Starting Up: The Tucker Sedan

Great ideas do not always lead to successful businesses. In 1948 automotive entrepreneur Preston Tucker promoted a futuristic car to enthusiastic consumers. The car featured many safety and technological innovations. Fifty-one automobiles were eventually produced, but the company struggled as it tried to set up factory production. While Tucker sought investment capital the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated the company’s financial practices, and the business failed. Was Tucker overly optimistic, thwarted by government intervention, or just a poor manager?

Demand

After years of Depression-era deprivation, wartime rationing, and war bond saving, post-World War II consumers had money in their pockets and a desire to buy new products. Marketers used stylish design and new technology to engage an optimistic nation of eager buyers.

World War II war bond poster, about 1942

World War II war bond poster, about 1942

World War II ration materials, 1942–1945

World War II ration materials, 1942–1945

Harvey Whitman’s Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild competition model, 1949

Harvey Whitman’s Fisher Body Craftsman's Guild competition model, 1949

Promotion

Preston Tucker, a visionary and charismatic salesman, channeled post WWII desire for innovative design and new technology to excite consumers with the prospect of his “Car of Tomorrow.” The car was heavily promoted with glitzy events and national ads. Tucker sought public believability as a major manufacturer by leasing the giant Chicago, Illinois B-29 engine plant from the War Assets Administration.

Preston Tucker, about 1945

Preston Tucker, about 1945

Life magazine, March 1, 1948

Life magazine, March 1, 1948

Tucker ’48 world premiere, June 19, 1947

Tucker ’48 world premiere, June 19, 1947

South Chicago, Illinois, B-29 engine plant, about 1945

South Chicago, Illinois, B-29 engine plant, about 1945

Production

Industrial designer Alex Tremulis added to the modern styling of the Tucker, but the car’s most important legacy was its emphasis on safety. It featured a rear-mounted engine, padded dashboard, safety windshield, and a center headlight that turned. Tucker struggled with raising capital for his company and the engineering details of mass producing a car. Ultimately Tucker only produced fifty-one cars.

Tucker design patent, filed March 15, 1947

Tucker design patent, filed March 15, 1947

Pilot assembly line, 1948

Pilot assembly line, 1948

Tucker scale model, about 1998

Tucker scale model, about 1998

Starting an automobile company is immensely expensive. Undercapitalized, Tucker raised money by selling over eighteen hundred dealership franchises to eager entrepreneurs. Dealers got advertising banners but never saw the promised cars. Tucker also raised over $15 million in an initial public offering (IPO) of stock. In a third scheme to raise capital, future Tucker owners were encouraged to buy accessories to reserve cars even before production began. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) launched an investigation and Preston Tucker and seven others were tried. In 1950 they were found innocent but, by then, the company was bankrupt.

Finance

Dealership banner, 1948

Dealership banner, 1948

Stock certificate, 1947

Stock certificate, 1947

Tucker accessory suitcase, 1948

Legacy

Only fifty-one Tucker automobiles were produced before the company went out of business. Francis Ford Coppola’s film Tucker: The Man and His Dream helped perpetuate the popular the belief that Preston Tucker was a visionary businessman victimized by the system. The Smithsonian’s Tucker (the 39th produced) is temporarily on view at the entrance to the American Enterprise exhibition.

Movie poster, 1988

Movie poster, 1988