‘It’s gonna be a spectacle': After a whirlwind year for Benchmark Classics, the Tucker convertible is ready for the auction block

Justin Cole could live to be 99, and still be sure of one thing: He never had another year quite like 2009.

Back in December of 2008 when Cole took the gamble of his young lifetime and purchased what was billed by some, including the seller, as the only Tucker “convertible” in existence — i.e., a car that was born at the original Tucker factory — he knew he was embarking on a mammoth undertaking in more ways than one.

He would be attempting to finish a rare, orphaned and high-profile car that was a long ways from complete. The car was a one-off — the only Tucker that wasn’t a sedan. But perhaps equally daunting, Cole was going to face an unrelenting chorus of doubters and critics who insisted the car was a hoax.

Now, as he and his crew at Benchmark Classics in Madison, Wis., put the finishes touches on the Tucker as they ready it for its big night on the auction block, Cole is able to admit that both challenges — building the car and dealing with the hurricane of attention and controversy  — have been every bit as daunting as he imagined.

“Man, for a few months there it was definitely pretty overwhelming,” said Cole, who will be front and center in Scottsdale, Ariz., Jan. 23 when Russo & Steele rolls the Tucker across the auction block (on reserve) in what will surely be one of the most-watched moments of this year’s annual car hobby extravaganza. “I carry a Blackberry, and I have all my appointments and reminders and stuff on it. If I didn’t have that thing, I don’t know what would have happened.

“Some days I’d have like 80 different appointments and reminders. The vast majority of my time for about three months was dedicated to that car… We’d have production meetings where we’d have a list from the ceiling to the floor of things that needed to be done. It was just crazy.

“It was definitely a massive project. I don’t know what could compare to it out there.”

By now, the saga of the car has been well documented. The story goes that the car was started in secret as either a prototype for a future production convertible, or a special one-off car for Preston Tucker’s wife Vera, and that when things began to fall apart for Preston and his company, the car was ushered out the back door and wound up at the Lencki Company headquarters. From there, it apparently sat largely untouched for many years until a retiring employee took it with him when he left. The car changed hands one more time and ultimately came to the attention of Wisconsin collector Allen Reinert in the early 1980s. Reinert bought the rolling chassis and hoped to finish the car himself, but the project languished and he made many attempts over the years to sell the car. Reinert and Cole met at a show in 2008 and Cole soon put together an expensive deal that included trading several cars and cash for the controversial Tucker.

Old Cars Weekly ran a cover story about the car (Feb. 5, 2009 cover date) and it wasn’t long before the media attention began to snowball. The New York Times and a long list of other print and online media outlets began running stories on the car, and the debate that had raged on and off over the years over the car’s legitimacy reached new heights.

Everybody seems to love a good mystery, and Cole soon found himself not only in charge of figuring out how to finish a car that had no blueprint, but he was also thrust into the role as curator, caretaker and defender of the car’s legend.

“It’s the talk of our showroom, that’s for sure. So many people want to talk about the car,” he said. “The vast majority are just people interested in the car, and it’s a fascination for so many people because of the history of the Tucker automobile. And the story was really brought back to life with the movie and a whole generation of people not old enough to have seen a Tucker when they were made back in ’48 — they know it from that movie.”

“It’s just such a unique car. I would have to say the vast majority of phone calls and e-mails we get about the car are positive.”

Not long after starting work on the Tucker, Cole launched a Web site, www.tuckerconvertible.com, to help him fight the P.R. battle. On the site, Benchmark has posted photos of the car during the build and made public much of the evidence that Cole insists back the claims that the car was a factory project. For all his efforts, Cole knew that he would never convince everybody of the car’s pedigree, however. Front and center in non-believer camp are a group of vocal doubters with ties to the Tucker Club of America (www.tuckerclub.org)

The fact that Cole is an affable sort who is clearly long on patience has certainly helped him survive his roller-coaster ride. He has heard every possible criticism, accusation and pointed question imaginable when it comes to the legitimacy of his Tucker, and he doesn’t fluster easily. There is no hint of doubt in his voice when he states his case. He has clearly done his share of homework and compiled as much proof as he can that the car was started in the Tucker factory. He believes what he believes, and doesn’t back down.

“I get things from people or in blogs where people are attacking the car or me personally,” Cole said. “For people to say things about me and my business that have never even met me or been in my shop … People hide behind some screen name and write stuff – I’ve got no respect for someone like that. But that kind of stuff has probably taken about one-half of 1 percent of my time. Overall, it’s been a very positive experience, and I’ve learned a ton going through the process.

“I could probably write a book about the experience, because it’s been a full year now.”

 Cole laughs when he thinks back to his original plan to have the car completed by May of 2009. That was the month when the car made its first truly “public” appearance at the Keels & Wheels event in Seabrook, Texas.

“The organizer there called and said, ‘This is the date of the show, and we want that car here.’ I told him I didn’t think we’d ever have it done by then, and they said, ‘Well, bring it in whatever condition it’s in…

“At that point we had a rolling body. It was painted in primer, but you could get a real good idea of what it looked like. We were probably only 60 percent done with it, but it was the star of the show … Of course, 1 out of every 15 or 20 people would say something under their breath. ‘It’s the fake Tucker convertible, or ‘They made that Tucker up,’ but overall it was a very positive experience.”

The car’s next appearance came at the Auto Historica show in Highland Park, Ill., in July, then it was at the center of a whirlwind trip to Connecticut for the Fairfield County Concours in September.

“Our goal was to have a finished car for that show. Well, we didn’t quite have a finished car, but we certainly tried as hard as we could,” Cole said. “We had people working on that car ’round the clock. We actually had three different shifts at one point. I was out getting pizza and energy drinks to keep people going.

“We kept it [at home] until the last minute, then the guys went from Madison to Westport, Conn., straight through, stopping only for fuel… It was crazy, because they got there, and said ‘We still need to adjust stuff’ and this and that. ‘We forgot extension cords and we needed to buff it out again.’ I actually met everybody at a shopping center and went and bought extension cords. So here we are 30 minutes from the show, getting it as ready as we can. Then we finally roll in and they open the gates as soon as we get the car in place. And it was the star of that show there, too. It was nonstop.”

Then came a stop in Hershey, Pa., in October, where Cole thought he actually had the car sold to an East Coast collector. The man and his wife told Cole they wanted the car and negotiated a price, but the deal fell through a few days later when the couple apparently couldn’t get their finances arranged. 

“I was just like, ‘Oh my God,’” Cole admits. “I really thought we had it sold. I’ve gotten pretty good at gauging people. If I spend a little time on the phone with someone I have a pretty good idea if I’m going to wind up selling a car to them. I really had a good feeling about this guy, but sometimes things just don’t work out.

“I thought there was a chance we’d find a buyer in Hershey, and we did find a buyer, it just didn’t work out.”

Cole can’t be certain there will be a buyer stepping forward in Scottsdale, either. By then, he estimates he and his crew will have 4,000 man hours into the car and the night will be bittersweet whether the car sells or not.

“I’m confident it will sell on the block at Russo & Steele,” he said. “They think it’s going to sell, too. They are very confident it will. The literal million dollar question is exactly how much is it going to sell for? Their estimate is somewhere more than a $1 million. But beyond that, who knows? Some people are saying that it could set a record for an American-built car.

“It’s gonna be a spectacle. I think anybody who is anybody in the classic car business when it comes to collecting high-dollar cars, selling high-dollar cars and buying high-dollars cars is going to be there. I try not to ever get exited until a car is sold, I have the money and see the taillights going down the road…  But I do catch myself daydreaming about what could happen. I’d be lying if I said I don’t get excited thinking about it.”

Regardless of what happens on that fateful Saturday night, Cole knows his shop definitely won’t be the same if the Tucker leaves Arizona in somebody else’s trailer.

“I’d love to hold onto the car because of what it is. There isn’t a collector out there that I know that doesn’t want 1-of-1 cars,” Cole said.  “I’d like to have it as our showroom centerpiece for as long as possible. So on that side I won’t be too excited to see it go.

“But on the other side, I’ve put so much time and effort into it, and so have my employees. It will nice to finally be paid for that.

“I’ve thought from Day 1 if we brought that thing to our shop and completed it properly and it looked as good as it possibly could, it would do good things for not only my business, but for the hobby in general. Benchmark Classics as a business was only nine months old when the Tucker rolled into our restoration shop and that was absolutely going through my head [when they bought it]. I was thinking, ‘This car is a piece of history, no matter how you look at it. ’”

So would he do it again? If another automotive unicorn or Holy Grail opportunity came up, would the guy who made the Tucker convertible come to life be willing to go through the headaches, heartaches and insanity all over again?

“Oh yeah, I definitely would,” Cole said. “I undershot my estimate on how long it would take, but I definitely wouldn’t trade it.”

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