By Marty Densch
Justin Cole stands beside the car like a proud parent.
He has a right to be proud. He has lived with the car for the past year and-a-half and has shepherded it through a meticulous restoration process to turn it into something it never was — a completed automobile.
Cole is president and sales manager of Benchmark Classics in Middleton, he said during a recent interview. The project that has consumed so much of his attention is among the rarest of cars: a 1948 Tucker convertible. It is the only one in existence. The car, and Cole, are also the focus of a controversy in the world of classic cars with some doubting the car’s authenticity.
Preston Tucker was, himself, a controversial figure. While some praised him as a visionary, others dismissed him as a huckster.
The Tucker Corporation built 51 complete cars including the initial prototype before production ceased in 1948, according to the Tucker Automobile Club of America Web site. Enough body shells and parts for eight more cars remained in the factory when it closed. Cole’s convertible is also known as Tucker #57, as that number is stamped on a number of the body panels.
According to the story that comes with the car, Tucker secretly planned to build a convertible version of his car. Work was begun at the Tucker facility but the car was later moved to Lencki Engineering, the firm that Tucker had employed to build his first prototype, the Tin Goose. Unfortunately, it was found that removing the top had weakened the structure significantly so Lencki engineered a new frame from thicker gauge steel and welded a tubular steel insert into it for additional strength.
Work on the convertible never progressed much beyond this point as the Tucker company had shut down and its founder was about to face a grand jury over allegations of fraud. The car remained at the Lencki facility until a retiring employee bought it. In 1981, Al Reinert of Burlington, purchased the car and planned to finish the job that Tucker and Lencki had started some 32 years earlier.
Reinert worked on the car off and on but never finished it. He did find an authentic Tucker engine and a correct Cord transmission, which were missing, and replaced the car’s troublesome “elastometric” rubber suspension system with a modern “coil over” set-up, an alteration that other Tucker owners have made.
Cole acquired the Tucker in December of 2008. He had met Reinert at a swap meet in Jefferson earlier in the year. Cole was there to sell a 1957 Corvette, which was of interest to Reinert because he could use it as part of a pending deal that he had to sell the Tucker to an Illinois buyer. Cole was intrigued by the idea of a Tucker convertible, a car which he didn’t know existed, and when Reinert’s sale fell through, he took a chance and struck a deal to buy it.
“I realized that this thing was a real jewel. And when I saw that a Tucker had just sold for over $1 million, the wheels started turning,” he says.
What he got was a rolling chassis and an assortment of body parts as well as the car’s instrument cluster and seat frames. Missing were the rocker panels, the rear quarter panels in front of the rear fenders and the panel between the convertible top and the rear deck lid. The car also had no upholstery and no convertible top fabric.
“The best thing about the project was that, between the body and the parts that came with it, it was about 98 percent complete,” Cole notes. He felt confident that he could find the other parts he would need or could fabricate them in his shop.
Over the next year he and his staff at Benchmark Classics spent more than 5,000 hours restoring the car to its current condition, just as it might have appeared if Tucker had been able to finish it himself. Cole painted the car waltz blue, one of Tucker’s original colors and said to have been the color of one of Vera Tucker’s favorite dresses. The interior is upholstered in a cream-colored leather closely patterned after the Tucker’s original design. With the work essentially complete, Cole took it to the Russo and Steele auction in Scottsdale, Ariz., in January. The bidding on the car reached $1.4 million but didn’t hit Cole’s reserve price. He also listed it on e-bay in March where bidding approached $900,000 but, again, didn’t meet the reserve. He says that he is currently in negotiations with a serious buyer but isn’t at liberty to reveal anything more about the possible sale.
While there are those who doubt the car’s authenticity, and thus its value, Cole has no regrets about taking on the project.
“Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve always been stubborn,” he says. “I was always going to see this through.”
Even its detractors admire the car and admit that it truly is a Tucker and truly is a convertible. The question, really, is just when its conversion took place. The answer to that question could have a profound impact on the value of the car. But as Cole observes, his Tucker will always be “a super star in the car world, no matter what.”
But is it the real thing?
The position of the Tucker Automobile Club of America is that the Tucker was probably converted to an open car some time after the company went out of business, according to the Web site. The club goes on to admit, though, that the convertible is built from “many authentic Tucker parts” and that it probably represents “what a Tucker convertible would have looked like had one been produced”.
Justin Cole counters that the convertible was a secret project and that Tucker purposely kept no records related to it. He also has a number of documents including sworn affidavits supporting the contention that there was an in-house Tucker convertible project.
A third explanation recently surfaced on a Tucker discussion board related to the convertible. According to this theory, Preston Tucker ordered that two of the body shells be altered as props to show the grand jury as proof of his intentions to establish an ongoing manufacturing operation. One was to be a supposed 1949 prototype and the other a convertible.
The purported props were never needed and were kept hidden away until long after litigation was finished, according to this theory.
In the end, it may not matter. A car as unique and striking as the Tucker convertible may take on a life of its own and find its own value. Classic cars, as with any collectible, are worth whatever a potential buyer is willing to pay.
— Contributed by Marty Densch