The Best Failure In American Automotive History

The American auto industry spent the years after WWII first getting back up to speed, then pushing the boundaries of style. Perhaps no car encapsulates that more than the airplane-engined Tucker 48, the eponymous dreamcar of an industry insider who thought he could do better by building his own cars. It’s not every year one comes up for sale, but 2014 is one of those years.

On one hand, Tucker was right: the car is as magnificent inside as it is outside, and the engineering is actually more impressive than its looks. On the other, though, Tucker ran into bogus charges of stock fraud—which led to conspiracy theories that Detroit’s “big three” were behind the company—and it was too much for any startup to survive. Only 51 examples were ever produced.

The design of the car is certainly inspired. The Tucker was sometimes referred to as “The Torpedo” because of its looks, with the trunk (engine is in back) curving to a point, where a third headlight turns in the same direction as the front tires to improve visibility.

The further back you go, the more intense the car’s design gets. Suicide doors are hinged just in front of the kind of cooling ducts you’d expect to find on a modern supercar. The taillights are basically fins unto themselves, and the entire rear of the car is basically one huge grill to help vent heat out from the engine. And then there’s that exhaust.

Seriously, that exhaust. With one tailpipe for each cylinder, the Tucker can give any modern sports car-owner an inferiority complex, and God only knows what a Prius driver would do. Listen to it for yourself, right here.

If it sounds kind of like an old-school airplane firing up, that’s because it essentially is an airplane motor. Tucker needed to find an engineering solution for the engine, so he bought a company specializing in aircraft engines. The result was that the Tucker 48 had so much low-end torque the engineers had to beef up the axles to keep them from snapping.

The rest of the car was equally impressive: the suspension used ample amounts of rubber to help reduce noise, vibration, and harshness (something that later became industry standard) and the car featured a fully independent suspension at both the front and back...a full 15 years before companies like Ferrari started doing the same.

The Tucker has some safety features that were advanced for the time. Granted, they're somewhat frightening by todays standards. There isn’t much of a dashboard, so in the event of a wreck, you can just flop down into the footwell. If it’s a more serious wreck, don’t worry about flying through the pops out.

As if everything else weren’t enough, the Tucker’s emblem is still one of the coolest ever put on a car. It’s that subtle reminder of what could have been.

Aaron Miller is the Rides editor for Supercompressor. He can’t get over how wild the Tucker’s exhaust is.