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Innovative, Ahead Of Its Time & Full Of Problems, It’s…

The Tucker 48 – 1947-1949

The Tucker 48 was the brainchild of Preston Tucker, the man who invented the “Tucker Turret” gun turret, used in everything from PT boats to B-29 bombers. He wanted to be one of the first to introduce a new car after a 5-year gap in car production due to WWII; automobile manufacturers had ceased production shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7th 1941 to devote resources towards the war effort. Tucker had the concept in the late 1930s but the lull in car production during the war spurred him to get into actual development. The American public was hungry for new cars, but what Detroit was putting out after the war were warmed-over early 1940s models, designed in the 1930s. They wanted something new, and Tucker was willing to provide. It is sometimes referred to as the Tucker Torpedo, but while that name was given to some early pre-production drawing concepts it was never officially used.

The new car was to have new, improved safety features like a third headlight that rotated with the steering wheel to improve visibility in turns, a shatterproof windshield designed to pop out in the event of an accident, seat belts and a padded dashboard. The latter three features would not make it into an offering from Detroit until almost two decades later. The glove compartment was moved from the dashboard to the passenger door to provide room for the “crash chamber,” an area free from obstructions in front of the passengers. A perimeter frame surrounded the car, another safety feature in the event of a crash, and there was a roll bar integrated into the roof in case of a rollover. The parking brake had a separate lock and key of its own to prevent theft, and the doors extended into the roofline to ease entry and exit. Tucker held a patent on a collapsible steering column, but this never made it into any prototype. Every one of the 51 Tucker 48‘s built was slightly different, as each was a prototype with different design features and concepts that were either incorporated into future prototypes or discarded.

A rear-mounted engine and transmission drove the rear wheels. This combination had been used on the Volkswagen Beetle and various models from Indian automaker Tata, but never on an American car. This concept would be revisited by Chevrolet on the innovative but ultimately ill-fated Corvair twelve years later. The engine and transmission were mounted on a separate subframe held in place by a mere six bolts. This was to facilitate engine repair, Tucker even envisioned that there would be “loaner engines” that could be put in place in less than 30 minutes while the owner’s original engine was diagnosed and repaired. The engine was supposed to be revolutionary as well; a 589 cubic inch flat-six cylinder unit with hemispherical combustion chambers, fuel injection and overhead valves operated by oil pressure rather than a camshaft. There was an oil pressure distributor in line with the ignition distributor that delivered appropriately timed oil pressure to the valves. The power plant also had aluminum and magnesium cast pistons and steel-plated cylinder linings. Designed to produce 200 HP, it was to idle at 100 RPM and cruise at 60 MPH at what would be idle speed for most cars, 1000 RPM. The engine was fraught with problems and was loud, so loud in fact that the band Tucker hired to play at the first prototype’s premiere was instructed to play as loud as possible to drown out the noise. One trusted Tucker mechanic told him the engine sounded like a “barrel full of monkeys.” The 24-volt starter needed to get the engine started and for the hydraulic valve system meant they had to shoehorn some truck batteries into the car to start it, and they were afraid it wouldn’t start again if they shut it off, so it ran the entirety of the premiere so the public would not see how difficult it was to start. The heavy truck batteries’ weight caused the front suspension to collapse before the Tucker 48 rolled out onstage for its debut, causing a delay that angered the gathering of 1000 or so people eager to see the new car. This event was dramatically portrayed in the 1988 film Tucker: The Man And His Dream starring Jeff Bridges as Preston Tucker.

Despite the 200 HP design, Tucker engineers could only manage 88 HP due to issues with the hydraulic valve train which required a 24-volt electrical system as opposed to the 6-volt systems on most cars of the time. The oil pressure needed to properly open and close the valves could only be achieved at higher RPMs and the engineering team struggled to keep the valves working properly at idle speeds and low RPM. Of the six examples of this engine that were built, none were used past the first prototype and the engine was abandoned. The transmission was to drive the rear wheels through separate torque converters on each wheel, but had no reverse gear. The lack of a reverse gear led to much negative press even though it was confined to the first prototype with the 589 engine, but the damage to the car’s reputation was extensive.

Tucker struggled to find a new engine for his car. A Lycoming flat-six aircraft engine was tried, but would not fit into the engine compartment. Eventually a 334 cubic inch air-cooled flat-six, the Franklin O-335 made by Air Cooled Motors and originally designed for the then-new Bell 47 helicopter was fitted into the engine bay. This engine required extensive modification including ports for water-cooling as Tucker wanted a water-cooled engine. Little of the original O-335 made it into the engine used in the car, which was track-tested for 150 hours at full throttle…the equivalent of 18,000 miles. The new, water-cooled modified Franklin engine now produced 168 HP for the Tucker 48, far above the 90-100 HP 1947 offerings from Ford & Chevrolet and besting the more powerful ’47 Chrysler New Yorker by 33 HP. After the re-design and modifications were complete, Tucker bought Air Cooled Motors for $1.8 million to secure the engine source. Inexplicably, he canceled all their aviation contracts to devote production to his re-engineered engine, a significant loss of revenue as they held contracts for 65% of all post-war aircraft engines. This would have been a welcome influx of cash for the struggling automaker.

A new transmission was needed as the unit that mated to the innovative 589 flat-six was not suitable for the modified Franklin engine from Air Cooled Motors, which had the driveshaft facing the front of the car. The transmission from the old mid-1930s Cord 810/812 models with the Bendix “Electric Hand” electro-vacuum shifting system was found to be an adequate solution until a new Tucker-built transmission could be engineered. In the Cord, the transmission sat behind the Cord V-8 and drove the front wheels. In the Tucker, it sat in front of the engine and drove the rear wheels. It initially proved inadequate and had a poor reputation from its Cord predecessors. It was too fragile for the power and torque of the Franklin engine, lacked adequate lubrication, had weak gear teeth and the main shaft was so long that it warped under load, causing gears to pop out of play. They were taken to the Ypsilanti Machine And Tool Company to be refurbished and strengthened. This provided the Tucker 48 with 4 forward gears and one reverse and would be the transmission until a new Tucker-designed transmission could be manufactured. This version was the one found in most Tuckers. The Ypsilanti company set out modifying the Cord transmission, lengthening the case and strengthening the gears within. This was christened the Tucker Y-1 and made it into a few Tuckers, and still had the Bendix electric vacuum shift mechanism of its predecessor, with no mechanical linkage to the steering column-mounted shifter. Problems with the electrical connections and vacuum leaks hindered shifting, so a new design was still needed.

The final transmission was that new design: the Tuckermatic automatic transmission, designed by engineer Warren Rice who created the Buick Dynaflow transmission. This was a continuously variable design like on some modern cars and was strong enough to easily handle the power and torque of the modified Franklin engine. It used one torque converter for each wheel like the original transmission and was a simple design with only 27 moving parts as opposed to 90 or more on other automatic transmissions. A three-position shifter controlled the unit, up for reverse, middle for neutral and down for drive. The CVT design meant that no multi-gated shifter was necessary. Three versions were produced, the R-1 (for engineer Rice) required the engine to be off in order to shift gears and was simply a design exercise, none made it into any prototypes. The R-2 added a layshaft brake to allow shifting with the engine running, this made it into two prototypes. The R-3 improved on the design by incorporating a centrifugal clutch to aid in shifting between forward and reverse, but this version never made it into any Tucker 48. Because the Tuckermatic was longer than the Y-1 due to the dual torque converters, the fuel tank was moved from behind the rear seat to in front of the dashboard, ultimately improving weight distribution.

Several prototypes underwent further endurance testing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One rolled three times at 95 MPH and the driver, chief mechanic Eddie Offutt, walked away bruised and shaken but otherwise unhurt. The windshield popped out as designed and the roll cage prevented the roof from collapsing, proving that the Tucker‘s safety features worked. After replacing a damaged tire the car was started and drove off the track under its own power, further demonstrating its crashworthiness.

Rather than using steel coil and leaf springs, The Tucker used an elastomeric (rubber) 4-wheel independent suspension similar to what was on the Indianapolis race cars he worked on with Harry Miller. The elastomeric units on the race car proved unsuitable for the heavier weight of a passenger car, so they had to be re-engineered for the TuckerFirestone Tire & Rubber Company designed a new vulcanization process to provide the spring rates needed for the passenger model. The suspension was extremely stiff and while this provided for good handling it also had the drawback of allowing front-wheel lift when cornering on uneven surfaces.

The body was a sleek, aerodynamic (for 1948) design that had a very Art Deco look about it, with its egg crate front bumper sections separated by a front section with four chrome slots. Front fender lines continued into the front doors as well, and the overall effect was a lower, wider, more pleasing shape than the upright, bulbous designs of its FordChevrolet and Chrysler competition that were little more than carry-overs from their pre-war counterparts. The car sat a mere 9 inches off the ground, far lower than anything from Detroit. The fastback designs of the ’60s and ’70s muscle cars echoed the rear of the Tucker and the six exhaust tips protruding from under the rear bumper were an indication of speed and power that would survive into the muscle car era as well.

Tucker toured the country with several of his prototypes and interest in the car was very high as the public was eager for new cars after five yeas of halted Detroit production. He had an initial public offering of 17 million dollars in stock, but he needed more capital to continue developing the car so he went around the country selling Tucker dealerships. He also launched the Tucker Accessories Program where people could buy seat covers, radios and luggage before their car was built. This provided another 2 million in capital to keep the company going. The Tucker Accessories Program, while innovative, attracted the attention of the Securities & Exchange Commission, aided by a few powerful and well-connected politicians with ties to Detroit. Most dealerships had waiting lists for new cars as the pent-up demand far exceeded supply in the early post-war era, and veterans were given preference on these lists. Participants in the Tucker Accessories Program were guaranteed a spot on the waiting list for a new Tucker 48. The concept was investigated by the SEC and the US Attorney, no doubt at the behest of those politicians with Detroit ties. Tucker ultimately won his court case, however the legal action and the extreme negative publicity destroyed the company. 36 cars had been built before the factory closed. Tucker and a core of a few employees built another 14 cars for a total of 50. A 51st car was partially completed, and these were sold at auction as the company was liquidated. Of those 51, 47 Tucker 48s remain today in museums or private collections.✪

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It’s President Jeff D. Boofer