Why We Love Cars So Much: Preston Tucker and Paul Newman

Jay Leno owns 280 cars, ranging from a 1955 Mercedes-Benz 300SL gullwing coupe to his personal favorite, a 2017 Ford GT.

Rick Dale’s 1951 Ford F100 would be recognizable to any fan of the show American Restoration. The car received frequent cameos, and there’s good reason. Dale spent 15 years working on it. Sometimes, he’d throw all his energy into that work. Once in a while, he’d take a multi-year hiatus and then pick up where he left off. On the show, it went from a hardly movable tin can that broke down while filming, to road-tripping across the country on restoration jobs.

There aren’t many things that can stand the test of time as long as a beloved ride. Even if it’s been stuck in a garage for the last 20 years, it can be brought back to life with the right touch. And boy, few things look better with age than a car. A ‘48-66 Porsche 356 turns ALL the heads on the road. There’s history in cars. Their engines, design, and models are a story of empires, wars, freedom, and adventure.

Cars contain a lot of cool, but every car we’re driving also reflects the singular passion of a car enthusiast. Many of us (much less the cars we love) wouldn’t be here without Preston Tucker.

All Our Cars Are Part Tucker

Move the motor from the front to the back. Those brakes? Change ‘em. They’re drums now, but they’d be better as discs. We also need to make these things safer, ‘cuz people are flying through these windscreens like it’s a free-for-all. Pad the dashboards. Let’s get something to hold the driver in place. We also need more light, so when the steering wheel turns, we’re going to illuminate the road, like a spotlight. 

Preston Tucker didn’t have an engineering or business background like Henry Ford or William Durant. He just loved cars. It was a hobby for him. A passion. It started when he learned to drive at around 11-years-old. By the time he was 16, he started purchasing late-model vehicles, repairing them, and selling them for a profit. He preferred to be surrounded by cars rather than people, so he quit school and worked for the Cadillac Motor Company as an office boy. He joined the police department when he was 19 so that he could drive police cars, but didn’t last long. The first time, his mother notified the department that he was underage. His second stint on the force was again short-lived. He used a blowtorch to cut a hole through the dashboard to enable the engine heat to warm the cabin. They fired him.

Those ideas aren’t Ford designing the Taurus back in the ‘90s. They’re Preston Tucker envisioning the Tucker Torpedo in 1946. Detroit was the car manufacturing hub, and post World War II, the production lines were starting up again for civilian cars, albeit with the old pre-War designs.

Tucker saw a gap in the market and raced to beat the Big Three. The public wanted something new, something futuristic. Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis had been focused on building tanks and airplanes for the army, so it had been 10 years since a new car had appeared on the market. Tucker’s vision was a design and engineering ‘first’. It also included a rear-wheel drive, safety-glass windshield that would pop out if there was an accident, automatic transmission, and independent suspension. No other car could match it in terms of safety, design, and aerodynamics.

Everyone was watching him, and it seemed like he was well on his way to making it The Big Four. His goal was to make the Tucker Corporation one of the largest car companies in the world. He managed to raise around $23 million from Wall Street, which is around $300 million today. He seemed to have it all sorted, but he made a mistake.

Tucker found a factory in Chicago to build his cars in. The plant was used for building bomber motors, so it was big enough for his 1500 person production team. Detroit is where the big boys played. You can’t play the game in a different city. Not when Michigan’s economy relied on the taxes.

The Tucker Corporation was barely off the ground before the government stepped in. While Tucker already had a waiting list of buyers and a $23 million investment, it wasn’t enough. He leveraged funds by getting people to purchase accessories like seat covers, luggage, and radios. When people did this, they would get a lottery ticket to be in line to buy one of the cars.

He was indicted on fraud charges. Tucker was selling parts of cars that didn’t exist, so they took him to the Security and Exchange Commission. He was found not guilty, but the damage to his bank balance and reputation was irreparable. He’d accumulated a mountain of debt and nobody trusted him. Only 51 cars were built during the prototype phase. They didn’t even make it to final production before the Tucker Corporation had to close its doors.

Tucker’s life was tragic, but also a mirror to why we love cars. Tucker loved the tinkering, the adjustment, the impossible brought to life. Getting the car to look, drive, and move a certain way. The money was nice but, sometimes, it’s just the road and the machine that counts.

What the Hell is it about revving a motor and feeling the open road? Paul Newman may have put his finger on it while clutching around a bend . . .

So Paul Newman Meets Bobby Unser One Day . . .

Newman said, “People can identify very quickly, very deeply with cars.”  His first car was a 1937 Packard and it got him from Wisconsin to New York without breaking down. His love affair with racing started with a film called Winning.

Newman’s standout roles in The Hustler, Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, and Slap Shot made him a Hollywood golden child. In 1969, he played Frank Capua in the 1969 film about a racecar driver who aspires to win the Indianapolis 500. He trained for the role at the Watkins Glen Racing School.

It was a golden era for Indy car racing and, during filming, Newman was right in the middle of it. Several Indy car drivers made cameo appearances on Winning. Mario Andretti, A.J Foyt, and Bobby Unser were at the top of their game and basking in the glory. It’s an experience that resonated with Newman so much, that he turned a new life leaf and dedicated the second half of his life to his racing career.

He didn’t want it to end with the film, so he agreed to host Once Upon a Wheel, a television special about the history of auto-racing. A year later, at 43, he took part in his first professional racing event, the 1972 Thompson International Speedway.

For the next few years, one of the most bankable actors in Hollywood would hang up his silver screen shoes come racing season. He started at 43, and then went on to win four Sports Car Club of America National Championships.

Newman loved the contrast between Hollywood and racing. “There’s probably as much bull in racing as there in Hollywood. The difference is that in racing no one really takes it seriously. To me, that makes racing fun.” 

Racing allowed him to be wild, to have fun, to let loose, and to exercise precise control, all in the space of one acceleration or brake. “Being in a race car is the first time I’ve felt graceful”, he told Barbara Walters in one of his last interviews.

Winning is precise—down to a thousandth of a second—but definitive. Newman found the simplicity of it elegant. For one of the most recognizable silver screen stars in the world, a millionaire philanthropist and entrepreneur through his food business, as well as a prolific race car driver, it was all he needed.

Paul Newman kept a low profile at the track, going by simply P.L Newman. In 1995, at 70-years-old, Newman became the oldest driver to win a professionally sanctioned race in Daytona.

Passion and Precision Even in a Honda

We make fun of the guy driving a Prius or a Hyundai because we can—fair enough. But even regular old commuter cars solve a few things for us. They help us make sense of the world—motorhead or not.

A car’s problems, unlike some things, can be fixed. With the right amount of thought and problem-solving, it can be back on the road again. That control and accomplishment is part of why we love our rides. As car enthusiasts like Newman or Tucker would say, a car is freedom and independence on wheels. There’s no hierarchy involved: no false barriers between us and our lady of steel. It’s just us and...what’s her name?

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Cael Woolward

The days are filled with research, the dark nights with terrors—or at least the terror of writing. It started in Cape Town, but now happens in Danang, where a journalism graduate brings stories to life, one phở chay and cà phê đen đá at a time.

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