Monday, October 13, 2014

1948 Tucker: Intriguing Styling, But Not Really Ahead of its Time

Intriguing indeed.  That was the design of the 1948 Tucker automobile, 51 of which are said to have been built and nearly all of which still exist.

The history of the Tucker automobile is complicated in itself and further muddled by various theories regarding conspiracies regarding why the company failed.  Two links providing background are here and here.  If you are interested in how the Tucker was styled, find a copy of industrial designer Philip Egan's book which focuses on that part of the tale.

Eagan was a junior employee of J. Gordon Lippincott's New York design firm that was hired for two months in the spring of 1947 on a crash-project basis to provide alternatives to the design that veteran stylist Alex Tremulis was working on.  Other Lippincott team members were Read Viemeister (consultant), Budd Steinhilber, Tucker Madawick and Hal Bergstrom, their manager.  Tremulis, in turn, had been hired to come up with a practical design in the wake of General Motors veteran George Lawson's radical Tucker Torpedo version of 1946.

The basic Tremulis design was good -- a taut greenhouse with crisp fenestration offset by judicious curving on the sides and a unique front fender profile -- all helped by the long (128 inch, 325 cm) wheelbase.  When Tremulis began working out the basic body shape there was uncertainty regarding the placement of the motor, but soon it was decided to place it at the rear.  In the mid-1940s, rear-engines were considered by many as the wave of the future, which is perhaps why Preston Tucker opted for it.  Twenty further years of experience demonstrated that such placement is usually a bad idea, but the main problem this had for the Tucker was that the engineering work helped delay the car's launch.  The choice of engine was an even greater problem in that regard, but that was a side-issue so far as styling is concerned.

The Lippincott team thought that the Tremulis body design was good, and so spent their two months focusing mostly on front and rear details.  They also used half of their full-size clay styling model to propose a design for a future Tucker '50 replacement for the Tucker '48.  As it happened, Preston Tucker preferred the Lippincott front and rear details to those on the Tremulis model.  Later in 1947 Egan was hired by Tucker to work on interior styling.

Conspiracy theories aside, I think that Tucker failed for the following reasons: (1) the project was under-capitalized; (2) too many innovations were attempted, though innovation was Tucker's prime marketing strategy; and (3) development time had to be short due to the financial situation, and it was too short to deal with the car's innovative features.


Early Tucker advertising - ca. 1946
This is the initial design, by George Lawson.  Many futuristic features, but not much practicality.  The wraparound windshield and wrap-over side windows probably could not have been mass-produced at that time.  Plus, the side windows could not be rolled down -- so how could one pay tolls when driving the Pennsylvania Turnpike?  (The central seating position of the driver would have made performing that small task even less easy.)  The front wheels seem to be housed in enclosed versions of cycle fenders that pivot when the wheels turn.  About the only feature retained for production Tuckers was the central headlamp that also pivoted with the front wheels.  The grille theme persisted for much of the development period on the Alex Tremulis version.

Tucker '48 advertising card
The car shown is probably an early one.  The background seems to be part of the factory interior.

Preston Tucker, car, at Chicago factory - publicity photo
This car doesn't have the crossed grille bars.  Nor is the bumper chromed, a defect on the prototype car.

1948 Tucker - auction photo
Despite Preston Tucker's concern for passenger safety, the rear doors are hinged at the rear -- so-called "suicide doors."  However, other 1948 vintage cars such as Chryslers had that same feature.

Close-up view of front - RM Auctions photo
The paint color on this excellent specimen is not original, but it does look good.

Three-view set - RM Auctions photos

In the title of this post I claim that Tucker styling wasn't all that advanced.  In the first place, it was a "fastback" design -- popular at the time, but abandoned by other can makers in the early 1950s.  The front windshield was a two-piece, flat-glass affair when other cars were about to feature one-piece curved-glass windshields.  Tucker opted for its design because it was intended that windshield sections would pop out if struck by the head of a driver or passenger during a collision.  A third feature that was becoming obsolescent was the separate fenders, well-styled though they were. The industry trend was to flow-through fenders that had appeared on 1947 Studebakers, Kaisers and Frazers, and then showed up on 1948 Hudsons, Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs.  This problem was recognized by the Lippincott team, and their proposed Tucker '50 did feature a flow-through fender treatment.

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