Under the Radar

How One Military Contractor Dreamed of a Better Automobile

Jeff Bridges stars in Francis Ford Coppola's film "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (Lionsgate)

Francis Ford Coppola's "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" was released in 1988 and it's just been released on Blu-ray and Digital 4K Ultra HD for the movie's 30th anniversary. It's based on the real-life story of inventor Preston Tucker, best known as the inventor of the Tucker gun turret, a device originally designed for an 100 mph armored combat car that the military rejected as too fast for the battlefield.

A model of the Tucker Turret from the movie "Tucker: The Man and His Dream" (Lionsgate)

He launched the Tucker Sedan automobile after the war and its radical design met resistance from other car manufacturers. He included a padded dashboard, safety glass in the windshields, seat belts and disc brakes, features considered outlandish in 1948 but have all become standard in modern automobiles

"Tucker: The Man and His Dream" is, on the surface, a cheery Hollywood movie about a dreamer who struggles against narrow-minded business interests. Jeff Bridges gives one of his best performances and Christian Slater plays his son in one of his earliest movie roles.

Tucker gets sued for securities fraud by the SEC (just like Elon Musk!) and the courtroom trial is the big showdown in the movie. 

There's another layer to this movie that makes it all more interesting. Francis Coppola's father was one of the investors in the Tucker corporation and he grew up loving the automobile, of which only 50 were ever built. 

He directed this film on the heels of the collapse of his self-contained San Francisco American Zoetrope. Here's the thing: Coppola was using radical new technology designed to increase the speed and lower the cost of traditional filmmaking. Both the studios and the craft unions were incredibly resistant to his ideas and fought the Zoetrope way.

Guess what? Everything that Francis was trying to do is now standard operating procedure in the movie business. Technology may have advanced past what he was doing in 1980 but every single technique he was trying to introduce became the basis for the ways we make movies today.

Both Coppola and this movie's producer George Lucas collected Tucker sedans and the minor success of the film introduced a new generation of collectors to one of the great American cars. Tucker may have never found success for his ideas, but he was right. Coppola was right about filmmaking. And this movie is a tribute to them both.

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