’80s movie taps timeless entrepreneurial spirit
Last night I watched Coppola’s 1988 movie Tucker: The Man and His Dream for the first time since high school. I remembered the film as the story of one of the great American entrepreneurial dreams and its demise at the hands of the government and crony capitalists.
I was right to remember the film that way. Preston Tucker’s quest to create a new, futuristically designed and safer car for post-war American was a big dream and a big failure. Tucker wanted to offer a completely redesigned car—something that looked like a rocket and would instantly make everything else on the road look antiquated and out of date.
But Tucker’s dream car wasn’t just a fashion statement.
It was a total redesign of the automobile. He wanted a rear engine, for safety and efficiency. He wanted headlights that turned as the car turned. He wanted disc brakes, a pop-out windshield, shatter-resistant glass, a padded dashboard and seat belts. He wanted a car that would fit with his vision of a future that was more fun, more exciting, and yet safer than today.
Tucker’s car company got a lot of initial interest and investment—in part because Tucker was a born showman and advertising agent. But the company failed. Coppola’s film accepts Tucker’s explanation of the failure—the crony capitalism of the “Big Three” of Detroit, aided by government protectionism and corruption, meant Tucker’s design was doomed before he began. The real story is doubtless more complicated. Life is always more complicated than film. The point, though, is that the Tucker Corporation failed.
The moment in this movie, about dreams and their collapse, that really struck me on this viewing is one I had entirely forgotten about. In the last few minutes of the film, Tucker wins the court case brought against him for fraud and theft. But after losing his company, losing his plant, making only 51 cars, and having his reputation destroyed, it’s a pyrrhic victory.
But even as he sits in court, watching his dreams dissolve, and even as he drives away from the courthouse, Tucker is working on the next idea. A shot over his shoulder during the courtroom scene shows him sketching a small box with two curving shapes inside it. It seems—at the time—as if Tucker is so despairing that he has stopped paying any attention to the trial, consoling himself with an odd doodle.
As we watch him drive off after the trial, though, we hear him explaining that doodle to his family. It’s a new invention—a small refrigerator, small enough so that even the poorest Americans can afford it, but large enough to hold two bottles of milk, “so the kids don’t get rickets.”
And that, for me, is the great entrepreneurial moment in this film. It’s not the big dream of the new car—though that surely is entrepreneurship. It’s the moment when, after everything has failed, the entrepreneur finds the next inspiration. And the next. And the next. And the one after that. That kind of resilience, that willingness to fail and try again, seems to me to be the place where entrepreneurship really lives.