Preston Tucker’s Legacy Is Alive And Well In Southern California
Photography by Ted Gushue
Speaking with Eric Breslow, owner and curator of a very interesting collection in Northern Los Angeles, you immediately get the sense that this is a man who has spent his years fascinated by the life and times of one of the most enigmatic figures in automotive history, Preston Tucker. To say that Eric is knowledgable on the 1940s’ almost-automotive magnate would be akin to calling Carl Sagan a fan of outer space: a massive understatement. Over the last few decades, Eric has spent countless hours collecting and preserving the artifacts of what many consider to be a proto-Elon Musk in his potential to shake up established industries. Instead of simply profiling the very special car that Eric’s added to his collection, I asked him to share the entire story with us, from start to finish.
Ted Gushue: So tell us, who was Preston Tucker?
Eric Breslow: He was a visionary. He had the idea to make a car that was better than what the “Big Three” were making. During the ‘40s, everyone was concerned about the war, and so afterwards he felt that the American people wanted something new, something safer, so he had all these ideas. Seat belts weren’t available in cars back then. A pop-out windshield was a first that Tucker had in his vehicles, padded dashboard, disc brakes, rear-mounted engine, these were all cutting-edge features of Tucker cars.
TG: Was there a big public push towards automotive safety standards or was Tucker ahead of his time?
EB: I don’t know if there was a public push, but there was definitely a sense that something needed to be done. People were flying through plate glass windows without seat belts on. It was a free-for-all. Tucker was concerned with making a safer car, something very futuristic that no one else had ever seen. He was the Elon Musk, and the Tucker was the Tesla of 1948 in a sense.
TG: What was his background before he launched the company?
EB: He actually didn’t have much of a background in the stuff. He wasn’t an engineer by trade, wasn’t a graduate of any engineering program. He was a car enthusiast, he built race cars, early Indy cars. He worked as a paper boy for Ford and General Motors too, as well as a stint being a used car salesman. I guess you could equate him to Steve Saleen too—someone who would take a Mustang and say, “Hey, I can make this a hell of a lot better than Ford could.”
He was kind of one of those guys, he wanted to take a car and make it a whole lot better than it was, he was just a visionary.
TG: And where was he originally based? And why did he end up choosing to use Chicago as his platform for Tucker?
EB: He started in Ypsilanti Michigan, which is about an hour from Detroit, but looked to Chicago for a few reasons.
He was looking for a factory to build the cars in, and he really had a vision of making the largest car company ever, and revolutionizing cars, and so he wanted to find the biggest plant that was available. And the war was winding down, there was this plant used for building bomber airplane motors in, and it happened to be in Chicago, Illinois.
It was the biggest factory in the US at the time, and the war administration had given it to him because they were done using it, and he thought he was going to become the biggest car manufacturer in the world using this massive facility. The government was done with the operation, and so let him use the place they no longer really had a use for.
TG: A bit like Nevada giving Elon Musk a write-off for the Gigafactory.
EB: Exactly, there really is a lot of parallels between those two guys—Preston Tucker, had he had another three or four months and a little less government collusion, might have us be sitting here talking about the Big Four.
TG: Can you talk to how the car came about? I know not many were made, but how did it start design-wise?
EB: There was a team—I think he had the original concept—and then he had two different famous designers. One of them was Alex Tremulis, who designed a lot of famous cars for General Motors after the Tucker, but Tremulis got his start, or honed his craft you might say, penning the Tucker. There were a couple of design firms that were competing for the gig, and what you see, the car, is the final product.
TG: And so then how soon afterwards does Tucker start running into issues?
EB: The interesting thing is that they never made it into production, only pre-production. So all 50 cars that were made were basically prototypes, and of the 50, only 30 some-odd cars were finished before the company was actually shut down, the rest were built kind of piecemeal by employees that hung out to try to finish the cars. Some of the cars weren’t even finished until much much later, the last few cars were bought as parts and put together whenever. As late as the 1980s there was a car that was finally finished. There’s an archive at the AACA Museum in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where there’s an archive of the Tucker corporation, and Preston Tucker had made thousands of blueprints. Every screw, the hood ornament, you name it, every part on the car was blueprinted out.
He was ready to turn a switch on: the plant was there and he had a dealership network of a couple thousand dealers lined up. There were a few minor details on the car that weren’t finalized, but if he had had another couple of months, he could have been making thousands of cars per month.
I think he started running into issues right away though, actually. Everyone was looking at him with really intense scrutiny. In order to get the money to get the building, to do the blueprints, to really design the whole car, he did an IPO on the NYSE. We call it an IPO now, but he essentially raised money from Wall Street. He was able to find $23 million in 1947, which I think would be about 2-300 million now. So he raised this money, and it was an extremely public affair.
He took out huge ads in newspapers and magazines with early sculptures and designs, and with that money raised, he was able to finish the design and actually blueprint the full car. Then the government came in in mid-’48 and started looking at things.
But there was a lot of attention right off the start, because any time someone comes in and says to an industry—and I don’t care what industry it is—but if you arrive and say, “Hey, the way you’re doing it now, the way everybody’s experiencing cars, that’s all wrong and I’m going to completely change it. I’m going to move the motor from the front to the back, and I’m going to change the brakes from drums to discs, and I’m going to put seat belts, and these pads, and a light that turns with the steering wheel to illuminate the road as you’re turning, like a spotlight,” I mean that was something that Ford didn’t put on a Taurus until the ‘90s, he had this idea back in 1946.
TG: It seemed like things were set up correctly, so what went wrong?
EB: I think when he so publicly came out to try to raise money, I think a lot of people thought, “Hey, who is this guy, what the hell’s he doing?” And then the fact that he was going to make cars in Chicago instead of the accepted norm of in Detroit, the tax basis that was generated from the revenue of all these cars—everything was supporting the Michigan economy.
So now you had the government, the senators of the state saying, “Hey wait a second, this is our industry, you can’t go to Chicago, Illinois with our Detroit, Michigan industry.
TG: There were senators rallying against this guy?
EB: I believe it was Senator Ferguson—the same guy who was after Howard Hughes. If you watch The Aviator they portray the one senator that was just trying to kill Howard Hughes’s deal and bring him in for that court hearing—it’s the same guy. And actually, there was a connection between Tucker and Howard Hughes: Tucker wasn’t able to get motors, and so Howard Hughes called him and said, “Hey the same senator that’s screwing with you is screwing with me. Let me help you with your motor problem. I’ve got this company that I know of in Syracuse, New York, Air-Cooled Motors, they’re having a lot of problems financially but they’ve got tons of motors. If you could figure out how to make their helicopter motor work in your car, it solves your problem, and you could buy them for nothing, because they’re in bankruptcy.”
So that’s what Tucker did, he bought this motor plant that was making aluminum aircraft motors, figured out how to make them work in cars, converted it from air-cooled to water-cooled, and he was able to turn on an existing assembly line. He could have had motors popping off left and right. He literally was so, so close. He just needed another month or two.
EB: So basically what happened with Tucker was the Detroit people were so worried about what he was doing, they decided to go after him on fraud charges.
So he raises 23 million dollars like I said, but while large it wasn’t quite enough. He fell short. So then he started selling accessories. In order to get your name on the waiting list to buy a car there was a sort of lottery system wherein you had to buy the accessories for the car first. There was order form; you had to buy your seat covers, your luggage, and your radio, and if you bought the seat cover, luggage, and the radio, you got a lottery number to be in line to buy one of the cars.
That’s how they indicted him on fraud charges, saying that he was selling parts for cars that didn’t exist, and at the time the cars really didn’t exist, so I guess there was enough validity to make it through the process. So in mid-’48 they shut down the company, take all of the files and handcuff him to where he just couldn’t continue to develop. They froze his assets.
TG: He was ultimately able to make a few cars as you mentioned though; which number is this car that we’re looking at?
EB: This is number 31. In June or July, when things were really starting to get going, people were saying, “This guy’s a fraud,” that there’s no car, so he takes six of the pre-production cars—numbers 27-32—and he rents out Indianapolis when it was still the Brickyard, literally bricks, and he just runs them for a week on the loop. This was one of the cars that they ran, number 31. it was an endurance test to show that, “Hey, you guys are telling me that I don’t have a real car, that my car doesn’t go in reverse, well here we’re doing 100 miles per hour for a full week with six Tuckers.”
TG: That’s certainly a strong response to the criticism. Let’s get back to this specific car though.
EB: In 1950, the company assets were in full liquidation mode and they had a liquidation sale. Whatever assets and cars were completed that weren’t already sold out to a dealer were included in the sale. So Preston Tucker buys this car to use as the family vehicle.
There’s a piece in the movie that was made about the Tucker story, about his wife who had a Waltz Blue-colored dress—they matched the dress to the color of the car, so this became the family color.
95% of the film was true, and 5% of it was Hollywood embellishment. He actually bought two cars at his own auction: number 29 and number 31. 29 was a silver car that he sold pretty quickly, but this car he kept. This was the family car. Then he dies of lung cancer in 1956 though, and the car is still with the family in Ypsilanti, Michigan. After he dies, it just basically sits in their barn.
It sat in there until around 1960, when one of the press people that worked for the corporation said, “We should write a book about what happened, an autobiography of Preston Tucker, now that he’s passed away. We’ve got to tell share the legacy, tell the story.”
So his wife and this press guy, Charles Pearson, they wrote this book called, The Indomitable Tin Goose: The True Story Of Preston Tucker And His Car. Charles Pearson had a family friend who loved the story and wanted the car, so by ’62, ’63, the family really needed money, and Tucker’s widow says, “All right, I’ll sell the car.”
So they sell the car to this guy, Jay Busker, out of Elk Point, South Dakota. He keeps it an enshrines it—it was his pride and joy for 50 years—and then after he passed away, his son and daughter were at retirement age themselves, and they wanted to pass along the car to somebody that was going to do what their dad did: build a history around it, keep the car, preserve the car for posterity.
He actually is really interesting, the guy built a room kind of like this, but then the doors and the windows were drywalled over, so you couldn’t get the car in or out. It was supposed to enshrined so that no-one could steal the car, no-one could move the car, no-one could see the car; it was basically a room with no doors and no windows.
So in comes me though. I was in the market for a Tucker for many years, and they were always getting away from me. At auctions I’d say, “250,” and the car would go for five. I’d say, “Five,” it’d go for 750, I’d say, “750,” it’d go for a million. So at that point I thought, “Well, at a million, I’m priced out of the market, and who knows what the next one goes for,” so I wrote the caretakers of this car a letter.
There’s only about eight or ten Tuckers in private hands, with the rest being with museums, and my letter just happened to hit the right date, the right time for the Busker family. I flew out to South Dakota, saw the car, they interviewed me and liked what I had to say, and voila, I bought the car in 2009.
TG: And how much of the memorabilia and ephemera is from that same collection?
EB: So when Jay Busker went up to purchase the car from Vera Tucker, she basically said, “Oh, take whatever you want.” Busker had his Studebaker (he owned a Studebaker dealer) and a trailer, and he was able to get the crate motor, that extra hood, the book, and a bunch of documents. So in this room I’d probably say 60% of this stuff actually moved with the car. The rest of it, there’s a wonderful collection of a dealer in Latrobe, Pennsylvania that was a franchisee, a Tucker dealer franchisee, and his whole collection, everything that he got for his two grand deposit on his dealership, I bought that from an estate sale, and it’s all a complete kit of what you would have really gotten as a dealer.
Other pieces came from random collections over the years—I’ve been collecting Tucker stuff for a couple of decades now.
TG: I have to know: what’s it like to drive?
EB: It’s the driving experience of an old car, but unique too. They were very rear-heavy from the motor’s weight, so they’re very light in the nose and the steering’s very light. They have finicky transmissions, because like I was telling you, he didn’t have enough time, he needed a few more months to iron out a couple of the details of the car. So I like to tell people that these, all 50 cars are really pre-production prototypes, and each car was hand-built and is a little different.
So to drive the car, it’s a little fussy, it’s a little antiquated. They were very torquey cars to boot. The one thing I will say about driving the car is, is that you’ve likely never heard a car with a helicopter motor before, and it just doesn’t sound … Even at idle, it doesn’t sound like any other car, because it’s not really a car engine, it’s an aircraft motor. So it has this different sound to it, and you just can’t place it when you get in the car. You’re just like, “Wow, that’s a really interesting noise coming from this thing.”
TG: That’s certainly unique. So how big is this helicopter-turned-car engine?
EB: 335 cubic inches. It’s a Boxer 6 with 166 horsepower, but tons and tons of low-end torque. I mean it was designed to lift tons of metal straight up off the ground.
TG: Good point. How many miles are on the car currently?
EB: The odometer says 16,000. How accurate is that? Well I know it doesn’t have a lot of mileage, so it’s probably a believable number. Like I said, Preston died in ’56, and Vera didn’t drive the car after that, and the next owners rarely drove the car either. It sat in that shrine for quite a while.
TG: Incredible. Given that low and likely number, how often do you drive it?
EB: Yeah, so when I first got it, it had been sitting for many years—remember, it was enshrined in this room that you couldn’t get it in or out. So when I first got it, we went through the whole car. The gas tank was rusted shut, he left it with gas in it… So we re-did the gas tank, we re-did the drums, we re-did the cooling system, and then I was able to drive it a bit.
I took it to the Rodeo Drive Concours at the request of Bruce Meyer, and I took it to the La Jolla Concours too. So it went out and about for a little bit, but then the motor was just … It had never been rebuilt properly, it was blowing out oil everywhere, so I had one of the foremost guys in Tucker motors rebuild it, and now the original motor is fresh, the cooling system’s fresh, and the only thing we’ve got to work out is the kinks in the transmission.
I don’t drive it as much as I should, but I also feel like it’s such a irreplaceable piece of automotive history, and that if anything ever happened to the car on the road it would be devastating. I feel like it’s not worth it to drive it too often for this reason.
And also when you think about showing it, as you look around this room, you see the story, you see from this first case of the development of the car, and early history of the car, all the way through the dealers, all the way through to the movie, it kind of moves around in a history of the corporation. I feel like it’s better to have people come here and see the car in a proper context if they’re truly interested in it, to really absorb the story versus just having it out at a Cars and Coffee, or even a Concours where it’s in a line of many cars. There’s a story behind this car, and I think it needs to be experienced fully.
TG: Valid points. Going back to the design of the car for a moment, how much of this car would you say was influenced by Tatra?
EB: You know, that’s a good question. The only person that’s ever actually asked me that question was Jay Leno, because Jay, when he came in and was doing some things with the Tucker, he changed the subject, he said, “You know, I was always more interested in the Tatra.”
TG: Well, Tatra is such an interesting company as well, because I don’t think that their marketing scheme was safety-based necessarily, but a lot of the same technology went into the product. Very quirky design, way ahead of its time in many ways too.
EB: The size is similar as well. Tatras are big, and the Tucker is huge. When I built this gallery for the car, I thought, “Oh, this is a big room, we’re going to have plenty of space,” and then you get it in here and it’s like, “Wait, where did the room go?”