The Power of a Dream (09/15/00)
I know this column doesn't have anything to do with baseball per se, but it's a story that is echoed in many walks of life, including baseball: someone with great potential is cut short by powers beyond his/her control, but still manages to leave a significant legacy.
A few years back, Francis Ford Coppola produced and directed a movie called "Tucker: a Man and his Dream", starring Jeff Bridges, his father Lloyd and Martin Balsam, who won an Academy award for his performance. For those of you who don't know, the movie was a loose biography of Preston Thomas Tucker, one of America's greatest inventive minds. Now some would say that's a bold pronouncement, but I think there's enough evidence to support it.
Tucker had been in the car design business a long time before creating his legendary sedan. He had worked with racing legends John Eddie Offutt and Harry A. Miller, and twice helped them design cars that would win the Indy 500. Before the beginning of World War 2, he designed an armored car that could top 80 mph. Unfortunately, that was about 20 mph faster than anything the Army had, and about 40 mph faster than any tank. It was simply too fast. So the Army decided not to use it. However, the project was not a total loss. The Air Corps - there was no Air Force yet; it wouldn't be created until 1947 - liked the turret Tucker had designed for the top of the armored car. They liked it so much that they made it a standard feature on every bomber produced for the rest of the war. The little revolving twin gun turret you see on the top of the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B-25 Mitchell and A-20 Havoc/B-26 Marauder bombers? That's the Tucker turret.
Just a little aside: During World War II, the U.S. Navy had a world champion chess player, Reuben Fine, calculate - on the basis of positional probability - where enemy submarines might surface. Weird, but true.
Anyway, after the war, Tucker decided he could build a better car than the Big 3 and figured he might even put them out of business by doing so. So he set about designing a car that even by today's standards seems modern.
The hard part would be making the parts. So he used parts from other vehicles to get things started. The original Tucker engine was a Franklin helicopter engine, turned on it's side. Because of the configuration of the engine, Tucker had to design a new oil pan, water pump and radiator for it. The transmission for the new car was taken from a Cord, a popular front wheel drive car of the day. The carburetor was a standard Buick carburetor and the starter was from GM.
The prototype engine displaced 589 cubic inches, but the production model would eventually be toned down to 335. The final engine had a power output of 166 hp. By comparison, a 2000 model Mercedes C280 sedan offers 194 hp. The engine was placed in the rear of the car, for a couple of reasons: 1) the additional weight gave the drive axle better traction, and 2) in the event of an accident, the engine wouldn't be thrust on to the passengers, which is one of the biggest dangers to passengers in a car crash. Tucker put air intakes in the rear fenders and an exhaust fan in the rear bumper. The power plant provided 0-60 acceleration in 10 seconds, averaged 20 miles per gallon of gas and gave the car a top speed of 120 mph.
Other features included a padded, push button dashboard, front windows that popped outward (for safety and easy replacement), a collapsible steering column (also for safety) and interchangeable seats, all of which were unheard of at the time. The car had bench seating - much like a sofa - and whenever the upholstery wore out on the front seat, you could merely pop it out and switch it with the rear seat. The chassis had a steel reinforced V shape front so that unless you hit someone head on, you would deflect to one side. The front had a headlight that would turn with the steering wheel. Tucker felt that turning corners at night was hazardous because that was the only time you really couldn't see where you were going. The turning light addressed this problem. The car was also the first to offer seat belts and disc brakes. It had three welded roll bars to protect the passengers in case the car flipped and was one of the first cars with independent suspension.
The sedan's most striking feature was its avant-garde styling, developed by Alex Tremulis and J. Gordon Lippincott and Company. The car had pop-up tail lights. The doors cut into the roof to ease entry/exit, and the car offered a roomy six-passenger cabin with "step-down" floor. The original projected selling price of the 1948 Tucker Torpedo, as it was called, was $2450. Depending on your down payment, you could get a radio, heater or even a complete set of designer luggage thrown in to the deal.
So, to get the car company started, Tucker would get a small manufacturing site and progressively build his way up toward competing with the big boys, right? Not Tucker. He petitioned for and was awarded the largest manufacturing site in the country, a former bomber factory outside of Chicago that had churned out B-29 engines during the war. The grounds spanned over 475 acres and its main building covered 93 acres. The War Assets Administration leased the site to him provided he could show $15 million in capital by the following year. You can still visit the site of Tucker's factory - it's the Ford City Mall on Cicero Avenue in Chicago. He began production in 1947 and the first model rolled off the assembly line in June of 1947.
The story, unfortunately, doesn't have a happy ending. Tucker's biggest problem was raising the capital to meet the WAA demands; $15 million was a lot of money in those days, especially for a single entrepreneur. So he addressed this problem not by selling cars, which he couldn't yet produce at a high enough rate to meet the demand, but by selling franchises to car dealers who would get first crack at selling his car. The demand for his car was great: after running an ad for it in a national magazine, Tucker personally received over a hundred thousand letters requesting info on how to get his car. So plenty of dealers were willing to invest in franchises. It was this franchise selling that attracted the attention of the SEC, which began the first of 3 investigations and what would amount to a suffocating morass of bureaucracy. Ultimately, Tucker was charged with fraud, for which he was found innocent. He wrote an open letter the Auto Industry which was published in many of the national newspapers, demonstrating his resolve, but the damage had been done. With little money left after the legal battles and tattered credibility, the company went bankrupt. When the plant was closed down, only 37 cars had been produced. An additional 14 were built from parts.
Shortly after the legal ordeal, while trying to raise capital for another new car idea, Tucker was diagnosed with lung cancer. He died December 26, 1956.
To this day, more than 50 years later, the embodiment of Preston Tucker's vision, the 1948 Tucker Torpedo, is widely regarded as the best car ever built, based on design, innovation, safety and overall value. All but 4 have survived the intervening years and are either privately owned or on public display. However, Tucker's most enduring legacy remains his bold, resolute and innovative spirit that still inspires us all.