Joe Ida was a Tucker dealer for a total of one day in the late 1940s. He bought the dealership in Yonkers, New York, ready to sell the car that would set a new standard for driving in America. But before the tires of the Tucker 48 could even get close to the showroom floor, the company was in legal and financial ruin.
Joe’s Tucker dealership didn’t work out, but his son Bob and grandson Rob got into the auto game, running a business building custom cars. Now, Bob and Rob are taking a break from the Cadillacs and Oldsmobiles that are their usual fare, and building a Tucker from scratch in their Morganville, New Jersey shop. Not a Tucker 48 like the few sold in the postwar years—that would’ve been easy, and they’ve already done it. No, the two are making a full-scale version of the concept that evolved into the 48. That means starting from nothing more than a 1/4 scale model and a handful of drawings.
“We’re dealing with something that’s never been made, just starting from ideas and renderings,” says Rob.
If their final product is anything like the Torpedo was meant to be, it will be one funky car. The concept had a rear-mounted engine and just one front seat, plus two in the back. Bulbous fenders cover all four wheels, giving the 60-year-old design a futuristic look even today. It was the vision that led to the creation of the Tucker 48, perhaps the American auto industry’s most famous failure.
After the Allies had taken Europe back from the Nazis, Preston Tucker decided to found a company that would offer a futuristic vehicle, at a time when most brands were producing warmed-over pre-war models. Tucker secured the largest manufacturing plant in the US, a Chicago factory previously used to build B-29 bombers, and investors showed up. Folks like Joe Ida signed on to be dealers.
The Tucker 48 was a tech-heavy vehicle of tomorrow with features like a center headlight that turned with the front wheels, disc brakes, a laminate windshield designed to pop out in a crash, and a perimeter frame with an integrated roll-bar. There was also a crash compartment: If, as a passenger, you saw an imminent collision, you could shelter yourself on the floor below and be protected from impact. Okay, so not every idea was a winner.
The Idas had the original model of the Tucker Torpedo 3-D scanned to give them a working model for construction. Rob Ida
Things looked good until steel shortages impeded production, and then the government came in. The Securities and Exchange Commission accused Preston Tucker and his executives of building a company to cheat investors, selling accessories and dealer franchises and for a car that didn’t yet exist. Tucker won the case in 1950, but the young brand’s reputation was mortally wounded by the investigation. Preston Tucker died six years later, and conspiracy theories of the Big Three–Ford, GM, and Chrysler—encouraging the government to squash its competition exist to this day. Only 51 Tucker 48s were built, all by hand, and these days they sell for millions when they go up for auction.
Today, Bob and his son Rob Ida, not content to build another 48, are in the process of a bigger challenge. They’re making the Tucker Torpedo, the concept predecessor to the 48, a car that only exists in drawings and a 1/4-scale model found ten years ago in a barn belonging to the car’s original designer, George Lawson.
Sean Tucker, an automotive engineer working at Mack Truck in Pennsylvania and Preston’s great-grandson, is lending a hand to design the steering wheel assembly. The team is following the original guidelines, all the way down to the engine. The original design called for an air-cooled motor, so the team is planning to use a late-90s Porsche 6-cylinder, “the last era of the air-cooled Porsches,” Rob says.
Rob and his father Bob brought in some new technology to help out. Using a 3-D scan of the 1/4-scale model of the the exterior, they CNC-machined wood components that have been assembled into the shape of a full-size Torpedo. That wooden model lets them hammer the metal panels into the proper shapes. “We shape each piece of metal using old-world techniques,” Rob says. “English wheel and hammers.”
While they assemble the body, finding the innards will involve the real hard work. “The challenge is engineering something that can function, but still look the way [the designer] said it would,” Rob says.
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