On this day in 1988, director Francis Ford Coppola’s critically acclaimed biopic “Tucker: The Man & His Dream” premieres in U.S. theaters, starring Jeff Bridges as the brash Chicago businessman-turned-car-designer Preston Tucker who shook up 1940s-era Detroit with his streamlined, affordable “Car of Tomorrow.”
Remembered by some as a visionary and others as a flamboyant but failed opportunist, Preston Tucker (born in 1903) was inspired to build cars by his friendship and pre-World War II business partnership with the race car driver and auto designer Harry Miller. In the renewed prosperity following the war, Tucker believed that Americans were ready to take a chance on a new kind of car, and that he, as an independent entrepreneur, was in the position to take risks that the big, established car companies were unwilling to take. He hired a skilled team including designer Alexander S. Tremulis and chief mechanic John Eddie Offuttas and leased an old Dodge aircraft engine plant in Chicago with plans to design and produce his dream cars.
Based on clay mock-ups built to scale, the Tucker team produced a metal prototype, dubbed the “Tin Goose,” in June 1947. The following spring, the teardrop-shaped, 150-horsepower rear-engined Tucker “Torpedo” began rolling off the line, accompanied by the memorable advertising slogan “Don’t Let a Tucker Pass You By.” Among the Torpedo’s innovations were a padded dashboard, a pop-out windshield and an innovative center-mounted headlight.
Despite rave reviews in the automotive press, Tucker’s company fell under harsh scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), who investigated the automaker for mail fraud and other charges. The investigation caused a flood of negative publicity for the company, while Tucker struggled to keep producing cars with a fraction of his staff. His efforts were in vain; in March 1949 the company fell into receivership and its assets were seized.
Tucker was ultimately acquitted of all charges, but his dream car would never rise again; only 51 were produced after that initial prototype. Forty-seven of those still exist, and a number of them were used in the making of Coppola’s movie, which revived interest in the Tucker ’48 and the story of the man behind it. At the time of his death in 1956, Preston Tucker was working on plans for a sports car, the Carioca, to be produced in Brazil.