In 1947 Alex Tremulis designed a car for Preston Tucker. Promoted as the first utterly new car since the Model T, the Tucker fired America's imagination until the business collapsed three years later.
The Tucker became folklore--and the centerpiece of a new Francis Ford Coppola film. Eventually, the Automotive Hall of Fame honored Tremulis for his work on the Tucker and his pioneering experiments with streamlining. But the 74-year-old Venturan recalls other, more soul-satisfying honors. "I am the only man in the whole world who has destroyed a Duesenberg," Tremulis says, lighting a thin brown cigarette. "Not only destroyed it--I vaporized it."
On an autumn Sunday in 1935, Tremulis was test-driving a Duesenberg town car, one of the sumptuous vehicles of its day, through rural Indiana. His brakes washed out when he hit 95 m.p.h., and he was cruising even faster when a limousine ahead of him swerved and spun on a road full of churchgoers.
Unable to stop, he whipped the car into a ditch. The Duesenberg, its headlights crashing through the windshield, cartwheeled three times through 100 feet of corn.
Lying in the debris, picking shards of glass from his arms and pockets, Tremulis heard the swing ballad "Sweet and Slow" come over on the radio.
"And I'm sitting there, and I'm saying, 'Well, I'm dead now.' "
When a crowd begin to gather around the wreck, Tremulis crawled out, asked for a cigarette and called an engineer at Duesenberg's Chicago offices to tell him that the test drive was running behind schedule.
Only later did Tremulis discover that he'd broken three vertebrae in his neck.
"I operate on the basis that the meek shall inherit nothing," he says.
The son of Greek immigrants, Tremulis first learned about aerodynamics from a World War I biplane that hung in a science room at Roosevelt High School in Chicago. Though he did not go to college, he was designing Duesenbergs and Cords in his early 20s.
Tremulis read one of Tucker's preproduction ads in 1946 and decided to call up the entrepreneur with a few suggestions. After 15 minutes of conversation, Tucker hired Tremulis as the infant company's chief designer.
Tremulis set out to craft the Tucker car, a rear-engine sedan that could seat six passengers. He included a rear grille to make it "the coolest-running engine in the world," disc brakes and the Cyclops Eye--a third headlight in the middle of the hood.
And he made sure it could zip from a standstill to 60 m.p.h. in 10 seconds. Over the years, automotive writers lavishly praised it.
In the 1960 book "The Indomitable Tin Goose," Charles T. Pearson wrote: "Only one new automobile designed for mass production has, by the record, fulfilled its promise of being the car of tomorrow, and that is the Tucker 48."
"Tucker: A Man and His Dream," a movie to be released Friday, documents the rise and fall of Tucker's plan to take on the motor industry with the car Tremulis invented. Directed by Coppola and produced by George Lucas--each of whom owns two of the 49 remaining Tucker cars--the film stars Jeff Bridges as Tucker and the young Greek-American actor Elias Koteas as Tremulis.
But Tremulis feels a little irreverent about the $24-million film. When he met a clean-shaven Koteas on the first day of filming, he walked up to the actor, shook his hand, and stuck a piece of black tape under the actor's nose to make a mustache.
Tremulis met Coppola 15 years ago, when the acclaimed director asked him to help restore a Tucker.
"Coppola doesn't really understand automobiles, I think," Tremulis says. "He's a difficult man. He's got 5,000 bottles of wine or whatever--la-di-da. He plays music at night--la-di-da."
But he has fond memories of Tucker, a man who made a bookshelf altar from twin pictures of Jesus Christ and a Porsche. Tremulis calls him "a good boss," despite Tucker's fierce demands.
"One minute he wanted the car built in 60 days, then he wanted it back to normal," Tremulis says. "And it had to be the safest car in the world. That's how he wanted it, and how I wanted it."
Tucker relied on Tremulis at embarrassing moments in the company's quick ascent.
When the Cyclops Eye--judged to be unsafe because it turned with the steering wheel--became illegal in 14 states, Tremulis fashioned a Tucker family crest to adorn a headlight cap.
And when, at a demonstration in front of 150 people, a Tucker began to overheat, Tremulis rushed in to discover that the rear-engine fan had been screwed in backwards.
Because of similar gaffes, causing similar delays, the pressure to turn out the first and only 51 Tuckers forced factory workers into 110-hour weeks.
Tremulis remembers calling his wife, Chrissie, every Sunday night during that crunch and telling her to dress up for a fancy dinner. Each time, she would wait on oil-soaked benches in the factory until Tremulis canceled the date and asked her to order out for sandwiches.
In March of 1948, when the cars finally hit the market, 5,000 spectators came to the Tucker debut in Chicago. Part of the attraction was the now-infamous Tucker himself, who since 1947 had been under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly deceptive promotional practices.
After his dazzling debut, Tucker turned around to face 31 counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and illegal stock procedures. Though a jury cleared him of all charges in 1950, the sour publicity left his company in shambles.
"It was Custer's last stand," Tremulis says. "We were dying. We just cut our salaries and kept the legend alive."
Six years later, Tucker died of lung cancer.
Drama of Dreams
Despite rumors that bigwigs from the auto establishment conspired to destroy Tucker, Tremulis believes the failure lay in mismanagement and impractical dreams. Tucker started with $26 million, whereas Ford played with a bankroll 10 times larger.
"I really saw very little professional jealousy take place," Tremulis says. "We had something--the most advanced automobile. We didn't have to worry about GM and Chrysler."
Unable to build the Tucker Talisman, his magnum opus, Tremulis spent the years after the collapse working for a variety of companies and moved to Ventura in 1966 to design rocket-shaped, two-wheeled race cars for Gyro Dynamics in Northridge.
He left a job at Subaru three years ago, when a degenerative eye disease took away 90% of his vision, but he still experiments with streamlined polyurethane models in a small room he calls "the devil's workshop."
There he grinds out the blueprints for aerodynamically flawless cars that may be built--or may not be built--into experimental racers. There, Tremulis designed a three-wheeled, wind-contoured machine called the Tri-axiom. There he invented the Voisin, which banks like a speedboat on sharp turns, and the Gyronaut, "the fastest hunk of ballistic missilery you're ever going to see."
The workshop is full of model drag-racers with wings in fiendish gold, baby Continentals, stock cars with giant propellers and the Majestic, a sleek motor home that Tremulis sketched for Subaru 15 years ago.
"I built the world's fastest motor home," he says.
Tremulis used to chop up Thunderbirds and convert them into speed demons, but now he owns an 8-year-old Ford Fiesta. Because of his eye problems, he has to keep off the road--a restriction that Tremulis considers even more damaging than his three strokes.
"I can't drive an automobile anymore," says Tremulis, who has rarely allowed the prospect of danger to get in the way of driving fast. "That's what's killing me."
In 1982, he was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame and, in 1983, was given life membership in the Classic Car Club of America.
"It took me years to get out of the Hall of Shame," Tremulis says with a laugh, "but I finally made it. I kept going.
"I was a little wilder than everybody else."