The phrase “e-car” these days is shorthand for electric car, but in 1955, it was the working name for a car that was going to shake up the mid-range luxury car market — fancier than most Fords, cheaper than a Mercury. It had a unique vertical grill, teletouch drive to easily shift gears with the push of a button, a speedometer that turned red when you went too fast, a remote operated electric opening trunk, and other impressive features, like seat belts. It was advertised as “Your car,” based on polling the buying public on what *they wanted in a car. It was availabe in sub-models ranging from a two-door convertible to a station wagon. Named for the son of the company’s founder and father of the current head of the company, this car left an indelible mark on automotive history…for all the wrong reasons. My name’s…
Little peek behind the curtain here, my last name isn’t actually LaBouche. [sfx gasp] Shock, I know, that the name Moxie LaBouche might be made up. My real last name is Tucker, like the next entrant on our list today. You may have heard of the 1988 movie “Tucker a Man and his Dream,” starring Jeff Bridges. ‘Heard about it’ was exactly all I did. You’d think I would have at least inquired if we were related, but no. So we’re learning together, you and I!
The Tucker in question is Preston Tucker, a gifted businessman and dedicated gearhead, born in 1903 in Michigan. By the age of 16, he was already making money buying and flipping cars and had left school to work at Cadillac as a clerk. Tucker would later join the Lincoln Park, Michigan police department because he wanted to drive police vehicles, but was later banned from driving them after using a blowtorch to cut a hole in the dashboard of one to allow heat from the engine to warm the cabin. The average winter low temp in MI is 17F/-8C; you do what you gotta go.
During WWII, the US government shut down the auto industry so the factories could make tanks, planes, and other gears of war. After a few years with no new cars, there were a lot of past-it cars on the road and no new cars to replace them. Tucker realized people were going to want a new car once this whole kerfuffle was behind them. He also knew how the big car companies would fill that need — they would just take the parts and designs that were interrupted in 1942, fire up the assembly lines and call the cars that rolled off 1948s, even though they were really 42’s. It’s not like people would have a choice. What are they gonna do, buy a car from some small upstart company? Tucker, on the other hand, wanted to start afresh, and in many ways, that was to his advantage. He could tinker with new-fangled technologies, like fuel injections and disc brakes…if only he had his own car company. So he started one.
Tucker wasn’t just a creative engineer, he was also a highly charismatic salesman, the kind of guy who could sell the Pope a double bed, could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman wearing white gloves, could sell a glass of water to a drowning man, and my personal favorite when I started Googling those expressions, he could sell a literal meaning to a high school English teacher. He also knew how to massage the media, a critical skill in those bygone times before instant electronic virality.
He met with a car designer to draw up quite a stylish design, what would become the Tucker Torpedo. The drawings of a rear-engine car with slick lines that made it look like it was in a hero wind even sitting still, and a third headlight that swiveled to light the way around corners. Other cars of the era looked downright dumpy in comparison. The story and the drawing was picked up by papers across the nation and the public started to get excited. Style was a concern, of course, whatever the car equivalent of ‘we eat with our eyes first’ is, but Tucker was also looking at practical things — the rear engine design left more usable space in the front of the car — and safety — a padded dash and, gasp, seatbelts.
Tucker enlisted a few talented fabricators to help him make the prototype, nicknamed the Tin Goose, a play on Howard Hugh’s experimental plane, the Spruce Goose. Now he needed a plant in which to manufacture. He found a factory in Chicago that had been used to make bomber engines during the war and Tucker was able to massage some connections until the War Assets Administration, which still controlled the building, would let him lease the factory… provided he could come up with the money. To raise the money for the lease, Tucker initially decided to get a bank loan, but for $15 million, the amount he needed, the banks wanted control of the Tucker Screw that. Tucker decided instead to sell car dealerships, of a company that only barely existed, which still didn’t have a running prototype. This, understandably, got the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC started investigating, but Tucker argued that he’d need permission from the SEC to sell stocks or securities, he didn’t need their permission to sell franchises. The SEC, politely put, disagreed and required the Tucker Corporation to amend all dealer contracts to state that there was a significant risk of
bankruptcy. That quelled some investor enthusiasm and Tucker was only able to raise $6 million. Still, that’s equivalent to raising $67 million without a single functioning product to show for it ….and we keep doing this, don’t we? We get swayed by lofty promises and initial prototype designs and we go full “Shut up and take my money.” That’s how we ended up with Theranos, that scam blood-testing company. Tucker wasn’t lying about his product, though, nor speaking in a ridiculously artificial baritone, as far as I know. One of the investors, btw, was Carmine Copolla, whose son Francis would direct the Tucker movie. Carmine Coppola also did the scores for his son’s most famous movies.
After signing the lease, Tucker faced a second major hurdle when the National Housing
Agency (NHA) ordered the WAA to terminate Tucker’s lease so the factory could be used to build prefabricated housing, another “product” that would see skyrocketing post-war demand. Tucker spent these four months fighting this breach of contract in court, but he prevailed. But he still had a $9mil shortfall to make up, so he decided to sell stock. Tucker proposed to SEC an initial public stock offering of $20 million, which the SEC agreed to, provided a *working prototype be built. While Tucker shook hands and made deals, his people took the Tin Goose on the road. Everywhere they went, people flocked to it. In NYC, they charged admission to see it and actually outsold some Broadway shows. Tucker and the Torpedo were in the news constantly, in articles that painted him as an underdog taking on the Big Three automakers. The Big Three, naturally, saw all this fervor and were none too pleased. It’s been reported that they began to pressure lawmakers and government officials, interfered with Tucker’s ability to buy steel, and even fielded spies in the plant.
The Tucker Corporation was converting the plant for its first production run, but had only raised $15 million in the IPO, coming up short again. They’d hired 1,600 employees, but had no revenue yet for wages, parts and materials. So Tucker decided to set up a pre-purchase plan that let customers pre-order the features they wanted, like exterior and interior color, which raised another $2mil. [sfx yay] But…the SEC determined that preselling accessories to a product that didn’t exist was fraudulent and illegal, [sfx boo] and they ordered production of cars stopped and the factory shut down for while they investigated. Warrants were executed on the factor and all the papers in the office were seized. Even if they hadn’t been ordered to stop, the Tucker Corp could hardly do business with all of their paperwork, plans, and specs missing. Preston Tucker responded with “An Open Letter to The Automobile Industry In The Interests Of The American Motorist By Preston Tucker President, Tucker Corp.” which was published in newspapers across the country. It read, in part, “We are going to justify the support these motorists so generously have given us. We are going to give them the car they want at a price they can afford, and without paying tribute to the Black Market. How this will be done will be announced today. But in the meantime, I want to register the fact that we have just begun to fight. We have been patient so far, but our patience is wearing thin. We can give names, dates and places to prove our charges of unfair competition, and if necessary we will do it. When the day comes that anyone can bend our country’s laws and lawmakers to serve selfish, competitive ends, that day democratic government dies. And we’re just optimistic enough to believe that once the facts are on the table, American public opinion will walk in with a big stick.” Link in the show notes.
The newspapers that had helped to build hype for the Tucker Torpedo also provided the means needed to take the company down. Syndicated columnist and radio show host Drew Pearson announced on his show that Preston Tucker was a fraud and the SEC had proved it. The whole operation was a scam and had been since the beginning. That Tucker had ripped off all of the investors, stockholders and pre-purchasers. These things weren’t true, at least not in the way and to the degree Pearon was claiming, but, as they say, a lie gets around the world while the truth is still tying its shoes. Papers across the nation ran the column. Tucker Corp stock tanked and the public that a year ago had paid for the privilege to look at the Tin Goose now turned on Preston Tucker.
In January 1949 the plant was closed, and the Tucker Corporation was bankrupt. That October, the SEC put Preston Tucker and his board of directors to trial for fraud. The following January, a grand jury found the defendants not guilty, but it was too late. The Tucker Corporation was liquidated, the WAA confiscated the factory for failure to make the lease payment, and all of their assets, including the fifty-one cars they’d actually made, were sold for 18 cents on the dollar. Today, what had been Tucker’s 475-acre Chicago production plant now houses a Tootsie Roll factory and a shopping center. But 47 of the original 51 cars built there still exist in collections scattered throughout the world. You can (sometimes) see one at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History warehouse. Even up on blocks, it’s said to glow like a champagne pearl.
The same cannot be said for the reputation of Preston Tucker. Though Tucker had been acquitted, the public didn’t seem to notice. The stink of the accusation and trial clung to Tucker for the rest of his life. You’ve gotta feel for the guy. One person who might well have, not to put words in his mouth, was John deLorean, who suffered largely the same fate.
Show of hands if you’re of an age that the first time you can remember laying eyes on a DMC was in the 1985 movie Back to the Future. Development for the iconic, gull-wing, paint-free DeLorean began a decade earlier, with the first production cars, *and all their development issues, rolled out in 1980. With the exception of five gold-plated examples, every DeLorean left the factory naked as jaybirds in all their raw stainless steel glory. The DeLorean wasn’t the first car with gull wings — that was the 1952 Mercedes-Benz 300SL race car and its 1954 road-legal sister — but the DeLorean fixed it in the public zeitgeist. Stylistically, the DeLorean was a tour-de-force, but mechanically, it fell as flat as its body panels. The top speed you could squeeze out the 130 horsepower was 109 mph.
Before we get any further into that minutia, let’s meet the car’s namesake, John DeLorean. DeLorean had successfully run Pontiac and Chevrolet for GM, before tossing his papers up in the air and leaving to start his own company. The DeLorean Corporation began in consulting, but the acquisition of the Composite Technology Corporation gave DeLorean access to a patented process for forming plastic-foam panels. The DeLorean car shimmered into existence as a cooperative effort between DeLorean Corp and Allstate Auto Insurance, which provided half a million dollars toward the design of a so-called “safety car.” Allstate later backed out, but DeLorean already had their money. Design work was contracted to Ital Design in Turin, Italy, with instructions that the car *must have gullwing doors, deformable plastic nose and tail caps, room for six-foot-plus occupants, and stainless-steel bodywork. The prototype, dubbed DMC-12, debuted at the 1977 National Automobile Dealers Association meeting and 158 dealers paid $25k each to be able to sell them, with another 185 signing on soon thereafter.
When it came time to fire up the factory and make these bad boys, DeLorean, continuing with the international approach, looked to Northern Ireland. Picture the cheating boyfriend meme, where DeLorean’s the guy, natch, the girlfriend is Detroit, and the other girl is Belfast. A mixture of grants, loans, and direct equity investment totaling more than $100 million from the Northern Ireland Development Agency and the Department of Commerce enticed DeLorean to choose the Troubled, with a capital T, city. The Irish Republican Army was fighting, or terrorizing, depending on who you ask, for home-rule and freedom from Britain, and right in the middle of it sat a luxury-car company with financial backing from the British government.
Rollin’ in dough, DeLorean contracted Lotus to develop the DMC-12 sports car in 1978. Bonus fact: the cheapest Lotus you can buy currently is just under $100k new. In 1981, the first cars rolled off of the assembly lines and were sent stateside. Production costs had gotten out of hand, driving the price of the car to twice what DeLorean had told dealers it would be. Each one cost $25,000 at a time when you could get a bog-standard sedan for $10,000. Hell, you could get a souped-up Corvette and still have $7K left. Reviews were positive, but the timing was not. A recession hit the U.S., leaving a large inventory of unsold cars. DeLorean’s response? Build more cars! This, unsurprisingly, wasn’t good for the books, and DeLorean sought financial assistance from the British government. The new Thatcher-led government was less keen to make it rain on DeLorean. Layoffs ensued at both the Belfast factory and among DeLorean’s U.S. staff, and prompted the British government to look into DMC’s accounting. Los Contadores were none too pleased with what they found and put DeLorean Motor Company receivership. One year after the first DMC12 rolled off the line, the company filed for bankruptcy. And then the cocaine happened.
For many years now, most of my knowledge of the John DeLorean cocaine bust came from the movie The People Vs Larry Flynt. That’s a reliable historical documentary, right? In his tell-all 1985 book, DeLorean, he describes over two months of chasing what he thought was a legitimate investment in his auto company before, abruptly, drugs came up as a possible source for investment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed DeLorean was trying to save his company with a scheme to sell 100kg/220lb of cocaine with an estimated value of US$24 million. The government was “tipped off” DeLorean’s former neighbor, James Hoffman, an FBI informant hoping to get a reduced sentence for his own federal drug charges. He knew DeLorean was in major financial trouble and needed money fast. Hoffman told the Fibbers that DeLorean had approached him to ask about setting up a cocaine deal; in truth, it was Hoffman that had called DeLorean with the idea. Hoffman called DeLorean a *lot, pestering and pestering him with the idea.
In October 1982, DeLorean was charged by the US government with trafficking cocaine following a videotaped sting operation in which he was recorded by undercover federal agents agreeing to bankroll a cocaine smuggling operation, sitting in front of 60lbs of cocaine (worth about US$6.5 million) in an LAX hotel. DeLorean’s lawyers successfully argued that the FBI and DEA had illegally entrapped DeLorean, who had no criminal record, when they allowed Hoffman, a career criminal, to randomly solicit DeLorean into a criminal conspiracy. They called just one witness, Carol Winkler, DeLorean’s Administrative Assistant, whose call log showed that Hoffman made the initial call. DeLorean was found not guilty in August 1984, but by then DMC had already collapsed into bankruptcy and DeLorean’s reputation as a businessman was irrevocably tarnished. When asked after his acquittal if he planned to resume his career in the auto industry, DeLorean bitterly quipped, “Would you buy a used car from me?” Then the IRS and its British equivalent came knocking. These inquiries eventually led to John Z. DeLorean’s indictment in 1985 on 15 federal charges of fraud, racketeering, wire fraud, and more. He was found not guilty then, too, even though it wasn’t entirely clear where $17.75 million in investors’ money had gone. Interestingly, Back to the Future opened in July 1985, smack between DeLorean’s trials. DeLorean’s name was as legally as clean as the DMC-12s’ body panels, but his name and reputation, and the reputation of the car, had been crushed into a cube by the compactor of public opinion and fickle news coverage.
Picture it, America, 1973. Gas was starting to get really expensive and would soon be in short supply. All over America people were looking at their massive, thirsty V8s and starting to wonder if lumbering around town in a Delta 88 was really worth being forced to put a kidney on the market to pay for the gas. People were getting desperate for a new, cheaper, more radical automotive option. Enter, the Dale.
The Dale looked like nothing that was on the road at the time. “Futuristic” is the word people used. Do you remember the movie The Flight of the Navigator? Okay, picture the spaceship in mid transition between regular and fast mode. That’s the shape of the Dale in profile. The yellow prototype car had three wheels, two up front and one in the rear, which not only made it space-agey, but forgoing 25% of the wheels allegedly cut 25% of the total weight of the vehicle. Putting the single wheel in the rear rather than the front also kept the center of gravity without the triangle of the wheels, so the Dale wouldn’t flip over like a startled possum, a bugbear for trikes like the British Reliant Robin. The car was light, made not of steel but of “rocket structural resin.” The car contained no wires, with all the electronics running off a single printed circuit board. The makers of the Dale, the Twentieth Century Motors Corporation, a reference to a fictitious company in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, claimed in their brochure that the Dale’s BMW motorcycle engine would get upwards of 70 MPG and cost less than $2,000. Even in 1974 dollars, that was cheap. As in less than a standard, stripped-down VW Beetle cheap.
The car was nothing compared to the founder of the company, though. 37 year old Geraldine Elizabeth Carmichael, mother of five, a widow of a former NASA structural engineer, holder of degrees in mechanical engineering and marketing, had a big personality and a body to match, standing 6 feet tall… and until shortly before launching the company Carmichael had been Jerry Dean Michael, deadbeat father and career criminal who was wanted on fraud, theft, and counterfeiting charges when he disappeared. Now, a person changing their gender presentation is not as unusual today, but in 1974, not so much. Also, changing your name from Michael to Carmichael and launching a car company, it’s like every story where the mysterious stranger is named Alucard and none of the characters realize that’s Dracula spelled backwards. And as the first female CEO of an auto company, she had the makings of an icon of the Sexual Revolution. She was written up in Newsweek and People magazine. The L.A. media was all over her. Johnny Carson even mentioned the Dale and its “creator” on the Tonight Show.
Carmichael talked a very convincing game, and had amassed $30 million for the company (10% of which has been promised to the car’s designer Dale Clifft) and produced a few prototypes, which was shown at the 1975 Los Angeles Auto Show. At the show they claimed they would be able to ramp up to high-volume production by June of 1975, which, like getting the car crash-tested and EPA approved, seemed an insanely lofty goal. At one event, Carmichael claimed to have driven the only running prototype car –the other two prototypes were shells– straight into a wall at 30mph, emerging with injury, okay maybe, and with no damage to the car. You know what, no. I’m calling shenanigans. That’s a bridge too far. No you didn’t drive your company’s only prototype into a wall and no, the sledge-hammer-proof rocket structural resin did not save the car from any and all damage. That’s one of those claims that, in hindsight, should be cheek-searingly embarrassing for anyone who believed it.
During the time when one would imagine they’d be developing prototypes and testing the cars extensively, the company had been busy doing other things. Like selling stock shares without a permit, and selling dealerships and as-yet hypothetical cars to dealers, again without a manufacturer’s license. Things got even more exciting in the company in late January 1975 when salesman and former public relations representative William D. Miller was found dead in his office with four gunshot wounds to the head. The prime suspect was fellow employee Jack Oliver who, it was soon discovered, had previously served with Miller in San Quentin prison. Geraldine, can we talk about your hiring practices? Local press began investigating the woman, the company, and the car, and found a whole lot of hinky going on. Seeing the excrement headed toward the fan, Carmichael bolted from LA and went to the Dallas suburb of Farmer’s Branch, where she re-established the company, cleverly re-naming the Dale the Revette to throw anyone off the trail.
Now your average person on the cusp of being exposed as a multimillion dollar fraud would lay low, stay off the radar, change jobs, but no, not Carmichael. She promoted the Revette with as much enthusiasm as she did the Dale, even managing to have it be a Showcase Showdown prize on the Price is Right in early 1975. Luckily, the contestant was unable to guess the car’s price, saving everyone the embarrassment of winning a car that didn’t actually move under its own power. An eagle eyed California regulator, who happened to be watching daytime TV, recognized the *yellow *3-wheeled car whose name host Bob Barker and announcer Johnny Olson said repeatedly, was hiding in plain sight on national television. A few days later, Carmichael was arrested outside of Dallas.
While appealing the case, a $50,000 bail was posted by someone described as a “mysterious perfume merchant.” This turned out to be a television producer who wanted the exclusive rights to the story for an expose’ he was planning. In the midst of delivering her story, Carmichael slipped away again. It would take a decade and another TV producer to move the story forward, when viewers of the show Unsolved Mysteries found her running a flower stand under the name of Katherine Johnson in, not a word of a lie, Dale, Texas. Did she go looking for a town named Dale or did the Universe just rip a fat one and say “You know what would be funny?” She served 10 years in federal prison on the earlier charges. Upon her release, it was California’s turn. Carmichael spend another 32 months in jail on charges related to the Dale fraud. All that time behind bars apparently cured Carmichael of her desire for the limelight. She worked as a florist and kept her nose clean until her death from cancer in 2004. And what of Dale Clifft, who designed the car and named it after himself, thinking he had a $3mil payday on the way. Carmichael only paid him $1000 in cash and a $2000 check, which bounced.
And that’s…My clever Brainiacs probably worked out that I opened the show talking about the infamous Ford Edsel, which failed for many reasons. While the company *did extensive research in consumer desires, they seem to have completely ignored their findings. People hated the Edsel’s vertical grill. The Edsel was supposed to be affordable luxury, but had a luxury-luxury price, and they had this recession on. They were reliably unreliable, their manufacture being shoehorned into the assembly line. It also wouldn’t fit in many garages of the time, being 10 inches *longer than a standard F150 pickup. But we all know the name Edsel, so at least there’s that. Remember…Thanks..