Inside a garage in New Jersey something remarkable is taking place. Sitting in the center of the shop is a full-size wooden model of a long-forgotten concept car called the Tucker Torpedo. The original design of the car, conceived by automotive entrepreneur Preston Tucker and designer George Lawson in 1946, would eventually evolve into the legendary Tucker '48 Sedan, of which 51 were built before the Tucker Corporation went belly up in 1949 amid accusations of stock fraud. Consequently, the Torpedo Concept, as it was originally envisioned, was never built -- until now.
Rob Ida, the builder tackling this ambitious project, is co-owner of Ida Automotive and Rob Ida Concepts, a design studio specializing in building and creating custom cars. He is a highly-regarded designer and customizer who first received international attention for his bold and meticulous recreations of the infamous Tucker '48 Sedan. Ida's inaugural Tucker, built in 2005 and dubbed the 'Lower 48', won a coveted Design Excellence award at the SEMA show that year.
Ida, 40, works with a crew of six, including his father, Bob, out of a small, unassuming shop in rural New Jersey. Finding the shop can be a challenge for first time visitors and clients; there are no neon signs, no million-dollar cars parked out front, just a garage nestled in the woods at the end of a long dirt road. "We keep a very low profile," said Ida. "Most GPS systems don't even know we are here; we kind of like it that way."
Ida has a particular fondness for Tuckers largely because his grandfather, Joe Ida, briefly owned a Tucker dealership in 1949. "He opened the dealership in Yonkers, N.Y., and took orders for three days before the Tucker Corporation was permanently shut down," Ida said, noting that what Preston Tucker promised was a nearly impossible dream. "He couldn't do it in time, he didn't have enough money, and he had too many things working against him," he said.
The Torpedo project, commissioned by noted car collector Bob Kerekes, is the most complicated, labor intensive project Ida has undertaken. “We’re trying to build it is as if the clock was turned back - as if it’s 1946, and Tucker got his wish.” To further complicate matters, the only known evidence of the Torpedo is a handful of crude drawings from 1946 and an original, quarter-scale plaster model built by designer George Lawson. "We're basically trying to create this car out of nothing," Ida said.
Ida has painstakingly assembled the full-size wooden model, or buck, using digital renderings created from the plaster model. "We know the size, profile, and compound curves the car should have," Ida said, adding that the next step will be to hand-shape dozens of pieces of aluminum and fit them to the buck.
Ida's choice to use aluminum was born out of a desire to embody the spirit of a true coach built vehicle. "The alternative would be to do it in fiberglass, or hammer it out of steel, but doing it with aluminum, and the wooden buck, and everything, is really at the higher end of coachbuilding," he said. ”We are trying to use the best materials possible."
Forming the exterior will likely be the most challenging part of the project, largely because of several engineering challenges. Ida's Torpedo will feature two butterfly doors (not to be confused with Gullwing-style doors which open straight up), two front fenders that turn with the steering wheel, and three steerable headlights. There will also be a large dorsal fin running down the center of the roof and extending past the rear engine compartment – a component that was added in later drawings of the car.
The interior will be similarly complex. Early drawings show a driver sitting in the center of the car, like the setup in a McLaren F1. "We will build it with center drive, just as Preston would have done," Ida said. "The driver will have one rotating seat in the front and there will be an additional two rotating seats in the back." As far as air conditioning, Ida has opted to leave it out. "It wouldn’t have been there in 1946."
The most innovative element of the build is Ida's idea to use modern engine components, "slightly altered," to look as though they were built in 1946. "All the technology will be new but it will appear old," said Ida, noting that once the body is built, he will install a modern, air-cooled, 6-cylinder Porsche 911 engine in the rear of the Torpedo. It will also have modern disc brakes, rack and pinion steering, and an automatic transmission – each component disguised or altered to appear from 1946.
With work now fully underway, Ida expects the Torpedo to be completed in late 2014 or early 2015. He is also clear that this project isn't about financial gain or notoriety. "It’s not about the money," he said. "If I was worried about getting paid I would take on easier projects - but that’s not what I am in to. I am rich in other ways."
The Tucker family has been an ardent supporter of Ida's previous Tucker projects and is excited to finally see the Torpedo come to life. Sean Tucker, Preston's great grandson, makes a weekly drive from his home in Bethlehem, Pa., to talk all things Tucker and to assist in the fabrication and engineering of the Torpedo. “As an engineer and Tucker descendent, it’s important to me that I keep a hands-on role in this project,” he said, staring at the wooden buck in Ida's shop. “If my great grandfather was here today and looking at what was going on, this is what he would have wanted to see. This is probably the coolest thing that has happened, Tucker-wise, since the original Tucker.”