Of all the vehicles that might be accused of being too fast, a 10,000-pound, armored Willys-lookalike from 1939 is not an obvious suspect. Leave it to Preston Tucker, though, to build not one, but two visionary vehicles that were both brilliant and unable to fully realize their broad potential.
Tucker’s cyclops-eyed 48 (or “Torpedo”) sedan most recognizably represents his enduring legacy. However, before he scrambled around designing and building his own aluminum-block engine from scratch, in 1937 he was stuck in bed recovering from an appendectomy. As troubling newspaper headlines rolled in bearing rumors of European war, Tucker’s mind went to work. He designed the Packard-powered Tucker Tiger Tank (also known as a combat car), complete with a 360-degree “Tucker Turret,” individually adjustable headlamps, and air conditioning.
The Dutch weren’t interested in his ideas, so Tucker presented the idea to the U.S. Army. Its verdict? “No thanks, but we’ll take the turret.” Though Renault’s FT-17 light tank claims the title of first production tank with a fully revolving turret, electronically-powered units like Tucker envisioned were most common on U.S. bombers (the brave Willys jeeps certainly didn’t sport them). However, one advantage of Tucker’s car-mounted turret, with its 75-degree elevation range, was its ability to track with planes from the ground, compared to the more limited scope of stationary units. (M4 Sherman tanks fired much larger, 75mm shells, but their gyro-stabilizers couldn’t aim accurately above 15 or so mph.)
In a difficult pattern soon familiar to Tucker, he became tangled in patent legislation. The U.S. government restricted certain profits from wartime patents, in addition to shrouding any patents relating to military advances in secrecy. Exactly which laws trapped Tucker remains unclear; some sources mention other manufacturers copying his design, after which Tucker sued for stolen patent. In the end, while the U.S. Army installed the turrets on boats and bombers, the final product didn’t bear Tucker’s name.
His combat car prototype, on the other hand, never bore the white Army star. According to this Youtube video, “it was the opinion [at the time] that combat cars shouldn’t be driven over 35 mph, so the gov wasn’t interested in contracting for any [of Tucker’s armored cars].” Maybe Tucker’s design shouldn’t have undercut contemporary armored cars by a full ton?
Though the combat car concept died in its infancy, the details bear witness to the incredible thoughtfulness of Tucker’s design. According to the promo video above, which Tucker filmed for the U.S. Army, each of the Tiger’s headlamps (encased in bulletproof glass) could throw a beam one mile and could be adjusted individually to act as searchlights. To make maintenance as efficient as possible on the battlefield, sections of the radiator could be individually replaced. Louvres on the engine compartment doubled as windshield defrosters. The body’s 9/16-inch armor plate was entirely welded, not riveted, a shift in technology that was only just beginning. The body’s underside featured panels designed to deflect blasts down and away from the car (see 10:45 on the second video for a grenade tossed cheerily under the car).
Tucker’s Tiger Tank by the numbers
45: The maximum degree of tilt for which the Tiger’s low center of gravity assured “perfect stability.” The low center of gravity was balanced with a 12-inch ground clearance and completely armor-plated underside for navigating muddy battlefields and minefields. In addition, each wheel could be individually braked to climb out of ruts, loose ground, or mud.
100: The conservative top speed of the Tiger, according to the video, on paved highways. Rougher terrain restricted speeds to roughly 65 mph. (This news clipping mentions smooth and rough terrain top speeds of 114 mph and 78 mph, respectively. Either way, the military-spec Willys jeeps only hit the mid-60s in the best of conditions.)
3: Possible configurations of wheels. Tucker also outfitted the car for duallys in the back or tracks in place of wheels (making it a high-speed tank, depending on your definition of such a thing). The standard four-wheel configuration was also equipped with rear- or all-wheel drive.
4.6: The maximum speed, in seconds, of the turret’s full revolution. Cue the Dramamine. The turret gun paired this 360-degree lateral range with 75 degrees of elevation, and could be equipped with electric controls in place of, or in addition to, manual elevating and traversing controls (an M4 Sherman’s turret, for comparison, could revolve in 15 seconds). The American Armament noise-maker was fully automatic and fired 37-mm explosive projectiles against airplanes or armor-piercing projectiles against tanks, as circumstances dictated necessary.
2820: The Tiger’s maximum rounds per minute (47 rounds per second), according to Tucker’s promo video. Combines “forward battery” of three machine guns with the 37-mm American Armament unit in turret. Strangely, a 1942 Mechanix Illustrated article quotes the total firing power at 5220 rounds per minute based on combined machine gun rate of 5100 rounds per minute and 120 per minute from the turret gun. Sadly, we couldn’t find an example to test. For science.
50: The amount of .50-caliber rounds, supposedly, that the pneumatic tires could withstand. Beware the 51st bullet.
12: The number of cylinders in the 175-horsepower, 473.3-cubic-inch Packard powerplant, which also powered Packard Twelves from 1935–1939.
The end of the promo video shows a “fleet” of Tiger Tanks at American Armaments Rahway, New Jersey plant, “fully tested and ready for delivery.” However, to our knowledge, none of that fleet exists today. If you have any leads on these wild armored cars (or the original prototype), drop us a comment below. Until new information comes to light, we’ll raise a glass to Preston Tucker and his ill-timed genius.