Tucker: A man, his dream, his cars, a scandal — and a Chicago film classic
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“And in the local news, Preston Tucker goes on trial today in the same building where Al Capone was convicted.” – News broadcast as heard in Francis Ford Coppola’s “Tucker: The Man and His Dream.”
As you might guess from the name, the Ford City Mall on the Southwest Side of Chicago once housed an automobile plant — but Fords were never built on the property.
Similarly, when Dodge built an enormous complex consisting of 19 buildings in the early 1940s on the same site, that company wasn’t making cars either. The factories turned out most of the B-29 bomber aircraft engines used in World War II.
Ah, but after Dodge and before Ford City, this particular swatch of land WAS once the home of a bold, ambitious, controversial, legendary, some might even say notorious automobile-making venture — yielding a grand total of 51 vehicles.
The car was known as the Tucker 48, aka the “Tucker Torpedo.”
As in Preston Tucker. As in the famously revolutionary car with that distinctive “third eye” directional headlight.
Much of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1988 film “Tucker: The Man and His Dream” is set in Chicago — including a number of scenes set in the meticulously re-created Tucker Auto Plant, as well as the Chicago courthouse where Preston Tucker faced multiple charges of fraud brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which maintained Tucker was scamming investors who were buying a fantasy that would never become a driveway reality for Americans.
Why, there’s even a scene — loosely based on real events — where Tucker invites jurors and onlookers to take a ride through the streets of downtown Chicago in one of the gleaming new Tucker 48’s parked right outside the courthouse. What better way to prove the Tucker was real and not just a flight of fancy than by giving someone a ride in a Tucker!
“Tucker: The Man and His Dream” starred Jeff Bridges in the title role. His father, Lloyd, played Sen. Homer Ferguson of Michigan, who was loyal to the established auto manufacturers and tried to thwart Tucker at every turn.
“It was just a wonderful time, especially because I got to work with my father,” recalled Bridges in an audio remembrance he recorded exclusively for the Sun-Times. “And we were very lucky to have the support of the Tucker family. I think we had something like 27 of the original Tuckers on the set.
“What incredible cars! And I was able to drive one of the actual Tuckers. … But you know, it’s kind of a sad story [about this man] in competition with the Big Three automakers. But making the movie was just such a wonderful experience, with Francis and that great cast.”
Bridges also shared a story about how a punch gone wrong had him worrying he’d be fired from the film.
“I never mentioned this when we were promoting the film because I didn’t want people to look for this in the movie, but I’m actually wearing a cast on my hand in some scenes. I think you can see it in only one scene, because the rest of the time I’m wearing a long coat.
“Early in the production, we were rehearsing a scene and I’m mad at the production guys because of some sort of mistake, and I was supposed to hit this bulletin board. In the last rehearsal before the take I decided I’m gonna let loose a little bit, and I punch this thing — and I felt the bone in my hand crack.
“And I was worried, ‘I’m gonna get fired.’ But the doctor put on a cast I could take on and off, and thank God, I didn’t get fired from the movie.
“When it came time to shoot that scene, I told Francis I would hit the board with my other hand — and I almost broke THAT hand. Turns out there was this heavy piece of [cable] behind the board.
“So for pretty much the whole movie, when I’m playing Preston Tucker — who had this way of moving his hands a LOT when he was talking — I was doing it with that broken hand. But at least I didn’t get fired!”
“Tucker: The Man and His Dream” was filmed entirely in California, with the Chicago scenes taking place on sets and at various locations in San Francisco and Oakland. And of course, as is the case with every biopic ever made, the film exercises poetic license and takes liberties with history in the name of cinematic entertainment.
But if one compares photos of the actual Tucker Plant with the sets created by Coppola and his team of designers, and if one reads the historical websites and the old clippings about the trial in Chicago, there’s plenty of veracity at the core of the relatively lighthearted, sepia-toned love letter to the man and his dreams.
In the movie, Tucker invites journalists, investors and a crowd of literally thousands to the plant for the unveiling of the wildly hyped car, with his team working furiously to get the lone Tucker in the world in good enough working condition to make it onto the platform.
All of that happened in real life.
And though Coppola’s rendition of the 1949-1950 SEC trial is filled with dramatic flourishes, the essential elements of the case are fairly represented, including of course the verdict:
Tucker was found not guilty on all counts.
Alas, only 51 Tuckers ever rolled off the assembly line. The Tucker Corp. assets were auctioned off in Chicago, and Preston Tucker went gently into the night, exploring a few new ideas (which never reached completion) before dying in 1956 from lung cancer at the age of 53.
The Ford Motor Company bought the main building in the early 1950s and turned it into a factory to build airplane engines to support the Korean War effort. Ford closed the factory in 1959, and eventually it was reborn as the Ford City Mall in 1965.
For one brief shining moment, however, that land was the site where Tucker dared to dream big.