'Car of the Future'

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Biography offers a look at automotive visionary

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

When researching and writing his biography about embattled automotive visionary Preston Tucker, attorney Steve Lehto had access to a treasure trove of documents no other writer has ever had before.

“The National Archives in Chicago has many of the documents and files from Tucker’s lawsuits. Also, the Tucker Automobile Club of America has a huge archive which has never been utilized by a writer like me,” said Lehto, 54, an attorney in private practice in southeastern Michigan whose latest non-fiction book “Preston Tucker and His Battle to Build the Car of the Future” (Chicago Review Press $27.95) was recently released.

At the National Archives, he found a sealed transcript more than half a century.

“I engaged an attorney in Detroit to file a legal action to get the transcript unsealed. It was fascinating. It was the deposition transcript of the key witness in Tucker’s criminal trial. When Tucker was exonerated, he filed suit against several news organizations for libel and this witness testified in the civil litigation. There, he backpedaled on many of the government’s contentions and admitted that the case against Tucker had almost no substance to it,” said Lehto.

Born in 1903, Tucker was an automobile designer/salesman/entrepreneur who founded the Tucker Corporation. His claim to fame is the creation of the 1948 Tucker Sedan (a.k.a. the Tucker ’48, a.k.a. the Tucker Torpedo). Revolutionary at the time, it boasted aerodynamic styling, disc brakes, fuel injection, a safer passenger compartment, and – of course – the famous cyclops headlight. He believed many of these features would become commonplace in automobiles – and most of them have.

The Tucker ’48 was the first car in almost a decade to be built from the ground up. It included advances the other automotive giants couldn’t match. However, production of the Tucker ’48 was shut down amidst scandal and controversial allegations of stock fraud on March 3, 1949. Tucker waged a very public battle to clear his name after the SEC launched an investigation into his business practices.

This was chronicled in the 1988 movie “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola of “The Godfather” fame, who painted Tucker in a sympathetic light. Lehto watched “Tucker” again when writing the book.

“Coppola has fond feelings for Tucker and said so when making the film. He considered Tucker a kindred spirit: Coppola battled the established film industry to get some of his films made and felt that Tucker’s battle was similar,” said Lehto. “The movie is pretty accurate. It does a good job of telling Tucker’s story, keeping in mind that the film requires some things to be shortened, condensed, or simplified to fit.”

The movie starred Oscar winner Jeff Bridges (“Crazy Heart”) as Tucker; Oscar nominee Joan Allen (“Nixon”) as Tucker’s wife, Vera; Oscar winner Martin Landau (“Ed Wood”) as Abe Karatz, a New York financier; and Lloyd Bridges (“Airplane!”) as Sen. Homer Ferguson, among many others in an ensemble cast.

“We do not know for sure what drove Harry McDonald at the SEC, but he clearly was out to ‘get’ Tucker. He instigated an unprecedented investigation of Tucker and then illegally leaked the results of that investigation to the papers,” explained Lehto. “He later admitted what he had done was illegal but claimed that he thought he was ‘protecting’ stockholders with his actions. Of course, his actions destroyed the value of the stock being held by stockholders.”

He continued: “The car companies were leery of Tucker but I doubt they were as worried as it’s sometimes claimed. There were a variety of other car companies out at the time and Tucker – if he had succeeded – would have just been another one to compete with. As for Ferguson, the movie made him out to be a villain. Tucker certainly thought Ferguson was behind the attack on the Tucker Corporation but he never had any evidence to prove it. We may never know that.”

Tucker and many of his corporate managers were tried for fraud. The trial dragged on and during that time, the work at his factory was disrupted. Tucker was forced to close it down and by the time the trial was over, the Tucker Corporation had been forced into bankruptcy.
After he was cleared of all charges, Tucker was hoping to launch another car company. However, he died in 1956 at age 53 of lung cancer.

“(Tucker) pointed out that other successful automakers like Henry Ford had failed once or twice before they made it. Tucker was a fabulous salesman so he certainly could have accomplished more had he lived longer,” said Lehto.

When writing this book, Lehto had the blessing of Tucker’s family.

“I spoke with several of his descendants and let them know I was working on the book,” he said. “Some of them were skeptical at first since so many people have said and written bad things about Tucker in the past. I told them my goal was to tell the story accurately and that they could help me with that if they worked with me. They provided me with a lot of good information and also a lot of very nice pictures, some of which have never been published before.” 

He continued: “A friend of mine is a Tucker expert and he mentioned that no one had ever done a full-length bio of him other than a couple of people who knew him. Those books were quite slanted as a result and were also written quite a while ago. I was surprised to learn that the Tucker movie was not based on a book. So, I decided to write one. The other books were written by people who were too close to the story. Their biases are obvious. They made good source material for me but I think most readers of those books today would recognize that the stories are slanted toward Tucker (and the writers) to ‘defend’ what they had been accused of.”

Jay Leno, the former host of “The Tonight Show” and renowned car aficionado, wrote the foreword for this book. Leno also wrote the foreword for Lehto’s previous book, “Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation.”

“Jay is a well-known car guy. He does not have a Tucker but he knows all about them and he quickly agreed to write the foreword when I first asked him. Jay’s car collection contains a lot of unusual and one-off cars and he knows the stories behind all of them. The Tucker story fits right into that — I’m hoping he gets a Tucker one of these days. It would fit right in with what else he’s already got,” said Lehto.

To date, there’s only 47 of the original 51 Tucker ‘48s available. One sold recently at an auction for $2.3 million.

“Preston Tucker’s story is a great example of ‘What Might Have Been.’ We’ll never know how far he could have gone if he hadn’t been shut down but he still got remarkably far. His cars – the remaining ones – are a testament to the fact that he had a vision. And his vision was almost realized,” explained Lehto. “People who have taken the time to study him know that he was put out of business by the government.
But I think a lot of people had merely forgotten him – ‘He was the guy who made the car with the Cyclops headlight.’ I hope the book helps keep his memory alive.”

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