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 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, pop in your video of the movie and let’s roll the film. I will use PT to refer to Preston Tucker

The movie introduction—

  • PT was a car nut He was more well 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.
  • Ypsilanti Machine & Tool Co. existed.
  • 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 the “Car of Tomorrow.”

First visit by Abe Karatz—

  • Abe was an early promoter of the company but was dismissed in 11/46 to better be able to sell stock.
  • PT’s need for “millions” of dollars proved to be understated.

Visit to ice cream parlor—

  • The scene takes great artistic license. What is true is that PT recognized the power of marketing long before there was a Lee lacocca.

Pic Magazine article (1/46)—

  • The Pic article by Charles Pearson resulted in significant public response. 150,000 responses in a week? Doubtful.
  • Reaction did confirm that Americans desired new style and design.

Abe at Floyd Cerf’s Office—

  • Actually, PT and Abe met with Cerf in October, 1945.
  • There was a mutual strategy to get big names as officers and for board to more effectively sell stock.
  • Man targeted to head company in the movie, Robert Bennington, is a composite character (primarily reflects Fred Rockelman’s auto background and Harry Toulmin’s temperament).

Alex Tremulis’s visit to Ypsilanti—

  • Tremulis was recently out of the military but not a novice designer (had pre–WW II auto design experience).
  • PT actually visited Tremulis in Chicago in December, 1946.
  • The movie failed to show the most amazing thing about Tremulis: the sketch he produced after six days essentially became the final design of the car.

Return Visit of Abe to Ypsilanti—

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

Plant contract with WAA—

  • The safety luncheon was with Tucker engineers, not WAA.
  • Oscar Beasley actual head of WAA. He later became a controversial consultant to PT.
  • WAA did require $15 million capitalization to finalize lease. After two extensions, lease was finalized.
  • Fifty (50)-car expectation did not have to occur to finalize lease.
  • President Roosevelt promised the UAW that car company war plants would go to an auto manufacturer, so long as not a Big 3 company. Only PT sought plant. Kaiser–Frazer sought and secured Willow Run.
  • Movie accurate that PT had practically no money when got plant (check for plant “lost” by WAA).
  • Plant lease signed in June, 1946. Tin Goose debut twelve (12), not two (2), months later. Abe back in Ypsilanti.
  • Abe: “Why would anyone put up money for a dealership for a car that doesn’t exist?” Became issue for SEC.
  • SEC forced Tucker Corporation to amend dealer contracts to make clear the risk of failure in September, 1946.

Junkyard car/work at plant—

  • 1942 Oldsmobile used as “buck” for Tin Goose.
  • “Body knockers” essentially made Tin Goose from drawings (although were two clay models).
  • Reconditioned Cord transmissions were used in cars.
  • Initially, prototype had no reverse gear.

Hiring of Bennington—

  • Rockelman hired in May, 1946, not one week before debut of Tin Goose in June, 1947.
  • Rockelman had solid credentials, especially while at Ford.

PT and Vera Bedroom Scene—

  • Vera questions PT about statement in brochures saying fifteen (15) years of testing when not true. PT responds he had been thinking about it for fifteen (15) years. Vera says this is not the same thing. So later does SEC.
  • PT believed advertising was not to be believed. SEC did not share this viewpoint

PT’s visit to Board—

  • “Detroit putting on the squeeze” more myth than fact (albeit that there were spies, minor acts of espionage, etc.).
  • Problem of shortages of clay and steel then true for all car companies.

PT’s visit with Sen. Ferguson—

  • If it occurred, less Hollywood theatrics.
  • Sen. Ferguson was very powerful. He headed War Properties Disposal Committee with jurisdiction over PT’s plant.
  • He was a friend of Henry Kaiser and SEC’s Harry McDonald.
  • Ferguson’s wife allegedly had significant amount of Chrysler stock.

PT back with Tin Goose—

  • Fuel injection had to be eliminated.
  • “Where is my car?” is an accurate PT lament.
  • Suspension arm failure a problem caused by the weight of Tin Goose.

Debut of Tin Goose (June 19, 1947)—

  • Perhaps most accurate portrayal of facts.
  • Car shown is Tucker #1037, not Tin Goose.
  • Event had problems but huge success, as shown.
  • Were spies within company. Doubtful call to Sen. Ferguson.

Old guard board members talking inside plant—

  • They did feel PT did not understand how a company works (a good amount of truth to this).
  • Were concerned that PT not an engineer to understand problems with his desired car features (although not an engineer, PT did have a good appreciation of automotive engineering).
  • They did want to get PT “out” to more easily switch to more traditional features for the car (shown in later scene).

Car on display in New York—

  • PT was given the key to a number of cities and many awards (some fairly bogus).
  • Was a phenomenal public response at public showings of the car (not sufficiently shown in the movie).
  • Move to co-op owned by midgets. True.

Conestoga plane scene—

  • PT twice high bidder but failed to acquire a WAA steel plant.

Vera’s visit to the board—

  • Didn’t happen. PT board president after Toulmin resigned (September, 1947). Rockelman never board chair.
  • PT promised $1000 car. Probable price at least $1,800.

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 production of the car.

PT to Board—

  • PT always did have voice in matters of policy. Problems more with old guard officers brought in to help boost the sale of stock.
  • 589 engine was a failure. PT was slow to admit this.
  • Disc brakes and fuel injection had to be eliminated.
  • Seat belts were an internal debate.

Visit to see Howard Hughes—

  • PT possibly visited Hughes as a potential investor (PT saw many schemers and kooks).
  • Hughes then did have problems with government.
  • Air-Cooled Motor Co. did have a really fine aluminum air-cooled helicopter engine (company purchased by PT in 3/48).

Conversion of engine at Ypsilanti—

  • Was done in Ypsilanti, away from Chicago plant
  • PT felt could not do this in Chicago with internal problems.
  • PT had more trust for loyal group of “monkey–wrench engineers” (including Preston Tucker, Jr. and Eddie Offutt) and Dan Leabu than his traditional engineers in Chicago.
  • The converted engine was very good but then still too costly for mass production.

Testing of Cars at Indy 500—

  • Tests in September, 1948.
  • Car #1027 did turn over as pictured. Driver (Offutt) not injured.
  • Tests clearly demonstrated the performance capabilities of the Tucker ‘48s.

Abe tells PT good bye—

  • Abe was actually fired in November, 1946 (at insistence of Cerf).
  • Abe had criminal record as stated.
  • Although Abe later brought lawsuit versus Tucker Corporation, he and PT remained friends.

Drew Pearson’ radio show—

  • Basic depiction quite accurate. June 16, 1948.
  • All Tucker ‘48’s could back up.
  • PT flew three cars to Washington to show Pearson the next day (no evidence that Pearson ever saw cars).

SEC confiscates files—

  • Uncertain about Chicago Tribune story.
  • Files confiscated in June, 1948.
  • Plant momentarily shut down. SEC claims this was PT’s choice, not their action (probably true).
  • Suits not yet beginning by disgruntled dealers.
  • Rockelman did not then resign (he resigned November, 1948).

PT and row of Tucker cars—

  • Plant lease secured September, 1947. No need to complete 50 cars after company files confiscated.
  • Skeleton crew did complete a number of cars in late 1948 but last thirteen (13) of fifty (50) cars lacked the installation of engine and/or transmission.

PT’s arrest—

  • PT did elude police to turn over company records, not for arrest.
  • PT indicted in June, 1949.

PT’s criminal trial—

  • Trial from October 04, 1949 to January 11, 1950.
  • Lost car plant the first day of trial. Lustron momentarily given plant in October, 1946, not 1949.
  • Statements of Kerner and Kirby capture their actual arguments.
  • Kirby: “Failure result of serious financial problems and outside interference” is essentially accurate. Interference is primarily government interference, not Big 3 espionage.
  • 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.
  • PT did divert some company funds for personal use.
  • SEC did improperly leak secret report to The Detroit News.
  • Eight (8) cars, not fifty (50), brought to courthouse.
  • PT never spoke in court (nor Abe, nor Rockelman).
  • PT was a defendant with six (6) others (Abe, Rockelman, Cerf, Pierce, Dulian, Radford and Knoble).
  • The Defense did rest without presenting rebuttal witnesses.
  • Kirby essentially said what PT says: “if tried, even if no good, even if didn’t make any, than not wrong”
  • The jury did find PT and the other six defendants not guilty.

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