By September 1948, Preston Tucker had little left to lose. Production at his Chicago plant was all but halted by an SEC investigation, while critics had already tried and convicted him in the media. To demonstrate that his Tucker 48 was a real and legitimate automobile, Tucker brought seven examples to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for endurance testing, and on April 27, one of these Indy-driven 1948 Tucker 48s heads to auction as part of Bonhams Tupelo Automobile Museum Auction in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Oddly enough, 1948 began on a high note for Preston Tucker. The War Assets Administration (WAA) had granted him ownership of his Chicago factory in late 1947, and the initial sale of stock had raised $15 million in much-needed capital. In March 1948, the first production Tucker, chassis 1001, rolled off the assembly line and across the floor at the first stockholders’ meeting, with Preston Tucker himself behind the wheel. To demonstrate that this was no Tin Goose, Tucker even placed the car in reverse and backed up, demonstrating that it was indeed a fully functional automobile.
Things began to go downhill for Tucker in May. On May 16, while practicing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Tucker’s Western Regional Manager, Ralph Hepburn, lost control of his car and hit the wall at high speed, sustaining fatal injuries in the crash. An experienced racer, Hepburn was also a close friend of Preston Tucker, and his death was not the only bad news Tucker would endure that month. On May 28, the WAA rejected Tucker’s high bid on a blast furnace that would have ensured the automaker a steady supply of steel, and on the same day Tucker was notified that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) was opening an investigation into his company.
The SEC’s initial visit, on June 3, resulted in a few boxes of files being removed from the facility. The investigation should have been confidential, but three days later, syndicated radio broadcaster and columnist Drew Pearson advised his listeners about the government probe of Tucker, hinting that the entrepreneur was guilty of something. When the stock exchange opened the following morning, Tucker stock plummeted, losing more than 50 percent of its value in less than a day. On June 14, the SEC sent subpoenas to Tucker, demanding all his records and files dating to 1946, a move that would shutter the factory. When Tucker proved slow to comply, the SEC — along with the FBI — began to investigate Tucker dealers and key investors, and eventually Tucker relented, presenting the requested files.
By the end of June, the Tucker plant was closed and its 1,500 workers laid off. In July, it became apparent that the government would take its time in building a case against Tucker, his company, and his closest associates, so, in response, Tucker rehired a small staff to resume production of Tucker 48 models. Esteemed automotive journalist Tom McCahill published a glowing review of the Tucker in the August 1948 issue of Mechanix Illustrated, but for every positive bit of press, three or four editorials arose accusing Tucker of fraud.
If the Tucker Corporation was to survive, a successful test session at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was essential. The seven cars driven to the Brickyard from Chicago — including chassis 1028, seen in the promotional film Tucker the Man and the Car — were lapped at high speeds for hours at a time, and the session ran for three weeks with just a single incident of note. Following a pit stop for refueling, Tucker’s chief engineer, Eddie Offutt, was behind the wheel of chassis 1027 when its engine stalled in a corner, locking the rear wheels and sending the sedan into a skid. As Offutt endeavored to catch the slide with opposite lock, the right rear tire failed, sending the Tucker into the infield where it rolled three times before landing upright.
Aside from a bruised elbow, Offutt was unhurt, and the Tucker was driven off under its own power after a new wheel and tire were mounted. The cause of the spin wasn’t mechanical failure, but instead human error: During the last pit stop, a crew member poured aviation fuel into the tank instead of gasoline.
The endurance testing results were good news for the remaining Tucker dealers, who could tell potential buyers that the Tucker was a safe automobile, even under extreme circumstances. The single weak point revealed in thousands of miles of driving was the elastomeric suspension, which compressed more than Tucker and his engineers had anticipated. A harder compound of rubber would be specified for future production, ensuring that Tuckers would be as durable as any contemporary automobile.
Except that future production never came. The SEC issued its damning report in December of 1948, and in June 1949 Tucker was indicted on mail fraud and conspiracy charges, along with other SEC violations. His trial would last until January 1950, and while ultimately acquitted of all charges, Tucker’s career as an automaker had come to an end. Later that year, the assets of the Tucker Corporation, including the 51 sedans assembled (or partially assembled) before the factory closed for good, were sold at a bankruptcy auction.
Chassis 1028 was purchased by Robert Turner of Minneapolis, Minnesota, who owned another five Tucker 48s, with most likely purchased at the Tucker auction. From his collection, the car was sold to Thomas Goff of Utica, Michigan, a noted collector of postwar luxury and special interest automobiles. Goff owned the car until 1984, when chassis 1028 sold to Dr. Charles Lehnen.
Under Lehnen’s ownership, the Tucker was restored by Car Craft Inc. of Hartland, Wisconsin, which repainted the car in its original beige color. Lehnen didn’t drive the Tucker often, and when he relocated from Wisconsin to Florida, the Tucker — then in need of mechanical attention — accompanied him south. In Florida, Lehnen connected with Tucker expert Richard E. Jones, who reportedly spent six months returning the car to operable condition.
Frank Spain purchased the car for the Tupelo Automobile Museum in 1996, via broker Vintage Wholesale of Sarasota, Florida. It soon became the centerpiece of the collection, giving visitors the rare opportunity to see a genuine Tucker 48 up close.
Offered at no reserve, Bonhams is predicting a selling price between $1.25 million and $2.0 million when chassis 1028 crosses the block in Tupelo. That’s on par with other recent Tucker 48 sales, including chassis 1040, which sold in January 2019 for $1.6 million; chassis 1046, which sold in August 2018 for $1.82 million; and chassis 1029, which sold in January 2018 for $1.79 million (all prices including buyer’s fees).
For additional information on the Tupelo Automobile Museum sale, visit Bonhams.com.