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Dream Machines

Rob and Bob Ida have a passion for antique cars—and the skill to build new versions of rare collectibles from scratch.

Posted July 11, 2011 by Ken Schlager

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Rob Ida
Rob Ida shows off the pivoting center headlight of a Tucker replica he created with his father, Bob. Behind it sits an original Tucker owned by Chick De Lorenzo of Butler.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

Bob Ida
Bob Ida with a Tucker rear grill fabricated in the Morganville shop. It will be fitted to their next Tucker (below), which is partially complete.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

Tucker Automobile
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

Preston Tucker
Preston Tucker unveils his dream car, June 1947. The car featured a padded dash and passenger “safety chamber.”
Associated Press.

Hidden away near Route 18 in a woodsy area of Monmouth County is an inconspicuous garage where a father and son are doing something no one else on the planet can do: They are building shiny new Tuckers.

One of the rarest and most collectible of American automobiles, the Tucker was produced for just a few short weeks in 1948. Only 50 of the futuristic sedans were built before Preston Tucker, the founder of the auto company that bore his name, was forced to stop the assembly line amid accusations of stock fraud. (By the time Tucker was acquitted, his company was dead.)

If you are familiar with the Tucker brand at all, it’s likely because of the 1988 film Tucker: The Man and His Dream, starring Jeff Bridges as the would-be auto mogul. Of the 50 cars that Tucker built, 48 are known to remain, some in museums, most in private collections.

But venture into Ida Automotive in Morganville, and on any given day you might encounter as many as three or four Tuckers. For the auto enthusiast, it’s a jaw-dropping sight.

Bob Ida, 66, and his son, Rob, 38, have been building Tucker replicas since 2001. They create their Tuckers using a mold based in part on a tiny Franklin Mint model. “We pull the dimensions off that and scale it up to full size,” explains Rob, who joined his father’s auto-design- and-restoration business in 1990.

To date, the two men and their crew have built five Tuckers. The latest, finished in maroon—one of six original Tucker colors—and a twin now under way were commissioned for use in a planned sequel to the hit film Sin City, a crime thriller that will star New Jersey native Bruce Willis.

Bob and Rob trace their fascination with the Tucker to Bob’s father, Joe Ida, an Italian immigrant who had a Tucker dealership in Yonkers, New York, with his brothers Dominick and Frank. Bob recalls the family’s excitement as they awaited their allotment of Tuckers. “It was such a dramatic thing…being in the empty showroom.”

Once the cars arrived, the excitement only increased. The showroom was only open for three days, but the dealership took 130 orders for the Tucker sedan, which sold for about the same price as a Cadillac. “We drove the Rockefellers for a demo,” Bob remembers.

Fifty years later, Bob and Rob decided they would use their auto-body skills to build a Tucker for Grandpa Joe, who always regretted not buying one of those Tuckers for himself. Sadly, Joe died in 2001, before Bob and Rob finished their first replica. That car is now in a private collection in New Jersey.

The day New Jersey Monthly visited Ida Automotive, another Ida-built Tucker, a low-slung, green-and-black version, was in the shop, ready for its close-up. Also on hand to be photographed was a maroon Tucker, the one original Tucker owned in New Jersey.  That car—the property of Butler resident Chick De Lorenzo—was among several originals to appear in the Tucker movie.

The Tucker—billed in 1948 as the Car of Tomorrow—looked like nothing that came before it. In an era of bulbous, hump-backed behemoths, the Tucker had sleek, aircraft-inspired lines, with a distinctive third headlight in its bullet-shaped nose. There was a single four-door model, known simply as the Tucker 48.

But Preston Tucker was not just out to make a stylish car; he also put an emphasis on safety—something most manufacturers of the day ignored. “In every direction—safety, performance, design—he was ahead of every other manufacturer,” says Rob. Tucker’s proposed safety innovations included tubeless tires, disc brakes, independent suspension, a pop-out windshield and a steerable third headlight. Front-seat passengers were protected by a padded dashboard crowning a large hollow space—what Tucker called a safety chamber. All knobs and levers were recessed to further protect passengers. Tucker also wanted to equip his cars with seat belts, but his investors nixed the idea. Seat belts, they said, would imply that the car was unsafe. American consumers would have to wait 20 years for seat belts to become mandatory in all cars.

After the fall of the Tucker Motor Company, Joe Ida ran a gas station where he fabricated and rented moving trailers —in the days before U-Haul and Ryder. Bob Ida took the skills he learned from his father and started an auto-repair shop in Brooklyn in 1959. Rob in turn learned from his dad. “We started to build hot rods together as a hobby,” says Rob, who grew up in Marlboro and now lives in Millstone with his wife, Brenda, and their two girls, ages 10 and 12.

A walk through Bob and Rob’s 6,500-square-foot garage is like a trip through automotive time. The front fenders from a 1939 Mercury sit forlornly on the ground in a corridor between two work areas. At the back of the shop, a stunning 1957 black-and-white Oldsmobile Super 88 convertible awaits some minor work, while a ’39 Ford undergoes a total restoration. Off to the side, a black Z28 Camaro sits menacingly on a lift above a little yellow Lotus Sport. In a showroom out front, two of their edgy custom street rods, a black 1937 Chevy Coupe (owned by Jack Kiely of J.F. Kiely Construction of Long Branch) and a 1933 two-seat Willys Roadster are poised on display.

But it’s the Tuckers that get the most attention. Rob explains that the completed replica in the shop will be used as a stunt car in the Bruce Willis movie. “They can strap cameras to it, they can bang it up, they can crash it,” he says.  The additional car they are building for the film—a more precise replica—will be the “beauty car.” That one will be for close-ups—and will be available for sale after the movie and a possible second sequel are complete. Starting price will probably be in excess of $400,000.

To create the Tucker replicas, body panels are molded from resin-infused composite—a kind of plastic. Bumpers are hammered out of sheet metal, and mechanical parts are fabricated right in the shop. Modern Cadillac engines and transmissions are used—hardly an issue for purists, since Tucker used borrowed drive trains for his cars.

“We take an artistic approach to handcrafting a car,” says Rob. “We create a rolling sculpture. It can go down the highway and be safe and reliable.”

Their work gets an enthusiastic thumbs up from John Tucker, the grandson of Preston. He recalls seeing Rob and Bob’s  first replica. “I just couldn’t believe how close it was to the original,” Tucker says. “I’m behind them 100 percent.”

As impressive as the Ida-made reproductions might be, they don’t quicken the pulse as much as the original. Remarkably, the New Jersey car in the shop on this day is documented as the last Tucker built; it was completed by Chick De Lorenzo with leftover parts some 40 years after the assembly line was halted. De Lorenzo says he has a standing offer from Jay Leno, an avid car collector, to purchase his vehicle for close to $1 million.

It’s time to take De Lorenzo’s original outside the shop for some photos. Rob slides into the narrow space behind the steering wheel—not everything about the Tucker was ideal—and presses the starter button.

Then he presses it again. On the third try, the Tucker’s six-cylinder engine rumbles to life with a throaty growl. Gears grind as Rob finds first. He steps on the gas and the Tucker floats out of the shop, a piece of moveable art, gleaming in the afternoon sun.
 
Because of its torpedo-like shape, the Tucker sedan is sometimes referred to as the Tucker Torpedo. But the actual Torpedo was a concept car, even more radical than the Tucker sedan—and it was never built. Not yet, anyway.

Never ones to shrink from a challenge, Bob and Rob set out several years ago to build the first—and only—Tucker Torpedo. Using a three-dimensional digital scan of a recently rediscovered original scale model, they created a wooden “buck” for the car—a sort of skeleton that will serve as a mold for their dream car. “It’s a life-size puzzle of a car that never existed,” says Rob.

Bob and Rob are moving ahead slowly with their Torpedo, figuring it out as they go. “No one has ever seen one,” says Rob. “There’s no textbook.” They hope to produce a car as close to Preston Tucker’s original concept as possible, although they will be taking some liberties, such as dropping in a Porsche twin-turbo engine. “Turbos weren’t part of his idea, but why not?” Rob says, revealing a bit of playfulness.

The plan is to build only one Torpedo and put it up for sale. The price? “It’s going to be up there,” Bob says. “It will be very special. Priceless, really.”


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