sort of resembles a hood of a Tucker - futuristic and sleek.”
Ida said they are trying to be true to the Torpedo concept - even down to the mechanics. They are using a Porsche flat six-cylinder engine because it is fuel-injected and air-cooled, which was called for in the Torpedo. A flat cylinder engine places the center of gravity closer to the ground, allowing for better handling.
Ida and Tucker also explored using a torque converter as in the concept, but due to how much time it would take, decided to go with a more conventional automatic transmission made by Porsche.
The labor of love has been going on for five years, with Tucker, Rob Ida and Bob Ida losing count of the hours spent on the project.
Tucker said they are getting closer to fulfilling his great-grandfather’s dream.
But like a historical echo, Tucker is hesitant to promise exactly when the car of tomorrow will debut.
Information from: The Morning Call, https://www.mcall.com
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