Preston Tucker viewed failure as a necessary milestone on the road to success. A year after a jury found him not guilty of charges brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Tucker was hard at work on a new automobile, courting potential investors in Brazil. Pneumonia, a complication of lung cancer, claimed his life before the car progressed beyond the design stage, but Rob Ida Concepts may soon be bringing the one-of-none Tucker Carioca to life.
Tucker’s initial trips to Brazil ended in disappointment. Though investors were willing to back his proposed low-cost automobile, in return they expected all design work to be carried out in Brazil. Tucker refused, a decision that was likely influenced by the instability of the Getúlio Vargas government as much as Brazil’s distance from his home in Michigan.
Determined to forge ahead with the project, Tucker enlisted the help of industrial designer Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, who penned an aerodynamic boattailed coupe reminiscent of the original Tucker Torpedo concept, but on a smaller scale. Like the earlier Tucker concept, the coupe that would later carry the Carioca name featured an air-cooled rear-mounted engine, headlamps that moved with the front wheels (supplemented by one that remained fixed), a padded dash and removable windshield for added safety, and independent suspension.
Unlike the Tucker 48, the Carioca would ride on a wheelbase similar to the smallest domestic cars of the day. Power would come from a four-cylinder engine (also horizontally opposed) instead of a six-banger, and an output of 130 hp was planned. Given a projected weight of less than 2,000 pounds, performance would have been spirited, another design goal that Tucker had in mind. Simplicity was the order of the day as well, with the Carioca’s instrumentation consisting of an oversized speedometer, surrounded by warning lamps for fuel level, oil pressure, temperature, and current.
The Tucker Carioca on the cover of Car Life, December 1955. Image courtesy Alden Jewell.
Believing that caked-on mud and dirt impeded performance and handling, the Carioca was designed to use easily removable (and hence, easily cleaned) cycle fenders. In fact, the whole car could be described as “easily removable,” since it was meant to be assembled by the buyer from supplied components. Alternatively, Tucker envisioned establishing a network of independent garages and dealers who could assemble the $1,000 coupe for a set fee of $60, and would later act as authorized service centers should repair be needed. To keep costs as low as possible, the Carioca was to use as many off-the-shelf components as possible, meaning that only body panels would require stamping or in-house production.
In January 1956, the political climate in Brazil improved significantly with the election of Juscelino Kubitschek, or “JK” as he was commonly referred. A supporter of Tucker, JK once again offered incentives if the car was built in Brazil, and Tucker reconsidered. His Ypsilanti tool company, while profitable, didn’t generate the kind of revenue needed to design and build the Carioca. Brazil, perhaps, was where Tucker needed to be for his automotive second chance to become a reality.
By that time, however, Tucker was gravely ill with lung cancer, which his doctors in Michigan had essentially deemed inoperable. Seeking alternative treatments, Tucker found a doctor in Brazil who claimed to have great success in treating cancers without surgery or the favored radium therapy of the day, so Preston and his wife Vera flew back and forth to Rio de Janeiro for his treatments. In late August 1956, and against his doctor’s wishes, the Tuckers returned to the United States. The travel weakened Tucker further, who then reportedly weighed half of his former 200 pounds, and he was admitted to Beyer Memorial Hospital in Ypsilanti. On the day after Christmas 1956, he succumbed to pneumonia, a side effect of his lung cancer, at age 53.
Tucker Carioca drawing courtesy Rob Ida.
The Carioca may have died with Preston Tucker, but for the drive and ambition of Rob Ida and his father, Bob. After completing the restoration on Howard Kroplick’s Tucker 48, chassis 1044, Rob Ida Concepts has resumed work on the Tucker Carioca, a project last referenced by the shop in 2011.
This time around, there’s another Tucker involved in the mix as well. Sean Tucker, Preston Tucker’s great-grandson and an automotive engineer by trade, will be working with Rob on the design and creation of the Carioca. Details are still being sorted, but teasers appearing on Rob Ida’s Facebook page hint that an air-cooled four-cylinder Franklin aircraft engine may be adopted for the project.