Original Tucker ’48 Hits The Dyno

Dynos are many times, the great equalizer. If set up properly, they can corral in some of the most ludicrous power claims while also offering up some quite impressive numbers to vehicles so deserving. Besides, they’re fun to watch, which is likely why you’ll see a crowd form whenever a chassis dyno’s rollers start to whine.

In this case, it’s not stratospheric horsepower numbers that the dyno operator is going after, but rather, a baseline as to the car’s actual horsepower. In this case, the car happens to be one of the 51 cars built by the ingenious engineer and inventor Preston Tucker, which also carries his name.

The Tucker story is widely known as the man who took on the Big Three. While the car company didn’t last long, the history and innovations of the Tucker ’48 still carry on today. Photo: Wikipedia

Known by many as the “Tucker Torpedo,” the car’s actual name is the “Tucker 48,” the number denoting the only year the car was produced. During the car’s germination, it was referred to as the Tucker Torpedo, but as production neared, Preston reportedly was concerned that the “Torpedo” moniker followed too closely to the recent atrocities of World War II, so he decided to celebrate the car’s birth-year in the vehicle’s title instead.

Fading memories was the least of Tucker’s worries. As America was tooling up for civilian production of all sorts of goods, the climate for forming a new automobile company was perfect. The conditions to ensure the growth of the fledgling company, unfortunately, seemed to be controlled by forces outside of the presses and assembly lines.

The innovative Tucker Automobile Company was constantly fighting an uphill battle, full of Securities and Exchange Commission investigations, lawsuits, and negative media exposure, which whittled the company’s mettle, until the company was forced to declare bankruptcy and cease all operations on March 3, 1949.

Under these conditions, only 51 cars were ever built, each one a little different than the next, but all holding to the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive design envisioned by Preston early on. Originally, the cars were intended to have an engine that was as revolutionary as their design. Preston initially wanted to power his new car with a clean-sheet design engine measuring 589 cubic-inches in a flat six-cylinder design. The engine was designed to idle at 100 rpm, produce 200 horsepower and 450 lb-ft of torque at 1,800 rpm. The engine utilized an oil-driven drivetrain with a timed pump providing the necessary oil pressure to the proper valve to necessitate its operation when needed. The low-revving engine was noisy, and as you could imagine, the pressurized valvetrain problematic, so it was shelved and the search for a better option began.

Preston originally intended to use a 589 cubic-inch engine, but the oil-driven valves and other issues kept the engine from going into production. Photo By User: Nickshu, CC BY-SA 3.0, (https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19567238)

Aviation’s benefits during the war effort had securely endeared this new technology to Americans’ hearts and minds and the automotive realm knew this all too well. Aviation’s influence on design and engineering can not be overstated during this time and since Preston was searching for a powertrain as innovative as the rest of his car, engines designed for the skies were well within the realm of possibility.

Preston’s first choice, the Lycoming aircraft engine would not fit within the body of the vehicle, but an air-cooled, flat-six engine designed for the Bell helicopter did fit and provided the necessary performance that Preston was searching.

The Franklin O-335 engine designed for the Bell helicopter was a much better fit for the Tucker ’48. Here it is shown with the Tucker Y-1 transmission. Photo By User: Nickshu, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19567505

Known as the Franklin O-335, the engine was converted to water cooling and highly modified for automotive use. Rated at 166 horsepower, the engine fits perfectly with Preston’s performance desire, and with the necessary modifications, it fits perfectly into the Tucker’s body.

Preston was searching for various avenues to highlight the performance of the Tucker ’48 and took a group of cars on the road to prove their worthiness and performance. Several cars even lapped the Indianapolis Motor Speedway at speed to highlight their prowess for speed and safety. One car was driven up to 95 mph before it was rolled three times in front of the crowd. Many of the safety equipment designed into the car such as the pop-out windshield, seat belts, and padded dash meant the car’s driver exited the vehicle with only minor bruises and scrapes. The car was then flipped back onto its wheels and driven off of the track.

For this particular endeavor, total destruction of the car was the furthest from anyone’s intentions. The value of those few Tucker cars produced and the fact the dyno test was conducted by possibly the most enthusiastic group of Tucker faithful meant this was merely a test of the car’s power, not its longevity.

With only 51 cars produced, the value of Tuckers today puts this as likely the most valuable vehicle ever strapped on the Ida dyno. Although, not the most powerful.

Conducting the test is none other than Mike and Sean Tucker, Preston Tucker’s great grandson’s, and Rob and Bob Ida of Ida Automotive. Rob Ida was a dealer for Tucker in 1948 and the innovative car still holds a special place in his heart. In this video, he is fortunate enough to have the forty-third car built off the run of fifty-one cars in total strapped to his dyno.

Why The Dyno?

Many would question why submit a car of this vintage and value to such a burden? As is the case with almost EVERY dyno run, to determine the car’s horsepower. There are no aspirations of this car becoming a dyno hero, but rather to determine how much horsepower makes it to the ground from this ingenious path of torque converters and flat-plane piston’d powerhouse. Originally rated at 166 horsepower, that number was determined at the crankshaft, since helicopters don’t have much use for wheels and a proper chassis. Likewise, the Tucker-designed automatic transmission will surely eat into that number.

Besides a few pops out the exhaust, a misfire or two, and a little black smoke, the Tucker turns the drums to a solid 116 horsepower.

While roaring engines and blower whine will have to wait for another video from YouTube’s auto-play function, the Tucker twists the rollers will little more than some black smoke and an occasional backfire out the exhaust. When the rollers again sit dormant, it is determined that the car belted out a lower-than-you’ll-likely-ever-see-on-YouTube-again, 116 horsepower and 212 lb-ft of torque.

While impressive numbers were never the focus of this endeavor, hearing that helicopter-borne engine singing along is definitely watch-worthy. When you consider that seeing a Tucker actually driving and not centralized in some museum display is quite rare, seeing one on a dyno is likely a once-in-a-lifetime event. That’s all the more reason to take a few minutes and check out this cool video of one of the most innovative and rare automobiles to come along since the Model T. The fact it does it on a dyno makes this video all the more other-worldly.

About the author

Andy Bolig

Andy has been intrigued by mechanical things all of his life and enjoys tinkering with cars of all makes and ages. Finding value in style points, he can appreciate cars of all power and performance levels. Andy is an avid railfan and gets his “high” by flying radio-controlled model airplanes when time permits. He keeps his feet firmly grounded by working on his two street rods and his supercharged C4 Corvette. Whether planes, trains, motorcycles, or automobiles, Andy has immersed himself in a world driven by internal combustion.
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