A Detroit motorcycle policeman during prohibition, a lifelong salesman and a motorhead since the first car he saw scared his grandfather's horses in 1906, Preston Tucker lived life at full speed.
One of his first jobs was as a delivery boy at Cadillac, which he reasoned he could do faster on roller skates. His heroes were drivers at Indianapolis, and designer Harry Miller became a close friend. In the 1930s, Tucker sold every major brand of American automobile — and he sold lots of them.
As handy as he was energetic, Tucker built a machine shop behind his house in Ypsilanti, Mich., and as
loomed, he designed and built a high-speed armored car with a power-operated gun turret. The army bought the turret, which was fitted to aircraft and PT-boats.
Tucker dreamed of building cars and, in 1946, he hired designer Alex Tremulis to design the Tucker automobile. Tremulis had designed the 1941 Chrysler Thunderbolt before being drafted into the
. There he designed a vertical take-off craft that would evolve into the space shuttle and a bomber 30 percent bigger than the B-29. After that, you'd think cars might be a let-down — unless the car was a Tucker.
Tucker needed a factory and in 1946, he set his sights on the 475-acre Dodge plant in Chicago, which had built B-29 engines. He approached the War Assets Administration, and Walter Reuther, head of the United Auto Workers union, weighed in on his behalf.
Tucker moved to Chicago and got away from Detroit, where his ambitions were viewed with alarm. He set out to raise $20 million through a stock offering to begin production of the Tucker. He raised $6 million through dealer franchises. Then, Wilson Wyatt, head of the National Housing Agency, announced he was awarding the Dodge plant to the Lustron Corp. instead. Tucker's franchise sales dried up and the stock offering seemed pointless without a plant.
Claims of back-door skulduggery riled a number of politicians in
who set out to get Tucker. Broadcaster
weighed in with bribery accusations against Tucker and the stock dropped from $5 to $3. Reuther pointed out that no Tucker plant meant no jobs for UAW workers and the decision was left to
. Truman went on vacation without making a decision and Tucker kept his plant.
But on May 28, 1948, the Securities and Exchange Commission began a secret investigation into whether Tucker really meant to build a car, or just line his pockets. The story was leaked to Pearson and the company stock plunged again. On June 10, 1949, as workers struggled to build the first 50 cars, Tucker was charged with fraud. He and seven associates were indicted on 31 counts, including fraud, conspiracy and violations of SEC regulations.