By JEFF DAY
For the Sunday Times Newspapers
When automotive entrepreneur Preston Tucker died in 1956 at the age of 53, the Mellus Newspapers described the former Lincoln Park resident in the obituary as, “one-time devil-may-care motorcycle patrolman on the Lincoln Park police force, whose meteoric career in the automotive world made him one of the industry’s most controversial and spectacular figures.”
Nearly 30 years later, the same paper provided substantial coverage to the release of the film “Tucker, The Man and His Dream,” starring Jeff Bridges in the title role. The local premier of the film, held on Aug. 12, 1988, was announced as a benefit for the Downriver Council for the Arts and took place at the Lincoln Park Theater 8 with 450 people in attendance including many members of Tucker’s family.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the debut of Tucker’s car of tomorrow, the Tucker ’48 or Tucker Torpedo, which was first unveiled to the media, to car dealers, and to the world on June 19, 1947.
In the spirit of celebration of that event and to commemorate Tucker’s many accomplishments and his pioneering automobile, the Lincoln Park Historical Society will present the program “Preston Tucker and the Tucker ‘48” at 6 p.m. May 18 at the Historical Society’s Annual Dinner, held at Lincoln Park High School, 1701 Champaign.
The cost of the dinner is $20 for Historical Society members and $25 for non-members. Reservations are required and should be made by May 15. Reservations and information are available by calling 313-386-3137.
The evening program will be led by author Steve Lehto whose book “Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of Tomorrow” was recently published to wide acclaim, with the book having been named a Michigan Notable Book for 2017 by the Library of Michigan. Lehto is an attorney and historian who practices and teaches law in the Detroit area.
Copies of Lehto’s book will be available for sale ($24) and signing that evening.
Joining Lehto is John Tucker Jr. of Ann Arbor, the grandson of Preston Tucker, who was born in the Ypsilanti home of his grandparents in 1953. John Tucker serves on the boards of the Tucker Automobile Club of America and the Ypsilanti Automobile Heritage Museum, where he volunteers considerable time to both, and continues to promote and protect the Tucker legacy.
Also taking part is T.A.C.A. Technical Director and director of the Tucker Club archives, Mark Lieberman, who has owned four Tuckers and continues to restore and consult on many Tucker restorations, including manufacturing new parts for the cars and rebuilding Tucker engines.
Lincoln Park Preservation Alliance president Leslie Lynch-Wilson will open the evening speaking on the Tucker family’s early Lincoln Park connections.
Tucker’s Lincoln Park roots were substantial. His mother, Lucille Preston Tucker, a widow before she was 30, moved her young family from Capac, where Preston was born, to the Detroit area seeking work as school teacher. Still a young teen, Tucker worked as office boy for Cadillac Motors and attended Cass Technical High School, later working on the line at the Ford plant.
By 1920 the family had settled in the new village of Lincoln Park, where, now remarried, Lucille Longprey found work in the local school district, first teaching at Goodell and Strowig schools (both now long gone) and later on the staff of the new Lafayette School.
Tucker joined the Lincoln Park police force, mostly lured by its high-powered squad cars and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Cars and especially their racing capabilities were of great interest to him. Legendary tales are still shared about Tucker’s work as a Lincoln Park patrolman during the days of Prohibition in the 1920s.
One anecdote is particularly telling of Tucker as the whiz at mechanics and his embrace of innovation. One winter night during his early days on the force he was assigned a new police touring car.
The heaterless vehicle was too cold for Tucker, so, borrowing an acetylene torch from the public works department, he cut a hole through the firewall under the dash, permitting heat from the motor to enter the car — and also leading to his demotion to walking the beat.
Tucker’s interest in auto racing took him to many circuit stops, primarily Indianapolis where he rubbed shoulders with Henry Ford and other high profile auto men, most influentially with Harry Miller, the famous race car engineer.
Miller and Tucker became good friends and business partners, and worked together in building a number of impressive ground-breaking race cars. Miller would continue to provide mentorship and guidance to Tucker as he became more and more interested in building his own cars.
The Tuckers lived in homes on Garfield, Warwick, and Fort Park during their years in Lincoln Park. In 1923, Tucker married Vera Fuqua and started their family in Lincoln Park, eventually moving to Memphis, Buffalo, and Indianapolis with progressively better sales jobs in the auto industry.
Tucker and family were back in Lincoln Park in 1933 when he made an unsuccessful bid for mayor, at the same time working as a transportation director for Mundus Brewery in Detroit after Prohibition was repealed that year. The family would finally settle in Ypsilanti by 1939.
Tucker’s career path kept him involved in the automobile world, from his early stint working at the Ford factory to later positions in sales for Stutz, Studebaker, Dodge, Pierce Arrow and Packard. But it was his keen interest in racing and his exposure to the racing circuit that presented him with opportunities to meet up with men like Miller, which led Tucker into the development of race cars and eventually his “dream car.”
When the United State entered World War II in 1941, Tucker already had been putting together plans for a combat car and an electric-powered gun turret. Though neither of his inventions were utilized by the military, Tucker was undaunted, a sign of his ever-present optimism, which, combined with an unrelenting energy and innovative spirit, made him into one of the most remarkable automobile men of the 20th century.
By 1945, Tucker had crafted plans that shaped the basis of his “revolutionary” dream car. To create the prototype of a workable car, he hired auto designer Alex Tremulis, who had a reputation for taking chances and ignoring convention.
Tremulis was tasked with making Tucker’s dreams practical, incorporating all of Tucker’s ideas in his design. The result, with some practical modifications by Tremulis, was the “Tucker Torpedo,” or “Tucker ’48.”
In addition to its streamlined design, the car was technically advanced for the 1940s, featuring an air-cooled rear-mounted engine, disc brakes, a distinctive center “cyclops” headlight that turned with the car’s wheels, a padded dash board, break-away windshield, and other innovations and safety features which would later become standard in the industry.
Following the historical society’s annual dinner, another opportunity to learn more about Tucker and his Torpedo, about the 51 cars that were manufactured by the Tucker Corp. at its plant in Chicago, and the seemingly endless difficulties that Tucker and his company encountered in their venture, will be offered to the public with the exhibit “Preston Tucker and His Dream Car” which opens at the Lincoln Park Historical Museum this summer.
The exhibit, produced in collaboration with the Tucker Automobile Club of America and the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum, will open with a public reception June 19 – the 70th anniversary to the day of the Tucker’s unveiling – and will run through Sept. 30.
For more information, contact the Lincoln Park Historical Museum, 1335 Southfield Road, Lincoln Park, at 313-386-3137 or [email protected].
(Jeff Day is curator of the Lincoln Park Historical Museum.)