sav­ing pre­ston’s tucker

Automobile - - Classic - BY RORY JUR­NECKA PHOTOGRAPHY BY WIL­LIAM WALKER

WHAT WOULD PRE­STON TUCKER think of the sil­ver-gray-green Tucker 48 sit­ting in the show­room of Nos­tal­gic Mo­tor­ing Ltd.? The car, chas­sis No. 1,029 (the 29th of 51 built and just 47 sur­vivors), was an in­te­gral part of his life be­tween 1948, when he first drove it off the assem­bly line, and 1955, shortly be­fore his death from lung cancer. This ex­act car was Tucker’s per­sonal ve­hi­cle, spend­ing most of its time in Yp­si­lanti, Michi­gan, where Tucker’s home, fam­ily, and ma­chine shop were all lo­cated, some 250 miles east of the Tucker Cor­po­ra­tion’s Chicago fac­tory.

Roughly 2,000 em­ploy­ees, in­clud­ing a stag­ger­ing 250 en­gi­neers, toiled in the fac­tory day and night, never quite keep­ing up with Tucker’s ex­pec­ta­tions for his fledg­ling and ul­ti­mately ill-fated ven­ture to pro­duce an ad­vanced ve­hi­cle the in­dus­try giants in Detroit would never un­der­stand. He was on a quest to prove good enough was wholly inadequate, and he never thought to ask why such a car couldn’t be built. That’s a phi­los­o­phy that jibes with chas­sis 29’s present owner, Mark Lieber­man, who paid $1,792,500 for not just the priv­i­lege of call­ing Tucker’s car his own for a time but also the honor of re­turn­ing the ma­chine to its for­mer glory.

TUCKER SOLD THE

CAR TO WINTHROP ROCKEFELLER, AN HEIR TO THE ROCKEFELLER FOR­TUNE, WHO DROVE IT DAILY WHILE SERV­ING AS GOV­ER­NOR OF ARKANSAS.

Lieber­man founded Nos­tal­gic Mo­tor­ing, a col­lec­tor car sales and restora­tion shop, 23 years ago. In 2009, it moved into a for­mer church, the so-called “Car Sanc­tu­ary” tucked off a side road down the street from SRT’s head­quar­ters in Auburn Hills, Michi­gan. When he was 12, Lieber­man started fix­ing mopeds for spend­ing money, and at 13 he started his first busi­ness. By his mid-20s he was a plas­tics re­cy­cling mogul, hav­ing jumped in head­first on a chance op­por­tu­nity to re­cy­cle en­gi­neered ther­mo­plas­tics— in­dus­trial plas­tic waste pro­duced by the au­to­mo­tive in­dus­try. At the time, no one was able to re­cy­cle the ma­te­rial, but Lieber­man’s naivety would ul­ti­mately power his suc­cess. It’s easy to draw a par­al­lel be­tween him and Tucker. “I didn’t know that couldn’t be done,” Lieber­man says of his plas­tics busi­ness, founded in 1985 and sold in 2007. “That’s why I did it.”

Whereas Tucker was not suc­cess­ful with his ven­ture, Lieber­man, a life­long car fa­natic, was. The pro­ceeds from sell­ing the plas­tics busi­ness en­abled Lieber­man “the fi­nan­cial abil­ity to just play with cars,” as he puts it. He has be­come one of the world’s fore­most Tucker au­thor­i­ties,

and through his knowl­edge of de­vel­op­ing plas­tic and rub­ber com­pounds, he has re­pro­duced many items orig­i­nal to the Tucker 48, in­clud­ing the car’s fail­ure­prone tubu­lar, rub­ber-filled Tor­si­las­tic sus­pen­sion com­po­nents. That’s a fault Tucker’s for­mer car has; although it looks per­fectly driv­able with its lus­trous paint and shiny chrome, the col­lapsed front sus­pen­sion has a tem­po­rary fix to give it the proper stance for pho­to­graphs, Lieber­man says.

“I spent a lot of money and a lot of time mak­ing a sys­tem that worked,” he re­calls. “Be­fore then, you’d have peo­ple putting coil-overs and weld­ing all man­ner of con­trap­tions in these cars to sus­pend them be­cause they were all col­lapsed. I’m still the only guy on the planet that makes this stuff. We can make cars ride like they were sup­posed to in ’48.”

This is the fifth Tucker Lieber­man has owned. He bought his first one out of a barn in dire con­di­tion in 1991, re­stored it, and held on to it for 15 years. The tall, lanky na­tive Michi­gan res­i­dent reels off chas­sis num­bers and de­tails of spe­cific cars like a base­ball his­to­rian recit­ing sta­tis­tics. His en­thu­si­asm is in­fec­tious, and even he seems to be amazed by the knowl­edge he shares with others, as if he is hear­ing the sto­ries him­self for the first time.

When it comes to No. 29, Lieber­man can talk nearly non­stop for as long as you like. He tells us that in its early days, it was used for speed test­ing at In­di­anapo­lis Mo­tor Speed­way and also demon­strated the ca­pa­bil­ity of Tucker ve­hi­cles in a pro­mo­tional film.

Be­fore he died, Tucker sold the car to Winthrop Rockefeller, an heir to the Rockefeller for­tune, who drove it daily while serv­ing as gov­er­nor of Arkansas. From there it passed through sev­eral hands, in­clud­ing those of singer James Brown’s man­ager, and was fea­tured promi­nently in “Tucker: The Man and His Dream,” a 1988 movie di­rected by Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola. Then it en­tered a static pri­vate col­lec­tion and was gen­er­ally unloved and un­used for the bet­ter part of a decade. When the car popped up at RM Sotheby’s Scotts­dale auc­tion in Jan­uary, Lieber­man pounced.

“As I worked my way through early cars and late cars, what’s the next thing to do? I want Pre­ston’s car,” Lieber­man says. “From a tech­ni­cal stand­point, it’s kind of unique, but from a sig­nif­i­cance and his­tor­i­cal stand­point, it’s kind of huge.”

In­deed, No. 29 has sev­eral fea­tures Tucker him­self had added to not just this car but also Tuck­ers Nos. 30 and 31—both cars owned orig­i­nally by his fam­ily. Among these is the hol­low ring­like shift-lever cen­ter, which was a solid disc on stan­dard Tuck­ers. Tucker ev­i­dently found shift­ing with a fin­ger slipped through the cen­ter was more com­fort­able to him. He also added ad­di­tional sup­port to the rear sus­pen­sion for greater sta­bil­ity and a Bab­cock wa­ter heater to com­bat frigid Michi­gan win­ters.

In­side, No. 29 presents like the 20,000-mile car it is. There’s a crack on the plas­tic speedome­ter surround, but Lieber­man re­pro­duces those, too. The in­te­rior up­hol­stery was re­done, but the orig­i­nal stuff mirac­u­lously re­sides just un­der­neath. Ul­ti­mately, Lieber­man will fully re­store No. 29, and there are plenty of clues to help him do it the right way.

“My fo­cus is go­ing to be on get­ting this car to be as cor­rect and as orig­i­nal as it was when Pre­ston took it for the first time out of the fac­tory,” Lieber­man says. “Un­der­neath the orig­i­nal up­hol­stery and glove box is orig­i­nal paint, and it’s pre­served—it hasn’t been de­graded by heat or sun. That should be a spot-on point to match color from. We re­man­u­fac­ture all the rub­ber, so the sill plates and all that will be fresh and man­u­fac­tured to the orig­i­nal blue­prints.”

With Lieber­man’s re­sources and knowl­edge, a Tucker restora­tion seems like it should be easy, but there’s a lot of hard man­ual la­bor and a ton of re­search put into the process.

“For the last sev­eral years I’ve been the di­rec­tor of the Tucker club ar­chives, and I have ac­cess to all the files and data,” Lieber­man says. “Be­ing able to use the blue­prints is key to mak­ing this all cor­rect and orig­i­nal. We’re go­ing to pre­serve ar­eas of spot welds and con­struc­tion that was prac­ticed at the time. These cars have an enor­mous amount of lead [filler] in them; I got 300 pounds of lead off of car No. 6. The cars are sculpted. You can’t take the door off one and put it on an­other. It’s not go­ing to fit.”

Lieber­man is re­luc­tant to drive the ve­hi­cle in its present state. Be­sides the sus­pen­sion, the an­cient, “crispy” wiring is a fire haz­ard threat­en­ing to erase the car from his­tory. In­stead, we turn to No. 46, a fully re­stored ex­am­ple in Lieber­man’s cus­tody. The car is on con­sign­ment for sale, but it will also be fea­tured at the Peb­ble Beach Con­cours d’El­e­gance in Au­gust as part of a spe­cial Tucker class.

As with all Tuck­ers, No. 46 has its own unique and in­ter­est­ing story. Once it was part of the Fab­u­lous Tuck­ers Ex­hibit, a trav­el­ing Tucker fair and car­ni­val show run by a man named Nick Jenin. Later, 46’s body was dropped onto an Oldsmo­bile chas­sis and con­verted to front-mounted Rocket V-8 power with an au­to­matic trans­mis­sion for Jenin’s daugh­ter. A Mer­cury deal­er­ship owner then re­peated the process with a Mer­cury chas­sis and en­gine. Ul­ti­mately, 46 was

treated to a full restora­tion, with a cor­rect Tuck­er­mod­i­fied Franklin 334-cu­bic-inch avi­a­tion en­gine back in place in the rear of the car. It’s not the same en­gine it left the fac­tory with, which isn’t un­com­mon, ac­cord­ing to Lieber­man.

“More than half of the Tuck­ers don’t have their orig­i­nal en­gine since they were de­signed to be a quick-change en­gine,” he says. “When cars came in for ser­vice, they’d take the en­gine out, slap a good one in, and you’d drive away, then re­turn to have the other en­gine put back when it was ser­viced.” Ap­par­ently more than a few orig­i­nal motors were never re­in­stalled be­fore Tucker Cor­po­ra­tion dis­banded.

Ei­ther way, the Tucker has mas­sive road pres­ence on the small, wind­ing lanes of Auburn Hills. “It’s like a mas­sively gi­ant 356 Porsche,” Lieber­man says. “A lit­tle ass-heavy, but it has a light front end and han­dles well with the right sus­pen­sion. It doesn’t have a lot of body roll, stays rel­a­tively flat, and you can pretty much turn the wheel with two fin­gers.”

Later, back in­side the church-turned-shop, I climb be­hind No. 29’s wheel and look over the broad hood. The thin plas­tic steer­ing wheel is huge, which is also ex­actly how the car feels when you’re planted in­side. Lieber­man grins. But will he keep No. 29 when its restora­tion is fin­ished?

“I kind of adopted the phi­los­o­phy that my sta­tion with Tucker is to get them, bring them back to the way they’re sup­posed to be, pass them on to the next con­ser­va­tor, and go grab an­other one,” he says in a some­what somber tone. “Will I have this one for­ever? For­ever’s a long time.” AM

There’s patina ev­ery­where on No. 29, Pre­ston Tucker’s per­sonal car. The cracked in­stru­ment surround will be re­placed with one of Mark Lieber­man’s re­pro­duc­tions.

Tucker’s Tor­si­las­tic sus­pen­sion de­sign was in­trigu­ing but prone to fail­ure. Nos­tal­gic Mo­tor­ing de­vel­oped these new, more durable pieces.

No. 46 lived a long and sto­ried life, but it’s back to its orig­i­nal con­fig­u­ra­tion in time for the 2018 Peb­ble Beach Con­cours d’El­e­gance in Au­gust.

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