Unlike Coppola's Movie Hero, Auto Innovator Preston Tucker Was as Daring, Lavish and Flawed as His Car

updated 09/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Seeing isn't necessarily believing. Case in point: Tucker, Francis Ford Coppola's new movie about the man who created a glamorous and controversial wonder car of the postwar '40s but never quite got it into production. According to Coppola's film, the Tucker was the Great American Automobile of its era, a dazzling experiment that advanced the automotive art by at least a decade. As for Preston Thomas Tucker, the man who made this miracle happen, Coppola presents him—and Jeff Bridges plays him—as a martyred saint of transportation, an endearing idealist betrayed by a sinister conspiracy hatched by Detroit's Big Three: General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.

All of which adds up to a nice piece of innocent entertainment—and a considerable rearrangement of the truth. The Tucker car, in fact, was in some respects a streamlined lemon. And Tucker himself was a living jigsaw puzzle: industrial visionary, half-educated opportunist, promotional genius, amusing con artist, tender husband, big-spending boozer, loving father—and in the opinion of his adversaries, an out-and-out crook. Put the pieces together and you get the John De Lorean of a heartier time, an American primitive who grappled boldly for power and was swiftly destroyed in a spectacular financial scandal.

Everything about Tucker was spectacular. He stood 6'2" and weighed 200 lbs., most of it muscle. Boldly handsome, he had large, dominating eyes and razor-thin lips. His black wavy hair was slicked back in the lounge-lizard style affected by George Raft, and a subtle effluence of Lucky Tiger hair tonic trailed him wherever he went. Invariably duded up in custom-tailored suits, jaunty black homburgs, expensive chesterfields and two-tone shoes, he could have passed for a modish mobster—except for his screechy bow ties and the white cotton socks he wore for his athlete's foot.

Tucker, in short, was a shameless showboat who spared no expense to maintain the illusion of lush success. He rented the most sumptuous suites, made routine business calls in private planes and threw monster parties. He hired top people and paid top salaries—above all to himself. Even his enemies admit that he was an inspirational leader and a messianic salesman. But even his friends concede that he was a disastrous manager. Most of his enterprises, wrote one reporter, "ended in failure, acrimony and charges of questionable bookkeeping."

"Tucker still is a juvenile," said an associate, "capable of enthusiasms so wild that he cannot distinguish good from bad. Whatever his enthusiasm dictates, no matter how fantastic, is absolute fact." From another co-worker came a harsher reading: "You can't depend on his word. He will tell you a lie, know that you know he is lying, yet keep on telling it." C. Robert Beltz, a Michigan lawyer and Tucker detractor, concludes: "If he were alive today he'd be a TV evangelist."

Yet in private life Tucker was a statue of rectitude. He adored his wife, Vera, now 87, and their five children: Shirley Hozier, now 64, Preston Jr., 63, Mary Lee McAndrew, 61, Noble, 59, and John, 58. They lived in a series of big, comfortable houses in the Midwest, and their home life was warm and spontaneous. "My parents were very much in love," says Noble. "When their bedroom door was closed, you didn't go in." Mary Lee adds, "He couldn't go past her without giving her a little pat on the fanny." When Tucker had to work all night, says Preston Jr., Vera stayed up with him, "making him coffee, keeping him awake. When I got there in the morning, there they were, laughing and singing songs."

All five children remember Tucker as a terrific dad. He was strict, but he backed his kids the way he backed all his inventions. "You can do it," he'd tell them, "because you're a Tucker!" When they ran into somebody stronger or smarter, he'd say: "Just remember. Everybody has to use toilet paper." And when Noble cut his knee on a license plate, the head of the family dropped everything and floored the pedal all the way home.

Dad was fun because he did wild and crazy things. Once he concocted his own hair tonic, which turned his hair green. At a Sunday dinner everybody gasped when the turkey began to jump around on the platter as if it were alive—Dad had inserted an air hose with the stuffing. When he sold a house for cash on the barrelhead, Tucker stuffed $60,000 into a drawstring purse and then casually handed it to goggle-eyed Mary Lee, 8, and told her to "take the streetcar home."

Tucker also did wild and crazy things with guns. One day when he wanted to put a wire through a wall, he just yanked out his trusty .38 and—kablaammm!—drilled the hole. One night, wakened by an explosion and figuring correctly that somebody had just blown the safe in a nearby office, derring Dad jumped out of bed, grabbed his model 78 7-mm German Mauser and blasted the block out of the getaway car.

But Mr. Tough Guy was a softy, too. Shirley recalls that when her father first saw his newborn grandson, he almost fainted with tender feelings. He thrilled to Schubert's melodies and secretly suffered when a malapropism (he said his cars "exhilarated" fast) advertised his ragbag education.

Tucker was born in 1903 on a Michigan peppermint farm. When he was 6, a shiny new Buick ran over his toes. Unhurt but fascinated, spunky Preston reportedly stole the Buick's gas cap as a souvenir. Autoholic from that day forward, he learned to drive at 11 and at 13 quit school to go for glory as a $1-a-day office boy for Cadillac. From Cadillac he bounced to Ford to Studebaker to Pierce Arrow to Chrysler and from grease monkey to test driver to salesman to sales manager.

In 1935, in collaboration with Harry A. Miller, Tucker built his first automobiles: 10 Indy 500 cars financed by Henry Ford, who took a shine to Tucker because the nervy young smart aleck stood up to him. One day when he lit a cigarette in Ford's presence, the great man snapped: "Nobody smokes around me." Tucker snapped back: "Tell that to your flunkies. Don't tell me." But the shine lost its luster when not one of Tucker's cars could finish the race.

Soon after, Tucker joined a Packard dealership in Indianapolis and with gross abandon began to toot his own horn. He strutted around his showroom in short pants, sucked on a cigar that could swat a triple, sat a rented elephant in a Packard and drove it all over town. Such antics sold a pack of Packards.

Shortly before World War II broke out, Tucker built a combat car that could do 150 mph. Too fast, said the Army. But the Air Force admired its gun turret, which Tucker then mass-produced for American bombers.

Victory brought him the chance of his chancy lifetime: to crash the mass market with the car of America's war-deferred dreams. Grandly ambitious, he conceived a fire-breathing aerodynamic dragon that was more like Flash Gordon's whoosh-about than any known automobile. Long, low and snaky-sleek, his dream car featured six gleaming tail pipes and doors that slid up into the roof—plus headlamp-tipped, freestanding fenders that moved with the front wheels and lighted the way for the after-dark driver making a turn.

In engineering terms, Tucker's fantasy took a wild leap forward. His "car of the future" enclosed a massive six-cylinder engine mounted in the rear of the car. Power reached the wheels through a revolutionary system of "hydraulic torque converters" that, according to Tucker, would eliminate the clutch, transmission, drive shaft and differential. With a top speed of 130 mph, a cruising speed of 100 mph and an anorexic appetite for fuel (35 mpg), Tucker's Torpedo figured to be both the hottest and most economical car on the road.

What's more, it would be the most comfortable. Seven inches wider than a 1946 Cadillac, it was laid out to seat six Chicago Bears linemen. But what mattered most of all to Tucker was passenger protection. The Tucker, he promised, would be the first production car to offer seat belts, air-cooled disc brakes, a pop-out windshield made of shatterproof glass and a heavily padded crash compartment facing the front seat.

Tucker took off like a rocket in pursuit of his dream. Even before his car was designed, he made a rip-roaring sales pitch in a magazine article and was suddenly buried under an alp of mail—more than 150,000 car-crazy letters arrived in less than a month. Off and running, Tucker somehow persuaded the War Assets Administration to rent him one of the world's biggest factories: a 95-acre B-29 engine plant in South Chicago. During the company's brief existence, Tucker raised $25.6 million, mostly by selling stock and dealerships, and by sheer Tucker luck he came up with a superb designer.

Alex Tremulis, the man who had designed the venerated 812 supercharged Cord, simply walked in the door and offered his services. By working 110 hours a week and ruthlessly cutting corners, Tremulis and his team knocked off the job in 100 days.

In the process, the fantasy wagon was drastically reconceived. Out went the swiveling fenders. Instead, a third headlight was implanted front and center like a cyclopean eye, geared to turn with the wheels. Out went the slide-away doors and the seat belts. The torque converters just didn't work, so they were replaced by a conventional transmission that also didn't work—for several days the prototype couldn't back up. As for the massive engine, it developed more bugs than the Okefe-nokee and was exchanged for a water-cooled version of the Bell helicopter's power plant. Some problems were never solved. Steering was woozy, suspension spongy, and the Tucker's muffler made the car sound like a truck with laryngitis.

"Tuckeroos" (as true believers call themselves) nevertheless insist that what remained of Tucker's vision was one hell of an automobile. In a test, eight Tuckers survived a brutal 5,000-mile ordeal without a breakdown. They hit 115 mph on the straightaway, took corners at 70 mph and got 20 mpg at 55 mph. What's more, Tucker buffs point out, the cars wear amazingly well: Of the 51 that were made, 46 are still in existence. And they've certainly been a hot investment. In 1948 a brand new Tucker sold for $2,450; in 1988 you're lucky if you can pick one up for $60,000. Even so, Preston Jr., who worked on the Tucker production team, admits: "In our zeal to meet the schedule, we had to take shortcuts. I just don't think it is a real good car."

All through the car's gestation period, Detroit buzzed with rumors that Tucker had sired a monstrosity. Nevertheless, Tucker fever raged on. Hundreds swarmed to a gala unveiling, waited patiently while mechanics repaired a collapsed suspension system, then gasped as the glossy, cherry-red chariot twirled on its turntable like a sexy showgirl. A blizzard of orders blew in. Tucker was walking on air. He came to earth with a thud.

Undercapitalized and madly prodigal, he began to run short of money. Yet he went right on living like an oil sheikh. He crisscrossed the U.S. in his new twin-engine Conestoga and bought a palatial Chicago apartment crammed with a lurid clutter of antiques.

Reports of Tucker's gyrations soon reached the Securities and Exchange Commission, along with rumors that the car he was building bore little resemblance to the one his prospectus had promised. Was a swindle in progress? Alarmed, the Commission demanded to see Tucker's books. Tucker balked. The SEC insisted. Dealers panicked. Tucker stock collapsed. Back to the wall, Tucker abruptly shut down his plant and later declared bankruptcy. He had spent more than $25 million and produced exactly 51 automobiles—each car, in effect, had cost roughly $500,000. In June 1949, on evidence supplied by the SEC, Tucker and seven associates were indicted on 31 counts of mail fraud, conspiracy and violation of SEC regulations.

In his movie, Coppola swallows without so much as a gulp Tucker's theory that he was destroyed by Michigan Sen. Homer Ferguson and SEC Comr. Harry McDonald, acting in concert as agents for the Big Three. True, there's reason to believe that Tucker was a thorn in the paw of Detroit's industrial lions. If his car had taken over the fast lane in the automotive market, the Big Three might have been forced to retool at huge expense. But there's just as much reason to believe that Tucker was the victim of his own swashbuckling ineptitude. In any case, the movie hero's sappy rationalizations ("It's the idea that counts—and the dream!") do the historic figure a cruel disservice. They deny him the dignity of his tragedy.

And it was truly a tragedy. Tucker was acquitted on all counts, but the Tucker Torpedo was his last hurrah. Before he could put another major project together, he came down with cancer.

"He died the day after Christmas in 1956," Noble remembers. "We were all around him, crying. He was bones. Mom wanted to hold him one last time. So they took away the oxygen tent. He was in a coma. But when Mom was next to him, he opened his eyes and said weakly, 'I want to tell you something. I love you. Now,' he whispered, 'sing our song.' And she did. 'With someone like you, a pal good and true, I'd like to leave it all behind....' And then he died."

—By Brad Darrach, with Julie Greenwalt and Anita Lienert in Detroit and Kristina Johnson in Los Angeles

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