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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.