Turn On Your Lovelight
After World War II Americans were hungry for a new kind of automobile. Everything on the road in the 1940s looked like a jalopy or a military staff car and people wanted something different.
A certain automaker from Michigan saw the light and manufactured a car generations ahead of its time. His name was Preston Tucker (no relation) and in 1948 the car he designed, the Tucker Torpedo, rolled off the assembly line into showrooms across America.
Perhaps the most novel feature of this “Car of Tomorrow” was the directional third headlight in the center of the grill that turned with the steering wheel to light the car’s path around corners. Tucker had a bright idea and he longed to let it shine before the world. And it did … but soon that light was snuffed.
Following the war years of sugar and meat rationing Americans were starving for new cars as the suburb culture emerged. Tucker was a type of architect like Frank Lloyd Wright, unafraid to start from scratch.
In an article in Smithsonian Magazine, written by Abigail Tucker (again, no relation), the Torpedo was named the car of the future. The visionary inventor risked everything when he rolled out his new car as a vehicle for change, a sign of the times when servicemen who survived the war rebuilt the country, constructing skyscrapers, suburbs, factories, and the Federal Interstate System, the asphalt seas uniting every state in the union from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon. If any driver passed a Torpedo they should have snapped a picture of it because the car was as inexplicable as Area 51.
Today auto historians compare Tucker’s car to the Star Wars Saga; the machine was that much of an enigma with its a rear engine like a Volkswagen, a padded dashboard, and pop-out windows to eject during a crash to protect the passengers, truly a fish that walks and a dog that talks.
Director Francis Ford Coppola waxed nostalgic over the car before he earned his driver’s license. Forty years after the car came out Coppola directed “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” (1988) starring Jeff Bridges. Everybody asks me whether I have seen the movie. I almost did, had the VHS cassette in hand one summer night to watch with a girlfriend but that was the night my mother died. My mother taught me how to drive.
Alas, Preston Tucker’s invention went the way of the Yugo. In less than a year, on the cusp of the 50s, Tucker’s company folded. Men who refused to believe in his vision forced him out of the auto industry. But the man and his dream live on: disc brakes, four-wheel independent suspension, and fuel injection — his ideas became standard features in cars today, including headlights that scan back and forth across the road like robotic eyes. Tucker was as unflappable as he was determined, saying, “Even Henry Ford failed the first time.”
If video killed the radio star then Detroit sunk the Torpedo because Chevrolet, Ford, and Chrysler manufactured 95% of American automobiles. Ultimately Tucker lacked the capital to roll out more of his cars on the assembly line. What the carmaker did have was Hollywood good looks, an athletic build, and an aw-shucks Midwestern charm. A former Revenue agent during Prohibition, Tucker chased down bootleggers in Lincoln Park prior to the realization of his magnum opus. His father died from appendicitis when Preston was two, motivating him to develop his own ironclad work ethic. Sizing himself up with his contemporaries Tucker said: “The dreamer comes up with some crazy idea that everybody laughs at, but later it turns out to revolutionize the world … bureaucrats would rather kill a new idea than rock the boat.”
How much is a Tucker Torpedo worth today? Well, I couldn’t afford one but for a model of the car on the shelf above my desk. Reports indicate that the 47 remaining cars cost between $1.27 million and $2.9 million.
The car inventor died age 53 in 1956 of lung cancer; his wife Vera, ten years his junior, died that same year. After they married they owned a gas station while Tucker laid his plans to revolutionize the automobile industry and he did.