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What it’s like to drive the only Tucker with a Tuckermatic transmission

Published in blog.hemmings.com

The Tucker 48 is rare. Preston Tucker’s struggles with funding his start-up auto company, including a fight with the SEC he eventually won, resulted in a mere 50 cars produced plus the original “Tin Goose” prototype. Only 47 remain, along with two cars assembled after the fact from parts. Tuckers are rare, but the rarest of all is #1026, the only surviving car with the Tuckermatic automatic transmission.

And that means Mark Lieberman has the distinction to be the only living person alive to drive the Tuckermatic transmission. Lieberman serves on the board of the AACA Museum and helped bring #1026 to full motive condition for its appearance at the 2018 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. Lieberman is, to put it mildly, a Tucker fan. He’s owned five Tucker 48s, including one of his current vehicles: Preston Tucker’s personal car. Lieberman also sells cylinder heads and suspension parts to help keep Tuckers on the road.

tuckermatic transmission on stand

Tuckermatic transmission from car #1042 on display at the AACA Museum. Photo via Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Getting #1026 ready for Pebble Beach was, “an extraordinary learning experience and quite an honor to dig into this car and learn about it,” says Lieberman. “There are no instruction manuals. We had to forensically sort out how they wanted this car to work.”

Preston Tucker originally intended for his car to use an automatic transmission, but that was one of many early ideas put on hold when the reality of bringing cars to market set in. Most of the Tucker 48s that rolled off the line came with either a Cord transmission or a modified version of that gearbox called the Y-1. Both were manual transmissions with a pre-selector that would change gears when the clutch was pressed. And neither was particularly robust.

Tucker 48s Indianapolis straightaway

Tucker cars running at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Photo courtesy of Mark Lieberman

The Tuckermatic transmission was designed to better handle the 166 hp of the Tucker’s flat-six while also being smoother than the competition. According to The Indomitable Tin Goose by Charles T. Pearson:

Tucker had offered $5,000 cash for an automatic transmission that would be an improvement over Buick’s Dynaflow, and comparable in performance to the Hydramatic. A young engineer, Warren A. Rice, soon claimed the reward and was paid as soon as Tucker was satisfied that his design would work.

warren rice tuckermatic patent drawing

A design patent drawing for Rice’s transmission that would evolve into the Tuckermatic.

A key feature of the planetary gearbox design was its single-speed design, with forward, neutral, and reverse the only settings on the column shifter. It was accomplished using two torque converters — one between the engine and transmission that allowed the engine to idle in gear, and a second at the rear of the assembly that acts like a variable clutch, slipping the transmission as needed to allow traction without stalling at low speeds.

After the Tucker Corporation’s demise, Tucker #1026 was part of a traveling road show called “The Fabulous Tuckers” put on by businessman Nick Jenin, who eventually owned 10 Tuckers along with a large amount of parts and memorabilia. It then passed to David Cammack, who amassed an unmatched collection of Tucker history, which was left to the AACA museum upon his death in 2013. As we mentioned in his obituary, Cammack never drove his cars. The restorative efforts were focused mainly on making his cars look good standing still.

Fabulous Tuckers car haulers

Nick Jenin’s Fabulous Tuckers exhibit toured the country in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Mark Lieberman.

Lieberman estimates #1026 hadn’t been fully operational since shortly after Cammack acquired the car in the 1970s. But for such mechanical neglect, the engine and transmission were in good shape, requiring only minor attention to make the car roadworthy. One feature of the transmission in this car, however, is currently out of commission.

The first version of the Tuckermatic, known as R-1, could only be shifted when the engine was off. Tucker #1026 sports what Lieberman refers to as R-1.5, which featured a pedal on the floor near the driver’s seat. The driver would step on the pedal with their heel, stopping the second torque converter and allowing the transmission to shift with the engine running. At some point in the history of #1026 that pedal was removed. The AACA Museum team tried in vain to restore similar function to the transmission, but couldn’t find a satisfactory solution before the Pebble Beach. Today the car is shifted with the engine off like with the early Tuckermatic designs. A later derivation allowed the transmission to be shifted without the extra pedal. That transmission was installed in Tucker #1042, which was destroyed: the engine and transmission were recovered, however, and sit on display at the AACA Museum.

Tucker 1026 interior column shift

The Tuckermatic transmission used a column shift lever with positions for forward, neutral, and reverse. Photo courtesy of the AACA Museum.

So how does the Tuckermatic drive? “Very, very different,” says Lieberman. Cars with the Y-1 and Cord gearboxes are similar in terms of driving experience, he explains, “The front end is very light and nimble. There’s more power than either transmission is comfortable with. It drives similar to a giant Porsche 356 on steroids.”

Tucker #1026 “Takes on a completely different driving dynamic. It does not transmit power well from a stop.” Instead of the quick off-the-line performance the manual transmission cars have with the their short gearing and direct connection to the engine, the Tuckermatic is more like other automatic transmissions of the era that rightly earned the slushbox nickname. Above 30 miles per hour, however, the power starts to flow on. “It wakes up considerably,” says Lieberman, “The faster you go, the faster it responds.”

Tucker #1026 engine bay automatic transmission

Photo courtesy of Mark Lieberman.

He figures that the Tuckermatic works better than comparable automatics of the era when operating in its sweet spot, but under 30 mph it’s worse. “It would not have worked out particularly well in 1948 or 1949,” says Lieberman, “especially trying to keep up in city traffic.” A further derivation of the gearbox, R-3, was drawn in blueprints but never built. It improved upon some of the shortcoming of the earlier design. “You could see the evolution, where they were going,” Lieberman notes.

You can find out for yourself just how Tucker #1026 feels from the passenger seat by bidding on one of three rides in the car at the AACA’s Night at the Museum charity event on October 9. The winning bidders, plus a guest, will each get a ride around the museum grounds. Considering that #1026 has only been running in recent years, it’s an experience almost as rare as driving the car itself.

Tucker 1026 AACA musuem display

Photo courtesy of the AACA Museum.