The company that made the 1948 Tucker 48 Torpedo Sedan may have failed but prices for its cars just passed the seven-figure mark
Preston Tucker's promise of "the first completely new car in 50 years" struck a chord in the hearts of the public in 1948 and again with the release of Francis Ford Coppola's 1988 movie.
Although his company produced just 51 cars, Tucker's legacy is much larger. Tucker was close to the innovative Harry Miller, so while the Big Three were face-lifting prewar models in 1946, Preston Tucker produced an entirely new car.
Tucker acquired the enormous Dodge aircraft engine plant in Chicago, built two full-size clay mockups and selected the best features from each one. A metal prototype, affectionately dubbed the Tin Goose, was unveiled on June 19, 1947.
Tucker's own 589-ci flat-6 engine proved noisy, underpowered, and required multiple batteries to start, so his engineers adapted the 335-ci Franklin helicopter engine. Their water-cooled version produced 166 hp and delivered 372 ft-lb of torque, while weighing a mere 322 pounds.
Tucker had the lightest engine on the market, producing one horsepower for every two pounds of weight, yet despite value engineering, the aircraft-quality unit was expensive. The average price of the 91 engines delivered through August 1948 was $1,481, while the projected base retail price for the whole car was only $2,450.
By spring, Tucker 48s began rolling off the assembly line. An automatic transmission was not ready, so transmissions were taken from used Cords and rebuilt. Gears were preselected with a miniature gated lever mounted on the steering column and then engaged by depressing the clutch pedal. The planned disc brakes became Bendix drums, but nonetheless, reviews from automobile magazines praised the car.
Then the Securities and Exchange Commission accused Tucker of mail fraud, and the company's stock fell overnight. Preston Tucker operated with a skeleton crew until March 1949, when the corporation's assets were seized. Although he was ultimately acquitted, the damage was irreversible.
According to historical records, s/n 1038 was completed on October 25, 1948, finished in Moss Green. The car was in inventory without a transmission when the company entered receivership. At some point, a correctly modified Cord transmission was installed.
By 1971, s/n 1038 was in the hands of Bill Goodwin of Indiana, who had the car restored by Tucker expert Bill Hamlin in Canada. In January 1974, William E. Beard, of Albany, Georgia, purchased it at auction. In February 1989, the car was sold to an owner, who began a second restoration in early 1997. He exhibited it at a Southern California concours in 2005 and the 3,017-mile car collected a Best of Show award.
The engine was dynamometer-tested at 154.9 hp. At the same time, the Cord electric preselector transmission was restored, including its vacuum/electric shift mechanism. The car was sold by RM at its Monterey auction in 2006 for a then-record price of $577,500. It was featured at the Tucker Club of America Convention in June 2008, and there is a YouTube video of the car being driven.
Number 1038 included both the factory AM radio and a set of new-old-stock luggage. Cosmetically, the car is nearly new, with excellent paintwork and panel fit and superior brightwork. The underbody is clean and detailed. The correct tan interior is near new.
One of only 51 built and the realization of one man's dream to revolutionize the automotive industry, there is perhaps no better example of the marque.
This restored, low-mileage Tucker sedan sold for $1,017,500 at RM's Sports & Classics of Monterey sale on August 16, 2008. It's a record price for a Tucker and well over the pre-auction estimate of $500k-$600. This is very well sold if recent history is a guide. It had sold previously at RM's Monterey auction in 2006, with about 20 fewer miles, for a little over half the price paid here. In 1992, it sold at Kruse's Auburn sale for $450,000, a record price at that time. Its low mileage has always commanded a premium.
Now that the Tucker has broken the magic million-dollar barrier, is this a bubble or a realistic price for a unique car? One of the underbidders justified the price as reasonable: "I think it's important to note that 1038 was a 3,000-mile original car with hundreds of thousands in restoration. I did a comprehensive inspection in, under, and outside of 1038. That was truly a 100-point concours car that would take $200,000 to $300,000 to replicate."
In April 2005, Bonhams sold Tucker #1029 for $461,500, rated at condition #3. At its Phoenix auction in 2004, RM knocked down #1043 for $495,000. RM had restored it to better than new in 2003, and the car had won multiple awards. It was purportedly sold later for $700,000 to the Chandler, Arizona, collector who had paid $4.2m for the GM Futurliner at Barrett-Jackson in 2006. In September 2005, #1003, formerly owned by filmmaker George Lucas, was sold after restoration for $385,000.
Tucker sales got a boost from the 1988 movie
Tucker sales in the 1990s tended to be in the $250,000-$350,000 range, with lower prices for incomplete or modified cars. This was a large increase over prices in the 1970s and '80s and can be traced to the successful 1988 film "Tucker, The Man and His Dream."
So this million-dollar price for #1038 establishes a new plateau. Anyone who followed the recent Monterey auctions can cite record prices for rare and unusual cars. A large part of this phenomenon is caused by the rising affluence of the top 1% of the world's population and a new market effect, which I call the "ABC" factor-Aging Billionaire Collector.
This comes into play when there is little market activity for a very desirable, rare car. If you have the money, the desire to own one, and are of an age where perhaps you can't wait another 20 years, the paddle stays up until you win, despite the fact that you pay twice the high auction estimate.
Tuckers surely fall into this category of rare and rarely marketed cars. Forty-seven of the 51 Tucker automobiles are still in existence today, but how many are likely to come to market in the next ten years?
Every important museum or collection in the country has a Tucker, and there aren't any late-1940s cars that are satisfactory substitutes. So the Smithsonian, Ford, Petersen, Nethercutt, LeMay, and even the Toyota museum in Japan all have their Tuckers.
About 20 Tuckers represent the market
The Tuckers in museums and important private collections that are unlikely to come on the market anytime soon numbers approximately 25. Factor in the car missing its original chassis, the car in Brazil not likely to be exported, and we end up with about 20 cars in private hands that could come to market through estate planning, death, or divorce.
A review of sales over the past decade shows approximately 17 cars sold, so it appears that while the cars are rare, the frequency of transactions is high enough. Some other aspect of rarity may be important: The six original colors of all Tuckers are known, and there are only six Moss Green ones left in private hands. Beige is the rarest color, with two, while three original black cars have survived outside of museums. Seven of the 13 maroon cars may still be available, while seven of twelve of the popular Waltz Blue cars could come on the market.
Overall, while only 20 Tuckers remain in private hands, it could be postulated that about half of them are likely to come to market in the next decade. So perhaps our hypothetical "ABC" client shouldn't have been quite so desperate. On the other hand, there was a bidder just behind him, so he wasn't alone in his valuation of this car.
In my opinion, this million-dollar Tucker forecasts where the market is going for truly exceptional examples. In the end, this particular car wasn't sold for too much, it was just bought a little early in the valuation curve.
The SCM Analysis
Years Produced: 1948
Number Produced: 51 (47 survive)
Original List Price: $2,450 (projected)
SCM Valuation: $650,000-$850,000
Tune-up Cost: $2,500
Distributor Caps: $225
Chassis # Location: Data plate on firewall
Engine # Location: Front of bell housing, stamped on top of block
Club Info: Tucker Auto Club of America
Website: click to visit
Alternatives: 1932 Bucciali TAV 12, 1933 Pierce-Arrow Silver Arrow, 1938 Phantom Corsair
Investment Grade: A