WAS he a fraud doomed to failure by his own greed, or a chimeric genius whose quixotic quest was crushed by the Big Three automakers? After 40 years, the debate over Preston Thomas Tucker continues to rage, and it's likely to be fanned by today's debut of Francis Ford Coppola's ``Tucker: The Man and His Dream.''
With the end of World War II, American industry rushed to revive production of consumer goods. The Big Three and several smaller American carmakers found a new face vying for attention: Preston Tucker was promising to introduce a passenger car boasting a long list of safety and engineering advances that he said Detroit carmakers either couldn't or wouldn't deliver.
Tucker's dream captured the imagination of the nation, but it soon turned into a nightmare, threatening him with jail and financial ruin.
Tucker's involvement with the auto industry dates back to the 1920s. In his early years, he sold Dodges, ran a Packard dealership, and served as a regional manager at Pierce-Arrow.
``Tucker was an autoholic,'' recalls Alex Tremulis, who signed on to help design the Tucker Torpedo the day after Christmas 1946.
A racing enthusiast, in 1935, at the age of 32, Tucker and a partner produced four unique front-drive racing cars that ran in, but failed to complete, the Indianapolis 500.
Despite his fascination with racing, Tucker's real interest was in passenger cars. With a small cadre of auto executives lured away from the other carmakers, Tucker won the lease on what was then the world's largest manufacturing facility, the government-owned airplane engine plant in Chicago that had been operated by Dodge during the war.
Mr. Tremulis and a small band of engineers and stylists went to work on the car itself, designing in then unheard-of features such as disc brakes and independent suspension. The Torpedo's engine was made of lightweight aluminum, generating 166 horsepower, yet it weighed less than 400 pounds. There were even such safety features as a padded dash and a breakaway windshield, meant to reduce head injuries.
More amazing, however, was the fact that Tucker and his understaffed company was accomplishing this on a budget of barely $20 million, Tremulis notes: ``At that time, the Ford Motor Company required $300 million to tool the 1949 Ford.''
But while design work continued, the other pieces of the puzzle soon began to fall apart. Federal officials briefly challenged Tucker's lease on the Chicago plant.
The one thing friends and foes alike agree on is that Tucker was a man with a P.T. Barnum-like gift for self-promotion. He put that skill to work attempting to raise $20 million through a stock offering, but that effort soon ran into serious trouble.
Even within his own ranks, Tucker came under fire. In 1947, the company's chairman quit, accusing Tucker of using ``fast sell'' tactics to hype his stock. Such questions led 18 states to outlaw the stock offering.
Several figures began to play a prominent role in Tucker's demise, among them columnist Drew Pearson, who reported that Tucker was under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission for possible stock fraud. After that report in 1948, public confidence evaporated, along with the money Tucker was hoping to raise.
David Crippen, head of the automotive history department at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., recalls that another player was Michigan Sen. Homer Ferguson, who in Coppola's movie is portrayed as Tucker's major adversary.
``It seems to me that the government, in the form of Ferguson, did begin to persecute Tucker,'' Mr. Crippen suggests. And to many, Ferguson, ``who was once called the senator from General Motors,'' was doing the bidding of the Big Three.
Others see things differently. They include Len Westrate, who was an automotive journalist in the late 1940s and later worked in public relations at General Motors: ``I was skeptical from the beginning. I never saw any evidence the Big Three were out to get this guy. All they did was let him bring himself down.''
Despite the financial problems, the factory began turning out Torpedoes in 1948, albeit at a snail's pace.
Charged with stock fraud
For his part, Tremulis believes the Big Three ``didn't have anything to do with'' the Tucker company's demise, ``though they did play some dirty tricks.'' Whatever was behind Tucker's financial troubles, the Torpedo's future was sealed when Tucker and seven other company officials were indicted on charges of stock fraud. According to the government, they misspent millions in a scam that was never intended to yield a production automobile.
The trial began in 1949, and became the topic of news stories across the nation. In 1950, Tucker was acquitted. Three years later, in an article he wrote for Cars magazine, Tucker wrote: ``The truth is that of the 31 charges in the four-month trial that resulted in my complete vindication, there was only one charge omitted. To that charge I plead guilty: My car was too good.''
Of the 49 Tucker Torpedoes that survive, director Coppola owns two. Another is in the Henry Ford Museum collection.
Whoever was right or wrong, says Crippen, the Torpedo is Preston Tucker's legacy. And ``it is an amazing car, well ahead of its time.''