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Forgive me a moment of blasphemy: One of the things I most anticipated during Monterey Car Week was a vision of a dozen Tucker 48 sedans all in one place.
Only 51 of the futuristic cars were produced. You’ll see one of them on occasion, in a museum, or at auction, or if you’re extremely fortunate you might be somewhere where two or three are together. But here we might see a dazzling dozen, plus a naked Tucker chassis, and just up the hill from the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, the faux Tucker used as a prop in the movie, Tucker: The Man and His Dream, that 1988 film — yes, it’s been 30 years — directed by Francis Ford Coppola and produced by George Lucas, both of whom would have their personal Tucker 48s on the concours show field.
Imagine, all those Tuckers lined up along the shoreline on the 18th fairway of the Pebble Beach Golf Links in their own featured class at the concours!
And this past Sunday morning, the sight of all those Tuckers was, indeed, stunning, even shocking, but not for the reasons I expected.
For millions of Americans, their first encounter with the legend and lore of Preston Tucker came as they sat in movie theaters watching Jeff Bridges portray the man and his dream. The movie was released about the time I was going from newspaper guy to staff editor at AutoWeek magazine, and I thought I knew plenty about Tucker and his life and his car.
At least I did until I was asked to write a book on the history of the Ford Motor Company’s involvement in auto racing and came across a photograph of Henry Ford at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Also in that photo is Preston Tucker.
A spectacular salesman and former Ford assembly plant worker, Tucker talked himself into the role of team manager for Ford’s fledgling Indy racing team and in the mid-1930s sold Ford a fleet of 10 racing cars that Tucker and partner, acclaimed car builder Harry Miller, had produced. The cars were supposed to showcase Ford’s new V8 engine, but the cars hadn’t been thoroughly sorted out and couldn’t complete the race and Ford abandoned the project.
Tucker had better success with a gun turret he developed for the World War II effort. After the war, with the Detroit automakers still using pre-war designs, Tucker started his own car company to combine futuristic design with new levels of safety technology. He would produce 51 of his radical Tucker 48s before being tried — and acquitted — on fraud charges. But the ordeal destroyed the car company and Tucker died in 1956 of lung cancer.
He was only 53 years old but his life and the lore around it were made for a Hollywood movie, which spread his fame far beyond the car collecting world.
Five Tuckers, but which is which? See photo gallery for details
So how was it to see so many of Preston Tucker’s cars at the same place at the same time? Well, and this is the blasphemous part, to someone not obsessed with the nuances of the various cars, they all looked pretty much the same. Turns out that, at least at first glance, if you’ve seen one Tucker 48 you feel as if you’ve seen them all.
Yes, only one of the 51 cars has an automatic transmission, and not all cars got the components that allow the car’s third headlamp to turn with the steering wheel. Yes, there are other differences from car to car, including a limited color palette. And, yes, the cars are large and fascinating in design and technology.
But, basically, they all look pretty much alike, something we’re not used to see at events where coachbuilt individualism is celebrated.
On the other hand, seeing the row of Tuckers at Pebble Beach rekindled my interest in the man and his dream. I plan to watch the movie — which has been remastered — and, next time I’m at a museum or a show or auction with a Tucker 48, I’ll pay much more attention to the car and its features, and its unique story.