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A LOT OF DRIVE : The Man Behind the Elegant Tucker

August 11, 1988|JEFF GORDINIER | Times Staff Writer

In 1947 Alex Tremulis designed a car for Preston Tucker. Promoted as the first utterly new car since the Model T, the Tucker fired America's imagination until the business collapsed three years later.

The Tucker became folklore--and the centerpiece of a new Francis Ford Coppola film. Eventually, the Automotive Hall of Fame honored Tremulis for his work on the Tucker and his pioneering experiments with streamlining. But the 74-year-old Venturan recalls other, more soul-satisfying honors. "I am the only man in the whole world who has destroyed a Duesenberg," Tremulis says, lighting a thin brown cigarette. "Not only destroyed it--I vaporized it."

On an autumn Sunday in 1935, Tremulis was test-driving a Duesenberg town car, one of the sumptuous vehicles of its day, through rural Indiana. His brakes washed out when he hit 95 m.p.h., and he was cruising even faster when a limousine ahead of him swerved and spun on a road full of churchgoers.

Unable to stop, he whipped the car into a ditch. The Duesenberg, its headlights crashing through the windshield, cartwheeled three times through 100 feet of corn.

Lying in the debris, picking shards of glass from his arms and pockets, Tremulis heard the swing ballad "Sweet and Slow" come over on the radio.

"And I'm sitting there, and I'm saying, 'Well, I'm dead now.' "

When a crowd begin to gather around the wreck, Tremulis crawled out, asked for a cigarette and called an engineer at Duesenberg's Chicago offices to tell him that the test drive was running behind schedule.

Only later did Tremulis discover that he'd broken three vertebrae in his neck.

"I operate on the basis that the meek shall inherit nothing," he says.

The son of Greek immigrants, Tremulis first learned about aerodynamics from a World War I biplane that hung in a science room at Roosevelt High School in Chicago. Though he did not go to college, he was designing Duesenbergs and Cords in his early 20s.

Tremulis read one of Tucker's preproduction ads in 1946 and decided to call up the entrepreneur with a few suggestions. After 15 minutes of conversation, Tucker hired Tremulis as the infant company's chief designer.

Tremulis set out to craft the Tucker car, a rear-engine sedan that could seat six passengers. He included a rear grille to make it "the coolest-running engine in the world," disc brakes and the Cyclops Eye--a third headlight in the middle of the hood.

And he made sure it could zip from a standstill to 60 m.p.h. in 10 seconds. Over the years, automotive writers lavishly praised it.

In the 1960 book "The Indomitable Tin Goose," Charles T. Pearson wrote: "Only one new automobile designed for mass production has, by the record, fulfilled its promise of being the car of tomorrow, and that is the Tucker 48."

"Tucker: A Man and His Dream," a movie to be released Friday, documents the rise and fall of Tucker's plan to take on the motor industry with the car Tremulis invented. Directed by Coppola and produced by George Lucas--each of whom owns two of the 49 remaining Tucker cars--the film stars Jeff Bridges as Tucker and the young Greek-American actor Elias Koteas as Tremulis.

But Tremulis feels a little irreverent about the $24-million film. When he met a clean-shaven Koteas on the first day of filming, he walked up to the actor, shook his hand, and stuck a piece of black tape under the actor's nose to make a mustache.

Tremulis met Coppola 15 years ago, when the acclaimed director asked him to help restore a Tucker.

"Coppola doesn't really understand automobiles, I think," Tremulis says. "He's a difficult man. He's got 5,000 bottles of wine or whatever--la-di-da. He plays music at night--la-di-da."

But he has fond memories of Tucker, a man who made a bookshelf altar from twin pictures of Jesus Christ and a Porsche. Tremulis calls him "a good boss," despite Tucker's fierce demands.

"One minute he wanted the car built in 60 days, then he wanted it back to normal," Tremulis says. "And it had to be the safest car in the world. That's how he wanted it, and how I wanted it."

Tucker relied on Tremulis at embarrassing moments in the company's quick ascent.

When the Cyclops Eye--judged to be unsafe because it turned with the steering wheel--became illegal in 14 states, Tremulis fashioned a Tucker family crest to adorn a headlight cap.

Human Error

And when, at a demonstration in front of 150 people, a Tucker began to overheat, Tremulis rushed in to discover that the rear-engine fan had been screwed in backwards.

Because of similar gaffes, causing similar delays, the pressure to turn out the first and only 51 Tuckers forced factory workers into 110-hour weeks.

Tremulis remembers calling his wife, Chrissie, every Sunday night during that crunch and telling her to dress up for a fancy dinner. Each time, she would wait on oil-soaked benches in the factory until Tremulis canceled the date and asked her to order out for sandwiches.

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