|PHILIP EGAN, one of the original designers of this famous car and author
of the book Design and Destiny: the making of the Tucker Automobile,
Phil Egan is a designer, engineer, writer, and artist who presently lives in Marin County, California. Phil began
as a practicing industrial designer in New York under Harry Preble Jr. an architect from Denver, Colorado. His
father and mother were both artists; their talent motivated him to begin drawing at an early age.
To hear Philip Egan tell it, to have been a part of Preston Tucker’s automotive dream was “fascinating,” “marvelous,” “an unbelievably wonderful opportunity for a young designer.” But Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 movie, “Tucker — The Man and His Dream,” was more Hollywood fantasy than reality. Egan, now 80 and living in Marin County, was part of Tucker’s design team in the late 1940s. He did his job, helping to create the car’s styling and then, when the company ran out of money, he went on with his life as an industrial designer. Then, with the arrival of Coppola’s movie 40 years later, Egan decided to tell the story as it really was. And now, another dozen years down the road, Egan is still talking. His book, “Design and Destiny: The Making of the Tucker Automobile,” is in its fifth printing. On Saturday, he’ll speak at the Blackhawk Museum in Danville as part of its Tucker Automobile Day ceremonies. He’ll give two brief talks at 11 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. and sign copies of his book, with four of the original 51 Tuckers serving as a backdrop. “It was fun,” Egan saidd of Coppola’s film. “If you didn’t know anything about the true story, it was a good yarn. But it wasn’t accurate. In the movie, which earned four Academy Award nominations, Tucker’s dream dies at the hands of the Detroit Big Three in cahoots with a federal government eager to wipe out any competition. While some see some semblance of truth in that popular conception, that wasn’t what killed the Tucker, Egan said. “The Big Three couldn’t have cared less” he said. “Tucker had made one serious error. He had not raised enough money.” And that, coupled with a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation, which later cleared Tucker, sent the company into bankruptcy. The “Standard Catalog of American Cars 1946 – 1975” says “The Tucker was easily spotted from any angle. At the front were three headlights. The center one pointed in the direction the car was steered. The long sloping back was accented by fin-like taillights just above the rear grille.” A four-door, six-passenger sedan, the Tucker 48 sold for $2,450. It carried a water-cooled six-cylinder engine that had been transformed from an air-cooled helicopter engine. Most innovative were safety features such as disc brakes, a padded dash, a breakaway rear mirror and a windshield that would pop out in a crash. John Biel, editor in chief of Collectible Automobile magazine, describes the Tucker as “a daring gamble” with its rear-engine layout and its emphasis on safety. Tucker represented “that last flourish of entrepreneurship in the auto industry,” he said. Left: The Tucker was designed with a destinctive “Pre-Selector” gearshift arrangement. Still, Tucker might have just been a footnote, joining the vast graveyard of small-volume American automakers, had not Francis Ford Coppola decided that this story would make good movie. After reading in the paper that Coppola was going to tell Tucker’s saga, Egan telephoned him one morning. “I got the drift that he was going to eulogize Tucker,” Egan said. I felt that Tucker was far more interesting warts and all than he was as a white knight.” Coppola’s decision was unfortunate, Egan said. “He was a diamond in the rough kind of person, not a polished man” Egan said of Tucker, a former motorcycle police officer and car dealer. “He was an interesting person, thoroughly honest, very well meaning, but flawed as we all are,” Egan said. To Egan, Tucker was an idea man. Some of his ideas were sound, while others were, well, “the type you get while shaving in the mornIng and staring into the mirror,” Egan said. When Tucker came around his design staff, he was “a little baronial” Egan said. In the movie portrayal by Jeff Bridges, Tucker comes across as an inspirational, idealistic and family man, one who pipes up with “Hold That Tiger” to turn the tide whenever bad news strikes. Egan was working as an industrial designer in New York when his firm landed the Tucker project. Then called the Tucker Torpedo, the car had already gotten a lot of publicity, despite the fact that it only existed in design sketches and as a quarter-sized model. "It was obviously a rather farfetched design." Egan said. So, along with chief designer Alex Tremulis, Egan and a handful of others worked to create a car that had front and rear ends that reflected “the New York industrial design approach.” That was the car that was hand-built by a master metal craftsman. It was known as No. 0, or the Tin Goose. And now that the production car had its shape, it was decided that Tucker 48 would be a more appropriate name than the Tucker Torpedo. It was presented in June 1947 to a standing ovation, Egan recalls. “It was a beautiful-looking automobile, maroon in color.” But it barely ran and carried an “unproven” engine that “sounded like a barrel of monkeys with the lid propped open a little bit.” As plans for production progressed, Egan moved from New York to Chicago to serve as Tremulis’ assistant. He designed the mechanical interior of the car, including the driver control area. But, all too quickly, it became clear to Egan that something was “terribly wrong.” A shortage of parts and materials led to a shortage of paychecks. Still, when the factory shut down, Egan said he was surprised. And the experience left him bitter for several years. Egan went to work for Sears Roebuck, eventually moving to other firms and opening one of his own. He headed west in 1968. To this day, Egan said he shakes his head in wonder that Tucker continues to be a topic of discussion. Yet Tucker’s lasting impact, his 51 cars, creates new memories today. Bev and Dorothy Ferreira of San Francisco drove their Tucker, No. 41, to the Blackhawk Museum for this month’s celebration. Bev Ferreira, 81, is a retired mechanic and auto parts store owner. He paid $5,000 for his Tucker 31 years ago. “That was a lot of money in 1970,” he said. It had been on display at the Sutro Baths, which were being dismantled. When he bought it, “I never even knew what a Tucker was,” he said. He restored it, repainted it (“I don’t like a black car”) and has driven it 33,000 miles in the past three decades. Ferreira, his Tucker and his Indian police motorcycle all appeared in the “Tucker” movie. It wasn’t memorable for the lifelong San Franciscan. “Too damn much sitting around,” he said. But for Debbie Hull of Concord, being in the movie was a great experience. That’s because she shared it with her father who bought Tucker No. 19 in 1958. He died in 1994. All the Tuckers were supposed to be outside the Opera House in San Francisco for an early morning shoot, but her father was running late. So Hull went into makeup, put on some period clothing and got prepared to drive the car, something she hadn’t done before. Then, at the last minute, her dad showed up. So they rode on film together. “It was a fun experience for me,” said Hull, a registered nurse. Car collector Bob Lenoue takes in the Tucker exhibit at the Blackhawk Museum in Danville. Photo by Ron Burda, Mercury News The two other Tuckers on display at Blackhawk are No. 2, which is owned by Buck Kamphausen of Vallejo, and No. 39, which is on loan from the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. That car, according to Bill Pommering, president of the Tucker Automobile Club of America, was confiscated in a drug raid. His club was worried the classic car would end up auctioned to the highest bidder, and perhaps lost forever overseas. Instead, after “a tremendous lobbying effort,” it was given to the Smithsonian. As far as the remaining 51 Tuckers, Pommering said, 28 belong to private owners, 18 are in museums, four are in parts and one has been destroyed. The Tucker club, founded almost 30 years ago; now has 500 members. Most, obviously, and including Pommering, don’t own Tuckers. The cars, when they do change hands, now sell for “in excess of $300,000,” he said. To Pommering, Preston Tucker was trying to fulfill an American dream of “building something from nothing.” And what he created was “a car ahead of its time.” And most club members, he said, “share his dream.”
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