Before World War II, the American automobile industry had fallen into a rut. Most manufacturers continued to use traditional designs, operating within the firm belief that investing in something different was only needed if forced to do so by competition.
During the war, manufacturers had stopped building cars and devoted all their energies to producing war materiel. At war’s end, when they were permitted to continue civilian car production, the philosophy continued and traditional products again began to roll off assembly lines. Enter a then 42-year-old Michigander by the name of Preston Thomas Tucker.
Tucker had spent many of his prewar years selling cars, working for several car companies in various capacities and combining efforts with Harry Miller, designer of winning car engines at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Tucker had a passionate interest in automobiles. His experience had taught him that there were many improvements and advancements already being used in European cars and in racing cars not being considered by American manufacturers. He knew that the American public would respond favorably to a new vehicle that incorporated some of these features.
Tremendous pent-up demand for cars after the war created a strong sellers’ market, so Preston set out to build his dream car, incorporating many ideas still new to American buyers. He was a great salesman and an even better promoter.
Today, the AACA Museum Inc. in Hershey, Pennsylvania, is both the headquarters of the Tucker Automobile Club of America and the host of a permanent display of arguably the most extensive Tucker collection in the world, assembled by the late David Cammack. With its three Tucker cars, movie replica car, eight engines, factory test chassis and a multitude of memorabilia, this display paints a broad picture of the Tucker story within a conveniently small space. One leaves with a sense of awe about the almost miraculous achievements of the Tucker Corporation in the very short time it existed (1946-1949).
Although Tucker’s attempt to produce his dream car resulted in only 51 units, his effect on the automobile industry in the United States was profound and long-lasting. Tucker was very interested in safety and many Tucker features were safety-oriented. Dashboards were padded to soften passenger contact during accidents, a feature Chrysler introduced one year after the Tucker had vanished.
Seat belts were proposed but not introduced because, if no one else has them, they seem to indicate that a car with them is unsafe. Tucker substituted a crash zone for passengers to crouch into during an accident. A pop-out windshield was designed to reduce head injuries during crashes. Intense Tucker publicity helped focus attention on automotive safety, which had not been a big concern among car manufacturers but has now become very important.
Beyond safety, in the decades after Tucker, features like disc brakes, independent four-wheel suspension, fuel injection, turning headlights, low center of gravity and other desirable Tucker improvement ideas were gradually introduced throughout the industry. The philosophy had changed, pioneered by Preston Tucker and later picked up by Japanese car manufacturers who used it successfully to their advantage. Competitive pressure was now being applied to justify expensive investments in changes to the status quo.
In addition, the long-standing philosophy followed by the automobile industry had been based on a kind of “Ivory Tower” mentality. When designing their vehicles, little thought was given to what customers wanted or needed. The designers were thought to be experts at their craft. The public need only sit back and wait for designers to create a product that they could not help but like.
Tucker’s most important legacy, followed successfully by the Japanese, was to shift the designers’ focus to the customer. Find out what he or she wants and needs, then go back to the drawing board and create it. The American automobile industry has never been the same, cars have improved as a result and we can be grateful for that.
The AACA Museum is at 161 Museum Drive, Hershey, Pennsylvania. It can be reached at (717) 566-7100 or aacamuseum.org.
Written by Warren Erb, an AACA Museum docent