If you want to start a fight, just log onto any Web site where Tucker automobile buffs hang out — www.tuckerclub.org is a good place to start — and start asking around about the existence of a Tucker convertible. Then put on your helmet and protective cup and wait for the sparks to fly.
Whether or not an unfinished, legitimate Tucker convertible — one that was designed and at least partially assembled at the company factory — actually exists has been a hot-button topic for years among Tucker club members and fans of the famous, star-crossed marque. Chat room debates have raged, tempers have flared and rocks have been thrown.
Now, more than 60 years after the factory closed, only two things are really clear:
1. The Tucker Corp. never “officially” built any topless Tucker automobiles. It built 50 four-door sedans and one prototype. That’s it.
2. Today, a Tucker convertible DOES exist, its legitimacy, its history, and its significance depends on your interpretation and, ultimately, who you want to believe.
One fact that is clearly not debatable is that Benchmark Classics, a collector car dealership and restoration shop in Madison, Wis., currently has the Tucker that has sparked so many arguments, and the company plans to finish the car off and unveil it to the world in May. Justin Cole, president and sales manager at Benchmark, said his company bought the car last month from a fellow Wisconsin resident, Allen Reinert, who had owned it for many years.
Cole knows that the decision to purchase the topless Tucker, chassis No. 57, and Benchmark’s plans to finish the car, show it off, and ultimately sell it, will no doubt re-ignite debate over the car’s mysterious past. It was an opportunity, however, that was too tempting to pass up.
“We’re just trying not to get too excited about it,” Cole said. “It’s a huge deal, we know that … We’re planning on it bringing in a ton of work for us, for our restoration shop … It’s going to be an unbelievable sight when it’s done.”
Currently, the unique Tucker consists of: a reinforced 10-gauge steel chassis; a Tucker front end; a special shortened windshield and extra-long doors that were obviously different from standard Tucker parts; Tucker body panels, including the fenders; a Tucker engine and some interior parts, such as the dash and seat frames. It also has a convertible frame that is believed to be from a Buick. What it is missing is basically upholstery, a canvas top, a “landing” area for the convertible frame to reside in when retracted, and body panels for the area ahead of the rear fenders, but behind the doors. Since all other Tuckers had been four-door sedans with back doors, no panels apparently existed that would bridge the gap between the A-pillar of a convertible and the back fenders.
“The only parts of the car that are not (currently) bone stock are in the suspension,” said Cole. The original, and by most accounts inadequate, leaf suspension was converted to a better-performing coil-over arrangement.
The “experimental” history
In addition to it being the only Tucker convertible — obviously a huge deal on its own — the idea that the car could actually be some sort of factory dream car, or prototype, finally come to life could make it one of the biggest attention-getters of the year in the old car hobby. Reinert says he has spent years trying to validate that the car was actually designed to be a secret project that could have either: been a special car that was being built for Preston Tucker’s wife, Vera; or that was being mocked up as an experimental droptop that could have been a forerunner to more convertibles of the future. That of course, never happened, as the company barely managed to piece together 50 production “Torpedo” sedans before money problems and federal investigations caught up with Preston Tucker and the company shut down in early 1948. Cole is convinced that he has come across enough evidence to support the “experiment” theory.
The story goes that the car was started in secret, and that when things began to fall apart for Tucker, the car was ushered out the back door and wound up at the Lencki 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 Reinert’s attention in the early 1980s. He was intrigued by the car’s secretive past, and wound up purchasing it with the hope of finishing it himself, with the help of the many Tucker parts that were floating around after the company had folded.
Reinert insists that he has spoken with enough former Tucker employees and heard enough believable accounts of the story to accept that the company plans for a convertible were legitimate, and that No. 57 was that car.
“It was built off-the-books,” Reinert said. “Preston Tucker had a lot of secret projects going on … I was told this was “Project Vera.”
“No. 57 went into experimental department under the direction of Robert McClelland. They took this body shell into the experimental department and the first thing they did was cut the roof off … They hung it off the ground and had weights where the motor and transmission and battery would be …
“They had a 16-gauge frame that was flexed. The strength was gone because the roof was cut off … So they made a new frame that was twice the thickness. They tack-welded the cowl … They were turning a four-door sedan into a two-door convertible. This is a uni-body car, so I can see why they did what they did with the frame …
“Then, this is when the Securities and Exchange Commission started doing their investigation … Joseph Lencki told me that … The car left the experimental department, went to Lencki Engineering, until all the money dried up, and he didn’t work on it anymore … It sat there for a number of years, and when Lencki went out of business, it went to a former employee, then eventually to another former employee.
“I talked to a lot of people, and had chance to interview McClelland. He told me what he could — that there was a short period that he did work on the car. And that’s pretty much it.”
Reinert said when he acquired the car it was basically a frame with a cowl tack-welded in place, two front doors and two rear quarter panels. “It had no motor, no transmission, no steering, no tires or wheels. No nothing. After I found the car I started scrounging parts.” Reinert said he began networking in Chicago, Milwaukee and elsewhere and eventually purchased a big stash of parts from an Illinois collector. He said the parts had once been part of an October 1950 auction.
“I bought everything he had, and with that, I was able to get the car as far as a I did. But I still couldn’t afford the $50, $60, $70 dollars an hour (at a restoration shop) when it came down to it (completing the car). I’ve had it for over 25 years, and I stopped working on it a good 7-8 years ago. I’m 68 years old, I’ve got diabetes, and I just decided that I can’t work on it anymore.”
Reinert thought he had the car sold to another party in the fall of 2008 when he met Cole at a car show and swap meet in Jefferson, Wis. According to Cole, the pair were discussing the possibility of restoring a vintage Corvette when Reinert mentioned he had recently sold his unusual Tucker. That deal ultimately fell through, however, and Benchmark wound up buying the car last month.
Cole did not disclose his actual purchase price, but said he is giving Reinert a newly restored 1957 Corvette “fuelie”, a 2003 “.007 Edition” Thunderbird, and “a large amount of money” in exchange for the convertible.
Reinert had the car up for sale on a few occasions over the years, usually as a package deal with Tucker No. 43, which he also owned. In 2001, the asking price for both was $1.1 million.
The controversy and the naysayers
That there is actually such a car is not in question. Clearly there is. The debate comes over where it was born, whether it was a factory project, some secret “back room” scheme, or a car that was cobbled together outside of the factory well after the production facility was shuttered.
One of the biggest bones of contention is whether the car was modified when it got to the Lencki grounds, or the key convertible parts — frame, windshield and doors — were fabricated or changed later.
Jay Follis, the president of the Tucker Automobile Club of America and the marketing director of the Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Mich., says he’d love to be convinced otherwise, but he contends that factory records simply don’t support the notion of a convertible ever being built, even partially, at the Tucker factory.
“My conclusion?” he asks with a chuckle. “Our conclusion is that we have no conclusion … The preponderance of evidence that we have seen is that it was not a factory product. We invite somebody to prove to us otherwise.
“I am definitely not opposed to finding some new piece of history. I’d love that! I’d love for somebody to be able to prove something. The problem with this car is that the proof is always conjecture.”
Follis noted that, at the time the convertible would have been “secretly” started, Tucker was up to its neck in legal troubles and barely had the finances and manpower to keep its doors open. “They were struggling to just get their feet on the ground,” he said. “At the time, their goal is, ‘We have to get cars built, just prove to dealers and public we’re real on this.’ They were even building cars they didn’t get finished … They only built 37 cars that they felt were ‘finished.’ To think they were trying to make a convertible doesn’t make any sense.”
When pressed for his guess as to where the car originated, Follis points to the number of Tucker parts that were available and that were bought at auction following the company’s demise. “We know for a fact that several bodies, body systems, chassis, sheet metal ... it was all sold at auction,” he said. “My guess is that Joe Lincke wound up with some of these parts, and over time thought, ‘You know what? This would be a fun project. We have all the sheet metal we need. We can build the chassis right here in-house. We can build a Tucker convertible. Why not make a fun project out of it?’
“That’s where I feel its birth came from. The story of it being this off-site project … I just have to laugh.”
Mark Leiberman is a Detroit-area Tucker buff and restorer who once had discussions with Reinert about buying chassis No. 57 and wound up buying No. 43 from Reinert. He helped Reinert with his early restoration efforts on the convertible and even supplied some of its parts. He said he is glad the car will finally be finished and seen by the public, but was not ready to accept the idea that it was part of a special factory project six decades ago.
“I don’t get angry about it,” Leiberman said. “But if indeed this was the case … there would be a paper trail of some sort. Somebody had a purchase order to get work done. Somebody has notes. Somebody has details of some sort. There never was, and there isn’t today.
“I’ll say this: I spoke with Tucker family members — some of them are past now — and all of them emphatically disputed the idea that there was ever a convertible, or ever a convertible in the works.
“There is the Lochness monster out there. For example the recently uncovered Bugatti. They do exist. But the one indisputable thing about those Lochness monsters is that they may come from the barns or catacombs or wherever, but there is ALWAYS a paper trail. There is always a history of some type.”
Joe Kahn, the vice president of the Tucker Club of America, said he saw the convertible in person at Reinert’s house back in 2002, and has seen and heard its history debated more times than he can remember.
“It comes up about every five years,” he said. “It’s this big can of worms, it goes away, then it comes back again … If nothing else, if they’re going to finish it and everybody sees it, it will sort of bring some sort of closure to it.”
One poster on the Tuckerclub.org Web site seemed to crystallize much of the debate when he wrote: “Without a doubt, this car was NOT built by the Tucker Corp at the plant. If it was in fact a legitimate Tucker project, it was kept top secret and was commissioned to a custom body shop. The car was never finished and is still in process to this day … That being said, the real mystery lies in whether or not the Tucker Corp did in fact commission the building of the car and what was built by the body shop versus the current owner.”
Reinert heard all arguments when he was the car owner and says he always had a standing invitation to any Tucker buffs to come and see the car in person. Above all, he said he never found anybody who could prove that the convertible wasn’t originally a factory project.
“I’ve had Tucker people here, you know,” Reinert said. “I’ve had Tucker club members here, I’ve often invited club members … I’ve said, ‘C’mon and look at it.’
“I’ve spent over 20 years researching Tuckers, and you get people who haven’t even owned a Tucker that think they know every damn thing about Tuckers … I tell them it’s right there in the garage, crawl all over it.
“I don’t know what to tell you. People will say what they want to say. What can I do about it?”
Cole said that, like Reinert, he will welcome anybody who disputes the car’s pedigree. “We definitely don’t want to play the silence game with this whole thing and not address the issue,” he said. “We want to take the people who claim it’s not a real car head-on … We’re willing to have a meeting here at our shop with anybody who disputes it.”
Regardless of its origins, the car figures to be a showstopper when it’s finished. Cole admitted he is already getting calls from potential buyers and said he is hoping to show it at the Pebble Beach and Amelia Island concours events in the next year, and perhaps show the car off at SEMA in Las Vegas in the fall.
He said he has two crew members working full-time on the car and figures to add a couple more workers to the effort soon. “We’re planning to have 1,000 hours into it by May,” he said. “We’re not going to cut any corners with it.”
Cole recently started up a Web site, www.tuckerconvertible.com, that will document the restoration process and chronicle the history of the car.
He says he is going to enjoy the ride while it lasts, because by this time next year somebody else will probably own it. “We’re doing a concours restoration on it and we’re going to sell it,” the easy-going Cole said. “We’d love to keep it, but the economy isn’t treating us any better than it’s treating any other dealer of luxury goods, I guess. It’s an awesome car, and it’s going to be beautiful when it’s done, but we’ll have to sell it.
“It’s quite the project, and we’re just ecstatic to have it.”