This post is the fifth in a series of eight profiling automobiles in the museum’s collection. At the conclusion of the series on Tuesday, December 21, the public will be invited to vote for one favorite among the eight cars. The two automobiles with the most votes in the “Race to the Museum” contest will be displayed in the museum from January 22 to February 21, 2011.
“The First Completely New Car in Fifty Years”—that’s how Preston Tucker billed his audacious assault on Detroit in the late 1940s. He promised that his car would be fresh, advanced, and different, from its futuristic styling to its rear engine and rubber suspension. Tucker laid plans on a massive scale, hiring a design team and an executive staff, obtaining a huge assembly plant, and building a dealer network. For all of Tucker’s brashness and avant-garde outlook, his most important innovation was his obsession with safety. He insisted on a padded dashboard, obstacle-free zone for the front passenger, pop-out windshield, and turning center headlight. But he stopped short of installing seat belts, thinking that they would hurt sales.
Production of tomorrow’s car was cut short by a federal investigation of Tucker’s business practices. Today the 46 remaining Tucker sedans, housed in museums and private collections, preserve the legacy of the man who tried to change America’s driving habits. This Tucker, the 39th of 51 made, was forfeited in a drug arrest; in 1993, I had the pleasure of receiving it from the U. S. Marshals Service, which chose to transfer it to the National Museum of American History instead of selling it.
Roger White is Associate Curator in the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History.