By Karin Risko
I was a tad disappointed when searching for the grave of Preston Thomas Tucker. I expected to find something spectacular like a towering granite statue or an impressive gothic-inspired family mausoleum standing in tribute.
This is after all the final resting place of the mid-century innovator and inventor whose aspiration to build a revolutionary “car of tomorrow” gained him worldwide notoriety and allegedly earned him the wrath of the Big Three automakers.
No ordinary man, Tucker represents one of the last independent automobile manufacturers to attempt to break into the competitive, exclusionary and often ruthless world of automobile manufacturing.
The Tucker myth skyrocketed further when his story went Hollywood with the 1988 release of the Francis Ford Coppola film Tucker: The Man and his Dream. Actor Jeff Bridges portrayed Preston Tucker.
The simple rectangular plaque marking Tucker’s gravesite just didn’t seem significant enough for such a big man. It looks exactly like the 100s of others lining the neat, circular rows in the Masonic Gardens section of Michigan Memorial Park.
It’s only when you’re standing graveside that you see the distinction. A relief image of the famed Tucker ’48 along with the inscription “Founder of the Tucker Car” is etched into the headstone immortalizing the “kid cop” from Lincoln Park and his dream forever.
The Early Years
Born in Capac, Michigan in 1903, Preston was the first of two sons born to Shirl and Lucille Tucker. At age four, tragedy struck when his father died in a railroad accident. Soon afterward, his mother moved Tucker and his younger brother William to the Detroit area. According to a collection of old Mellus Newspaper articles, Tucker obtained his first job in the auto industry at age 13 working as an office boy under D. McCall White, vice president of engineering for Cadillac Motor Car Company.
Under White, Tucker learned engine and chassis design, attended Cass Technical High School and studied engineering, commercial law and business management in college extension courses.
Although Tucker’s mother taught school in Lincoln Park (believe it was considered Ecorse Township Schools then), it’s not clear when the family first moved there.
Hellion on wheels
In 1923, at the tender age of 17 and much to his mother’s chagrin, Tucker joined the Lincoln Park Police Department. Eleven months later, he quit after his mom informed the chief that Tucker falsified his papers and was underage.
He rejoined the force in 1925 along with his buddy, Floyd Crichton, who later became Lincoln Park police chief as well as a trusted advisor in the Tucker Corporation.
A motorcycle patrolman, Tucker was known for his mischievous antics and mechanical aptitude. Always tinkering with his vehicles to make them run faster, Tucker took great pride in catching motorists who tried to outrun him. According to local lore, irate residents often reported him to village officials (Lincoln Park was still a village) for hot-rodding it down Fort Street and performing daredevil stunts.
One cold winter night, Tucker’s need for heat while driving a new heater-less police touring car and his ingenious quick fix raised the ire of village officials. Intent on capturing engine heat to stay warm, Tucker used a blowtorch to cut a hole in the car’s firewall. The village president called his inventive solution “damage” and temporarily suspended him.
Trouble didn’t always trail the handsome and exuberant cop. Tucker received accolades for his police performance too. One newspaper reported he ”single-handedly captured two gunmen in an automobile chase and battle that extended from Lincoln Park to Wyandotte.” Using one hand to steer and the other to return fire, Tucker doggedly pursued and apprehended the criminals (Just like in the movies, eh?).
After three years, Tucker left the police department and began to hone his skills in the automotive industry. He ran for mayor of Lincoln Park in 1935 and penned a passionate letter to his “friends and fellow citizens of Lincoln Park” telling them “The boost in dollar wages and the cut in human was a BLINDFOLD march to the depression in which we are mired today.” He implored citizens to “Finally, let’s all together save our homes, protect our laborer and farmer; save our business; our machinery and factories, upon all of which we ultimately depend.”
Rise to the top
Tucker soon developed a reputation in the automotive world and moved up the proverbial corporate ladder. He worked for Studebaker, Chrysler and Pierce-Arrow. Teaming up with Harry Miller, famous builder of racecars, the former police officer incorporated the knowledge he gained regarding design, safety and performance of high-speed cars into the development of the Tucker ’48.
He moved on to the Packard Motor Company and became a distributor. During this time, Tucker invented a gun and tank turret used by the United States Army during World War II. Tucker turned over his plans to the government and was praised for his major contribution to the war effort. Although the Tucker Turret was greatly appreciated, his armored personnel carrier was rejected by the military, because it went too fast.
Later, Tucker formed an aviation company and then established the Ypsilanti Tool and Machine Company.
After years of acquiring conventional automotive design and production knowledge, Tucker decided the time was right to build a new type of car encompassing radical safety features, innovative motor designs, and a fresh, sleek body style.
Realizing the dream
Dubbed a charismatic visionary by supporters and a con artist by detractors, this controversial and outspoken figure appeared to be on the brink of building an exciting and innovative car company with the establishment of the Tucker Corporation in 1946.
Its product, a sleek, aerodynamically designed car with features not found on cars of its time.
“Ten years ahead of the future” is how Charles T. Pearson described the futuristic looking Tucker ‘48 in his book The Indomitable Tin Goose.
Not only was the car attractive and economical, it possessed features not found on cars of that time such as an air-cooled rear engine, disc brakes, and an independent four-wheel suspension. Automobile manufacturers have since incorporated these once innovative features into later model cars.
Critical of other automobile manufacturers for neglecting safety considerations in favor of looks or “eye appeal”, Tucker was a trailblazer in this arena. His trademark center headlight, the Cyclops Eye, was designed to provide drivers with better visibility when turning. Other safety measures included a padded dash, seatbelts, and a pop-out safety windshield.
While Tucker’s ideas appeared ingenious on paper, conception proved to be difficult and costly. Plagued with production problems, financial woes, employee dissention and the onslaught of federal fraud indictments by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the fledgling Tucker Corporation closed its doors. With only 51 cars produced, Tucker’s dream ended.
“A hair away” said Tucker, who died in 1956 from lung cancer, when describing how close he had come to realizing his dream.
Did Tucker simply underestimate the cost of launching an automobile company? Did he squander and mismanage investors’ money? Were the series of fraud charges initiated by the Securities and Exchange Commission legitimate or part of a cleverly concealed anti-Tucker smear campaign instigated by the Big Three automotive manufacturers to drive him out of business. Were local, state and national politicians in cahoots with the Big Three?
Sixty-one years have passed since Tucker attempted to produce a safe, sleek, fast, and futuristic car, one every American dreamed of owning, and most could afford. Although his dream never materialized, his legacy lives on. A legacy that’s steeped in controversy. Was he a genius thwarted by conspiracy? Or, a masterful promoter out to swindle people?
I don’t know the answer. I’m still researching this intriguing topic. I do know consumer advocate Ralph Nader still chides automotive manufacturers today for their focus on styling instead of safety. Tucker brought this to the forefront more than half a century ago. Could he have been unfairly targeted for trying to bring about change?
I do know for sure that Tucker’s genius positively impacted modern technology. It’s exciting and a source of pride to know this colorful, influential and fascinating figure was part of our community, and we can still find evidence today of his life here.
People always root for the underdog. That’s why Tucker’s riveting story with its drama and possible intrigue draws us in. It makes us question: Could there really have been such large-scale subterfuge by automakers, local journalists and politicians? Or, What if the “kid cop” from Lincoln Park had actually succeeded in his quest to build a new type of car? How different would the auto industry and our world be today?
I’d like to extend a special thank you to Leslie Lynch-Wilson of the Lincoln Park Preservation Alliance for her assistance in providing newspaper articles, photos and other Tucker resources. Leslie has assumed the daunting task of researching and documenting the Tucker years in Lincoln Park. (In March Leslie received a Woman of Distinction award by the Wayne County Commission for her preservation efforts.
If you have any information about Preston Tucker’s life in Lincoln Park, please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Karin Risko, a former history teacher, is a regular contributor to Downriver Profile Magazine. She finds local history and its links to the big picture – national and world history – fascinating. This article is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced without author’s permission.