The story of Preston Tucker and his automobile is filled with more twists, turns, and myths than the average car story. One of the strange tales told about Tucker and his car–at least back when he was still trying to launch the company–was that his cars had no reverse gear. People honestly believed that the cars could only power themselves forward, but it was an urban legend launched by one Chicago reporter.
A Chicago newspaper publisher wondered if Preston Tucker’s operation was legitimate, so he sent a reporter to the Tucker plant to investigate. The resulting article wasn’t a typical piece extolling the brilliant features of the 'car of tomorrow.' Instead, it addressed whether the car was a fraud. The reporter, Frank Sturdy, was the automotive editor for the Chicago Tribune and insisted on going for a ride in a Tucker sedan. Tucker’s people explained that the working prototype–the Tin Goose–was the only complete car at the moment and it was then on display in Milwaukee. Sturdy pressed. Finally, Tucker told Sturdy he could ride on a test chassis. It had no body, but mechanically it was set up like the Tin Goose. Sturdy agreed.
Sturdy drove the test chassis at the plant and he seemed pleased. During the demonstration, Tucker’s test engineer noted for Sturdy that the chassis and the Tin Goose were still experimental. They used a revolutionary fluid drive system still being developed and, as a matter of fact, it had not even been made to go in reverse yet. It was a simple engineering question. They were still determining if the drive system would work. If it worked, reverse gears would be added. But if it did not work, the entire system would be scrapped for a conventional one. The reason they had not installed reverse gears was simple: The fluid drive system did not use any gears. Adding them may have turned out to be unnecessary, so why bother? Sturdy seemed to understand at the time of the test, went back to the paper, and filed his story.
The story contained one section that stood out, titled “Test Chassis Can’t Back Up.” It implied that Tucker engineers hadn’t considered reverse to be important, as if backing a car up were an afterthought or a luxury. The story spread quickly, leading many people to assume Tucker sedans were built intentionally without the ability to go in reverse. The notion that Tucker sedans had no reverse gear was still reported by the mainstream press in June 1949. For example, a story in the Pittsburgh Press that month described some of the features of the car and said, “There is a finger-tip electric transmission, with four forward speeds.” Of course, every Tucker ’48 built after the Tin Goose had a reverse gear. And the Tin Goose itself would late have a transmission swap when the fluid drive was deemed impractical.
Even so, until the collapse of the company, whenever Tucker or his men demonstrated a Tucker ’48, they had to put the car in reverse and show people that the car did, indeed, back up. It was a strange rumor to have to stifle. But with the various other problems Tucker faced, this one was probably the most comical.
Steve Lehto is a writer and from Michigan. He specializes in Lemon Law and frequently writes about cars and the law. His most recent books include , and . He also has a where he talks about these things