Hidden History - 1948 Tucker 48 Sedan "Torpedo" NASCAR

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the car industry was struggling to get back onto its feet. For the biggest players in the American auto market, the sudden shift from weapons manufacture back to cars meant they had no choice but the bring out pre-war designs.

Re-tooling their factories was too much work in too little time, so Ford, Chrysler and General Motors all restarted production on models introduced in 1941. With the market eventually having been reset, it opened the doors for smaller, more adaptable firms to seize their share. Studebaker was one of the first to present a fresh design in 1947, but they weren't the only ones looking to take on the Big Three.

Preston Tucker had a grand vision of what automobiles were going to look like.

Another challenge came from automotive entrepreneur Preston Tucker. A gearhead from an early age, Tucker had been involved with the business his whole working life. He started restoring and selling cars at 16, before working as a salesman for Ford, Stutz, Chrysler, Pierce Arrow and Dodge.

His interest in the Indianapolis 500 caused him to become close friends with legendary engineer Harry Miller, who's cars and engines had won the legendary event ten times at that point. In 1935, the two men started working together, producing further racecars until Miller's death in 1943.

The 1935 Miller-Ford Indycar designed by Harry Miller and Preston Tucker.

In the meantime, Tucker had built a high-speed armored car fitted with a unique gun turret with the intention to sell it to the Dutch army. However, Holland was invaded by the Germans before production could be realized, and the US army found the vehicle's 100 mile an hour (161 kph) top speed to be completely ludicrous for an armored fighting vehicle. The design was never used.

Shortly after the armored car was cancelled, Preston Tucker thrust himself into the aviation industry and drew up plans for a small single seat fighter. This plane, the XP-57, drew interest from the United States Army Air Force for its high top speed, courtesy of the Miller-inspired straight eight engine mounted behind the pilot. Progress on the design was slow however, allowing the USAAF to let the contract expire in favor of larger aircraft.

Initial patent drawing for the Tucker Torpedo.

A few unsuccessful years in aviation later, Tucker was ready for yet another challenge. Already in 1944, he envisioned starting his very own car company. However, his car would be far from conventional.

His initial brief for the Torpedo broke with all tradition by featuring an overhead valve, fuel-injected hemi flat-six engine mounted in the rear, disc brakes, a direct drive torque converter transmission, magnesium wheels, tubeless tires, a directional third headlight and various safety features like a padded dashboard, recessed steering column, roll-bar, and shatter-proof safety glass.

The Tucker chassis.

Budget restrictions and engineering challenges quickly whittled down the design to more basic elements. The enormous 9.65L engine proved to be a total disaster, and the innovative direct drive transmission was unable to engage in reverse.

A 5.5L flat-6 sourced from aircraft powerplant manufacturer Air Cooled Motors was used as a replacement, but Tucker's insistence on water-cooling meant it had to be completely redesigned. Similarly, the odd direct drive transmission was supplanted by a transaxle taken from the front wheel drive Cord 812, which Tucker employees had scavenged for at local junkyards.

The Franklin O-335 engine.

Disc brakes, magnesium wheels, fuel injection and tubeless tires were also dropped in the prototype stage. The car's problems weren't over quite yet, as the strange rubber block suspension Preston Tucker had carried over from his Indycar caused massive problems.

The system was unable to cope with the car's weight. Subsequent revisions incorporating torsion tubes were judged to be too stiff, causing the car to lift its wheels up under hard cornering, and caused the front wheels to toe in under had braking. A "sandwich" design was then tried, placing the rubber block between the wishbones, but the results were largely the same.

The many technical issues were eventually resolved to the point a small series of the cars could be produced. Initially the car was named "Torpedo", but Preston Tucker felt it would evoke memories of the horrors of WWII, so it was changed to the more mundane '48, reflecting the car's launch year.

Tucker took the first batch of '48 Sedans on a promotion tour around the country, during which they caused quite a stir. In a bid to fund his budding business, he started selling dealerships to private businessmen, who each received a single demo car.

Further publicity was gained when a couple of Tuckers were tested at high speed on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One of the cars suffered a blown tire and rolled three times at 95 miles per hour (153 kph), but the driver wasn't seriously hurt.

The '48's windshield had popped out as designed, and the integrated roll bar had kept the roof intact. With the tire replaced, the car resumed testing as normal. Preston Tucker's safety features seemed to have worked perfectly.

However, the positivity surrounding his company would quickly turn sour. Through the sale of speculative stock options and his innovative financing scheme charging prospective customers for accessories on cars that had yet to be built, the company had become the bane of the United States Securities and Exchanges Commission.

The SEC was the US government's financial watchdog, created to protect the interests of private investors and to maintain a healthy financial market. In the wake of a scandal with rival small automaker Kaiser-Frazer, which had taken grant money for a car they never produced, Preston Tucker's practices were examined vigorously by SEC representatives.

The SEC investigation lead to indictments of Tucker executives, which eventually lead to lengthy and extremely damaging trial. The prosecution produced witnesses criticizing not only Tucker's questionable financial practices, but every single aspect of the business.

Taking advantage of the Tucker 48's rocky prototype stage, the SEC attempted to prove Tucker never intended to bring the car to market, suggesting it was just a scam to draw money from hapless investors.

Even though all charges were eventually dropped, the investigation had done its damage. The Tucker Car Corporation was painted in an extremely negative light, and the public fallout rendered the company unable to recover. With just 51 cars produced including the prototype, the firm went under in 1950.

Tucker chassis #1004 on the used car lot of Red Harris, Pittsburgh 1950.

Following the dissolution of the Tucker Car Company, the 50 production models were left to their own devices in Tucker dealerships around the country. One of these was a gray '48 Sedan sold to Pittsburgh Tucker Sales in June of 1948.

Due to the highly-publicized trial, its sale to local used car dealer Red Harris about a year later was immediately used by local newspaper Pittsburgh Press to provide color to their latest update on the case. Red Harris took advantage of the article by promoting the car with the sticker "Cost $5,000 to build, handmade new Tucker for sale."

Eventually, the car was sold again to 24-year old stock car racer Joe Merola from nearby Braddock, Pennsylvania. Merola's brother Anthony was the proprietor of a used car lot just a few blocks from Harris, and brought the car to Joe's attention. He had been racing a Ford in the previous NASCAR season, but was looking for something with a bit more get up and go.

The 166 horsepower, 504 Nm (372 lb ft) flat-6 enticed Merola to use the car as a NASCAR racer, since it was one of the most powerful available at the time. In those early days, modifications to the cars were minimal, and the "stock car" moniker still had relevance. Considering this, the Tucker stood a good chance of being competitive against the flathead Fords and six-cylinder Plymouths, Hudsons and Chevrolets.

Joe Merola with the Tucker, 1950.

Still on whitewall tires, Merola's Tucker arrived at Canfield Speedway, a half mile (800m) dirt oval on the fairgrounds in Canfield, Ohio. The car sported sponsorship from local auto dealer Joe Nagel Jr., and employed the #12 starting number to advertise the address of his business on 12 Charles Street in Pittsburgh. With its grey paint scheme otherwise intact, the '48 was entered into NASCAR Poor Man's 500, which was actually a 200 lap race.

The car comfortably qualified for the race, and Joe Merola prepared himself to take on the front-engined cars in direct competition. The rear weight bias of the Tucker would likely give it superior traction over its rivals on the loose oval track, but Merola would have to be on his toes to exploit this fact.

The Tucker drew a sizable crowd in the paddock.

The lack of weight over the front wheels could cause him to understeer off, while the pendulum effect of the heavy rear end could potentially spin him around and back him into the wall all the same. Sadly though, he never got the chance to explore the car's unique handling, as it snapped its right rear axle on the pace lap.

Joe Merola made a return with the car at Monroe County Fairgrounds in Rochester, New York. However, his entry wasn't for the race proper. Instead, he challenged the winner of the NASCAR race on the half mile oval to a one lap shootout, confident his car could beat the best of the best. Unfortunately, the result was predictable. The rear right axle obliterated itself before the lap was even over, sidelining the Sedan once again.

The stricken Tucker being towed after the one lap feature race, Rochester, New York.

The fragility of the axles traced back to the transmission problems encountered at the '48's inception, as the unit eventually used for production was unable to stomach the immense low down torque of the Franklin O-335 engine.

The strain of turning hard left under full power was too much for the outdated Cord transaxle, causing it to snap off at the right every attempt. Tired of the car's weak drivetrain, Joe Merola sold the car to Oldsmobile/GMC dealer Wayne Weaver of Clarion, Pennsylvania, who in turn passed it on to Raymond Burton of Fairfax, Virginia in 1963.

Chassis 1004 was resprayed in 1978.

After lying dormant for more than a decade, the Tucker was in bad shape. Burton attempted to get it running again, but the smoke from its tired engine discouraged him from trying any further.

Chassis 1004 would not get the attention it deserved until 1976, when Burton contacted restorer Bill Hamlin. He rebuilt the car from the ground up, including a full interior, and resprayed it from grey to a lovely maroon color. The restoration was wrapped up two years later.

Chassis 1004 was featured in this 1991 biopic.

A decade later, the car was used along with 19 of its siblings for the filming of "Tucker, The Man And His Dream", a 1988 biopic directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Jeff Bridges as Preston Tucker. Raymond Burton actually drove the car in the film, appearing at the head of the parade scene.

Following its big screen appearance, the car was loaned to toy car company Matchbox, who measured and photographed it as a reference for their upcoming model of the Tucker '48 Sedan.

Raymond Burton passed away in 1990, causing his son Victor to inherit the car. Victor proceeded to loan the car to NASCAR legend Richard Petty, who displayed it in his museum. Curiously, neither Victor Burton nor Petty had any idea the car was a former NASCAR competitor.

After a short stint at the museum, the Tucker made an unsuccessful auction appearance in Ann Arbor, Michigan, it was subsequently sold to Happy's Custom Auto Accessories of Las Vegas. The car didn't stay in the desert city for very long however, as it was bought by a very unlikely customer.

Chassis 1004 in the Toyota Automobile Museum.

Today, the ex-NASCAR Tucker '48 Sedan resides in Toyota's Automobile Museum in Nagakute, Japan. The car is presented as a regular Tucker, an automotive curiosity in its own right. However, there is no mention of the car's wild past as a rough and tumble stock car, allowing the maligned racer to hide in plain sight once more.

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