It's not often that a little newcomer is able to take on and rattle a titan like the American automobile industry. Yet that's exactly what Preston Tucker did with his Tucker 48.
Preston grew up in Michigan and at a young age began buying and flipping cars. After a brief stint at Cadillac as an office boy and some time running a gas station, Preston got into automotive sales.
Tucker also began attending races at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and connected with a Harry Miller, an accomplished engine builder. When war broke out in Europe, the two began developing military vehicles for both the first and second World Wars.
Once peace had been reached, Preston pursued his developing passion: automotive design. He brought on a designer with experience from the Auburn, Cord and Duesenberg companies, along with several key figures to help him develop what he called "the first completely new car in 50 years."
The result was the Tucker 48 and it was a thing of beauty and far ahead of its time. Safety was the team's primary concern and many new technologies were pioneered. The car featured a center-mounted third headlight, called the "cyclops eye," that would turn with the front wheels. Ads touted "your cyclops eye is around the corner before you are, lighting the way ahead, giving you precious seconds to avoid accidents."
There was a steel safety bulkhead that "shielded the passenger compartment from head-on collisions," a laminated safety glass windshield that was mounted in a "sponge rubber fastening so that a hard blow from within will eject it in one piece" and windows made out of armor-plate glass, so that they would disintegrate without cutting edges or slivers.
Other innovations included a powerful six-cylinder engine, mounted in the rear of the vehicle, individual wheel suspension and a step-down floor design, allowing passengers ease with entry and exit.
Preston and his team went to work, building a dealer network and securing a military airplane engine plant, located right here in Chicago, to use as their factory. They moved in during the fall of 1947, expecting to rapidly ramp up production, but were soon dealt a series of blows and setbacks. It culminated in a legal battle with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1949 and 1950.
It was long, painful and draining legal case, but at its close, Preston was declared innocent. Sadly, it was too late. The momentum and investment funds had been lost and the company folded.
Despite the hang-ups, amazingly, the Tucker team managed to produce 51 vehicles and today they're highly sought-after and esteemed by collectors. This particular example was used for high-speed tests at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway before being used by Preston as his personal vehicle until 1955.
This car was also used in the Jeff Bridges movie "Tucker: The Man and His Dream," released in August of 1988.
On January 18-19, it will be auctioned at the RM Sotheby's Auction held in Phoenix. Bidding is expected to surpass $1.25 million. For details, visit rmsothebys.com.
While Preston's dreams never came to full fruition, he and his cars caused quite a stir, leaving a lasting legacy on the motoring world.