Tucker Movie: Facts vs Fiction

Tucker Movie Scene-by-Scene Facts

“This article was written by TACA member Larry Clark. Larry spent many years researching Preston Tucker and The Tucker Corporation. This article is just one of a series of articles he wrote for Tucker Topics, the newsletter of TACA. Larry’s scene-by-scene comments are an unbiased aide for anyone who wants to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the movie, “TUCKER: The Man and His Dream.”

TUCKER: The Man and His Dream

A Look Behind The Scenes

By Larry Clark, TACA #41

The question I am most often asked after my many speeches on Preston Tucker is how accurate is the movie, “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.” From my years of research, I believe the basic theme of the movie is quite accurate: Preston Tucker did fully intend to build his car of tomorrow. The many sub-themes of the movie, for the most part, are rooted in fact. The movie’s significance compresses time and often takes artistic license with facts in order to more effectively present the story and entertain the movie audience. However, I continue to give Francis Ford Coppola’s movie two thumbs up as a classic American entrepreneurship story. Grab your popcorn. I will use PT to refer to Preston Tucker.

The movie introduction—

  • Preston Tucker (PT) was a car nut. He was better known within the automobile industry than the movie shows.
  • The race car is one of ten Miller/Tucker cars built for Ford Motor Company for the 1935 Indy 500 race.
  • The prototype combat car went 120 mph. Neither the combat car nor this turret was used by the military.
  • Ypsilanti Machine & Tool Co. was owned by PT’s mother. It was located behind her home.
  • PT supposedly once did make a car trade that involved a dog.
  • The drawing of the two-door car is an accurate early drawing.
  • PT’s goal was to create and build the “Car of Tomorrow.”

First visit by Abe Karatz—

  • Abe was an early promoter of the company. He stayed loyal to PT even after being let go by the company.
  • PT’s need for “millions” of dollars was understated. $75M or more was needed.

Visit to ice cream parlor—

  • PT was very charismatic- very close to family members, had very loyal friends, and very fierce enemies.
  • The scene takes great artistic license. What is true is that PT recognized the power of marketing.

January 1946 Pic Magazine article by Charles Pearson (later to work for Tucker Corporation)

  • The Pic article resulted in a very significant public response. 150,000 responses in a week? Maybe not.
  • Reaction confirmed that Americans desired a new style, design, and performance.
  • Article far overstated the readiness of Tucker to produce the car, a matter of later SEC concern.

Abe at Floyd Cerf’s Office—

  • PT and Abe first met with Cerf in October 1945.
  • The strategy was set to attract big-name industry persons as officers and/or board members to help sell stock (unfortunately, many of these hired individuals were not a good fit).
  • The man targeted to head company in the movie, Robert Bennington, is a composite character.

Alex Tremulis’s visit to Ypsilanti—

  • Tremulis was recently out of the military and did initiate contact with PT. However, he was not a novice designer (he had pre–WW II auto design experience with Auburn-Cord-Duesenberg).
  • PT actually first met and visited Tremulis in Chicago in December 1946. The sketch that Tremulis produced over the next six days essentially became the final design of the car.

Return Visit of Abe to Ypsilanti/discussion of the plant—

  • The former Dodge plant in Chicago was then the world’s largest plant (now the Ford City Shopping Center).
  • The plant was PT’s first choice (fit his big dreams).

Plant contract with WAA—

  • Unknown to PT, the UAW achieved an agreement with President Roosevelt that after the war the plant should go to an auto builder, so long as not a Big 3 company. PT was the only automaker to seek the plant.
  • The safety luncheon was with Tucker engineers, not WAA.
  • Oscar Beasley was the actual head of WAA. He later became a controversial consultant to PT.
  • WAA did require a $15 million capitalization to finalize the lease. After two extensions, the lease was finalized.
  • The need to produce a minimum of 50 cars was not included in the lease.
  • A $150,000 check was written to secure the lease. The check was “lost” for well over a year (the company could not have originally covered the check had it then been cashed).
  • Plant lease signed in June 1946. The Tin Goose debut was twelve, not two, months later. #1001 was built on 3/48.

Concerning dealer franchise contracts with Tucker Corporation-

  • Abe: “Why would anyone put up money for a dealership for a car that doesn’t exist?” Became an issue for SEC.
  • In September 1946, the SEC forced Tucker Corporation to amend sold dealer franchise agreements to make clear the risk of failure with a new company without a proven track record of production.

Junkyard car/work at the plant—

  • 1942 Oldsmobile used as a “buck” for Tin Goose. “Body knockers” essentially made Tin Goose from drawings.
  • Reconditioned Cord transmissions were used in Tin Goose and early prototype cars.
  • Initially, Tin Goose had no reverse gear.

Hiring of Bennington—

  • Bennington is a composite character. Harry Toulmin, was Chairman of the Board of Directors (from 4/3/47 – 9/16/47). Fred Rockelman, from industry, was Executive Vice President/Director.
  • Toulmin did not have an automotive background. He proved not to be a good fit for the company.
  • Rockelman had solid credentials, especially while at Ford Motor Company.

PT and Vera Bedroom Scene—

  • Vera questions PT about statement in brochures saying fifteen years of testing when not true. PT responds he had been thinking about it for at least fifteen (15) years. Vera says this is not the same thing. Later, the SEC says the same thing.
  • PT believed that advertising was not to be believed. The SEC did not share this point of view.

PT’s visit to Board—

  • “Detroit putting on the squeeze” was more myth than fact (albeit that there were spies, minor acts of espionage). PT sometimes used this statement to rally his workforce and dealers to action.
  • Bigger challenges were funding, settling on an engine, securing steel, time, and an over-reaching SEC.

PT’s visit with Sen. Ferguson—

  • Ferguson, “the Senator from Detroit,” was very powerful- he headed the War Properties Disposal Committee that was concerned about the “lost” $150K check and that the world’s largest plant was sitting near idle.
  • Ferguson’s wife was alleged to own a significant amount of Chrysler stock.
  • He was a friend of Henry Kaiser and the SEC’s Harry McDonald. He was a major foe of Preston Tucker.

PT back with Tin Goose—

  • Fuel injection had to be eliminated- not yet then practical for a production passenger car.
  • “Where is my car?” is an accurate, frequently repeated PT lament.
  • The suspension arm failure was a problem caused by the weight of Tin Goose.

Debut of Tin Goose (June 19, 1947)—

  • This scene is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of reality- major event atmosphere, enthusiastic crowd, transformed ’42 Oldsmobile/Tin Goose (that could not go in reverse), major challenges getting the car to stage, long delays, and the ultimate focal role of family on stage.
  • The car on display is Tucker #1037, not the Tin Goose.
  • Were spies, actual or self-appointed, within the company? Likely. Doubtful call to Sen. Ferguson.

Old guard board members talking inside plant—

  • Resistance came mainly from senior managers that were recruited from industry- they felt that Tucker did not have an adequate understanding of:
    • Business to know how a major company works (a good amount of truth to this), or
    • Engineering to understand problems with his desired car features (although not an engineer, Tucker had a good appreciation of automotive engineering).
  • They wanted to get PT “out” more to more easily transition to more traditional features for the car.
  • However, PT still had more control of the ultimate direction of the company than what is reflected in the movie.

Car on display in New York—

  • PT was given the key to a number of cities and many awards (some fairly bogus).
  • There were consistently very enthusiastic responses from the public in showings of the car (not sufficiently shown in the movie).
  • The move to the co-op apartment that was supposedly previously owned by midgets is true.

Conestoga plane scene—

  • This plane was frequently used to move the Tin Goose around the USA to show the car.
  • PT was twice the high bidder but failed to acquire a WAA steel plant.

Vera’s visit to the board—

  • Did not happen. PT became the board president after Toulmin resigned (September 1947).
  • PT originally promised his new car would sell for $1000 car, later $1,800 (ultimately might have been near $2,400).

PT making radio ad / Vera’s call—

  • Waltz Blue color being “their” color supposedly true.
  • There was a big strain of trying to sell stock during 1947 while trying to finalize the production of the car.

PT to Board—

  • PT always did have a strong voice in matters of policy. Continuing problems were primarily with old-guard officers brought in to help boost the sale of stock.
  • The 589 engine was a failure. PT was slow to accept this and move on to a more viable production engine.
  • Disc brakes and fuel injection had to be eliminated- they were not then possible in a production car.
  • Seat belts were an internal debate. They were not installed to avoid appearance of an unsafe car.

Visit to see Howard Hughes—

  • Doubtful that PT visited Hughes as a potential investor (PT was continually looking for possible major investors to better underpin the company and move to production).
  • Hughes, like PT, then did have problems with government over-reaching.
  • Air-Cooled Motor Co. did have a really fine aluminum air-cooled helicopter engine (it was purchased by PT in 3/48).

Conversion of the engine at Ypsilanti—

  • It was done in Ypsilanti, away from the Chicago plant (PT felt could achieve this in Chicago with internal problems). SEC thought this was done to pad PT’s personal wealth.
  • PT had more trust for a loyal group of “monkey–wrench engineers” (including Preston Tucker, Jr., Eddie Offutt, and Dan Leabu) than his traditional engineers in Chicago. Today, this would be called a “skunk works team.”
  • The converted engine was very good but costly for mass production.

Testing of Cars at Indy 500—

  • Tests happened in September 1948. Cars 1026, 1027, 1028, 1029, 1030, 1031 and 1032 were tested.
  • Car #1027 did turn over as pictured. Driver, Eddie Offutt, was not injured.
  • Tests clearly demonstrated the performance capabilities of the Tucker ‘48s.

Abe tells PT goodbye—

  • Abe was actually fired in November 1946 (at the insistence of the underwriter of the stock).
  • Abe did have a criminal record. He was given a West Coast dealership upon termination.
  • Although Abe later brought a lawsuit versus Tucker Corporation, he and PT remained friends.

Drew Pearson’ radio show (June 16, 1948)

  • Depiction is quite accurate except for statement that a Tucker car could not back up (only initially true for the Tin Goose).
  • Pearson was a major, national influencer. His remarks caused the price of Tucker Corporation stock to immediately fall (never to recover). It was a devastating blow to PT and the company.
  • PT flew three cars to Washington to show Pearson the next day (not believed that Pearson ever saw cars).

SEC confiscates files—

  • Files were confiscated in June 1948.
  • Plant momentarily shut down. SEC claims this was PT’s choice, not from their action (probably true).
  • Soon after, lawsuits began against the company from disgruntled dealers seeking the return of money.

PT and row of Tucker cars—

  • Plant lease secured September 1947.
  • Late in the fall of 1948, a skeleton crew did substantially complete the last Tucker prototype cars to get to 50 cars built (cars 1038 – 1050 lacked the installation of the engine and/or transmission).

PT’s arrest—

  • PT, along with six other individuals (Cert, Dulian, Karsten (“Abe”), Knoble, Pierce, and Rockelman), was indicted on June 10, 1949, for criminal conspiracy actions associated with mail and securities fraud.
  • Concerning the chase, PT did elude police to avoid turning over company records, not for arrest.
  • By this time, the company had been essentially “dead” for over six months.

PT’s criminal trial—

  • The trial ran from October 04, 1949, to January 11, 1950.
  • The government took back the plant on the first day of trial (Lustron was momentarily given the plant in October 1946, not 1949).
  • The opening statements by Kerner and Kirby are pretty accurately captured.
  • Kirby: “Failure was the result of serious financial problems and outside interference” is essentially accurate. Interference is primarily government interference, not Big 3 espionage.
  • The government questioned PT’s decision to go back to Ypsilanti Machine & Tool Co. for engine and transmission work when PT possessed the world’s largest, best-equipped plant (PT had proper receipts for engine work).
  • The prosecution alleged that PT diverted significant company funds for personal use- the defense countered most of the allegations.
  • The SEC did improperly leak their secret investigative report to The Detroit News (PT was never provided it).
  • Eight (8) cars, not fifty (50), were brought to the courthouse.
  • PT never spoke in court.
  • The Defense did rest without presenting any rebuttal witnesses.
  • The judge instructed the jury with what Kirby had continually asserted: “If they tried, even if the car was no good, even if they did not make any, then what they did was not criminally wrong.” The jury found PT tried.
  • The jury unanimously determined that PT and the other six defendants were not guilty.

Time to rewind the tape and think of what might have happened if the Tucker ‘48 had become a reality.

The Tucker Movie: Evaluation of What’s True, What’s Not
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