Friday, March 27, 2015

Preston Tucker, the Tucker '48, and the Reconversion Economy

The Reconversion Economy and a Man’s Dream
            WWII has been labeled the physicist’s war, although chemists also made important contributions, as in the case of the Emergency Synthetic Rubber project. But we remember the physicists’ contributions more, for their work led to the Atomic Age. In August 1945, World War II ended suddenly with the dropping of two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. American policy makers and economic planners had anticipated an allied victory beginning in mid-1944; however, and discussions concerning the reconversion of the economy to a peacetime footing began to take on more substance and significance after the Battle of the Bulge.103 For the American automobile industry, meeting the pent-up demand from consumers who had not been able to buy new cars since early 1942 was an unprecedented opportunity. And, not surprisingly perhaps, new players wanted to get in on the act. With huge wartime production plants empty and the federal government eager to assist those at the margins rather than the center of the economy, entrepreneurs, including Henry Kaiser, Joseph Frazer, J. Powell Crosley, and Preston Tucker formulated ambitious plans to enter the marketplace and challenge the Big Three.104 
            Until recently, the reconversion economy has been largely neglected by historians, although auto “buff” historians have been writing marque histories that focused on this period for some time. Of all the post-war figures, perhaps the most interesting and controversial was Preston Tucker, a name resurrected in more recent years due to the 1988 film on his life directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola’s interest in the Tucker went back to his childhood, when his father ordered but never received the car. Later, the younger Coppola would research the firm and collect Tuckers. Two of his cars, along with twenty others, were used in the film. With meticulous detail and a final script written by Arnold Schulman and approved by Tucker’s three sons after several rewrites, Tucker rescued the man and his car from the mists of time.105  
            Born in Capac Michigan in 1903, Preston Tucker had “gasoline in his blood” at an early age.106 He worked as an office boy at Cadillac, then briefly at the Ford Motor Company before selling Studebakers, Stutzs, Chryslers, and Pierce-Arrows. A visionary, by the early 1930s he had become involved in an aviation engine firm, the takeover of the bankrupt Marmon Company, and the Miller-Tucker Company, a builder of racing engines. On the eve of WWII, Tucker was living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, where he designed a “tank” – a war vehicle that was capable of going over 100 mph, a design apparently rejected by the military for going too fast. However, his Plexiglas rotating gun turret was a success, and was employed on numerous military aircraft during the war. The turret gained Tucker considerable recognition. During the war, Tucker partnered for a time with another charismatic businessman, New Orleans boat builder Andrew Jackson Higgins. After the war, he moved forward with his dream to build the world’s finest performing and safest automobile.
            Initially, Tucker’s chances to succeed were good, and since the War Assets Administration made factories available first to independent entrepreneurs, Tucker acquired a wartime plant used by Dodge and located in south Chicago. But Tucker, like others who were attempting to break into the automobile business at that time, failed to realize just how much money was required to do so. To raise money, Tucker had to sell dealer franchises, and that sent him on a collision course with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). SEC investigations resulted in a decline in investor confidence, and coupled with opposition from Michigan senator Homer Ferguson and the Justice Department, by 1948 a dark cloud covered the entire effort. Despite this adversity that some have suggested was technological suppression on the part of powerful interests that included the Big Three, some 51 Tucker ‘48s were produced, and these highly innovative cars still remain one of the most sought-after collectible cars in America.
            The Tucker ’48 was designed by Alex Tremulis, who had previously worked at Auburn during the 1930s and served in the Army Air Force during the war. This innovative car had a rear engine, was streamlined with doors that curved into the roof, and capable of a top speed of more than 100 mph while getting more than 20 mpg. It was a safe car as well, with a padded dash, a “crash basement” for its front seat passenger, tubeless tires, independent suspension and a pop-out windshield. But because of the roadblocks raised in obtaining supplies like steel, SEC investigations, press leaks, and a well-orchestrated rumor campaign, the company shut down in August 1948. In his disappointment, Tucker published an open letter in June 1948 concerning the obstacles he was facing. He wrote:
But there is another group – a very powerful group – which for two years has carried on a carefully organized campaign to prevent the motoring public from ever getting their hands on the wheel of a Tucker. These people have tried to introduce spies in our plant. They have endeavored to bribe and corrupt loyal Tucker employees . . . But it hasn’t stopped there.
They even have spokesmen in high places in Washington. As a direct result of their influence, Tucker dealers all over the country – men of character and standing in their communities – have been harassed and grilled by agents of the government and Congressional Investigating Committees.
When the day comes that anyone can bend our country’s laws and lawmakers to serve selfish, competitive ends, that day democratic government dies.107
            In a publicized trial Tucker was acquitted of fraud, but the damage was already done, and all that was left for him was to go to Brazil and attempt to build his last dream vehicle, the Tucker Carioca, a kit car that supposedly could be assembled with only one wrench. Tucker may have been victim to powerful forces, or he may just have been a bad businessman. His experience may well have been reflective of life in America during the early Cold War. Whatever the case, the dream for a truly revolutionary post-war automobile was gone.
            Incremental changes coupled with annual style makeovers would lead the American automobile industry down the road that would end in the appearance of the dinosaur in the driveway by the end of the 1950s.

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