Home » Let’s Hear It For My Dad, Who Made Me The Gearhead I Am Today

Let’s Hear It For My Dad, Who Made Me The Gearhead I Am Today

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My dad, Joseph Maxwell Tucker III, passed away on December 13th from complications due to lung cancer. He was just a few weeks shy of 78 years old. Too soon – stuff like this is always too soon – but sometimes when the doctors say one to five years, what they really mean is eight months and change.  I want to take a minute to tell you all a little bit about him, because I wouldn’t be here without him, and I don’t just mean in the obvious “here on planet Earth” sense; I mean here writing about cars. Dad was a champion and supporter of all my automotive endeavors, an accomplished engineer, an airplane buff, and a gearhead who had an impressive resumé of cars over the years. In short, he was an Autopian to the core.

The Bug, The Fiat, And The Scirocco

One of my earliest clear memories is seeing Star Wars at the drive-in in the summer of 1977. I was four. My mom stayed home with my two-year-old brother, and Dad and I hopped in his tan ’69 VW Beetle and went. I still remember sitting there, with a paper bag of popcorn we brought from home, watching X-Wing and TIE fighters scream across the screen while laser noises pew-pewed out of the cast-aluminum speaker hung on the window.

The Beetle gave way to a brand-new Fiat 128 sedan in the winter of 1978-79. We had a blizzard in Chicago that year, and Dad told me many years later that one of the reasons he chose the Fiat over its competitors is that its suspension design allowed for more ground clearance, which he thought would be an advantage in deep snow. That rational, analytical way of choosing things was always there; the engineer in him informed everything he did. We even took the Fiat on a cross-country family vacation once, which I’ve written about before over at Opposite Lock.

Dads Fiat

Dad was an avid tennis player when I was young, and pretty good, from what I understand. He played in a couple of leagues, won a few tournament trophies, and made a lot of friends doing it. And more importantly to his young already-car-crazy son, a great many of the people in his tennis league drove small sports cars. I remember Triumphs, E-Type Jags, MGBs, a Karmann-Ghia or two, a Datsun 240Z, and the one that would become the most important to me: a silver 1979 VW Scirocco.

The Scirocco belonged to Dad’s friend Dave Zborowski, who also had a black Porsche 914. But it was the Scirocco that caught my attention when I was a kid. Its crisp styling, one of the finest examples of Giugiaro’s “folded-paper” design era, just called to me. You can imagine my excitement, then, when Dad bought it for me for my sixteenth birthday. There was a practical side to this: I was a hardcore theater and band kid in high school, and between early-morning speech meets and late-night marching band practices, my parents were both tired of driving me around, and more than happy to provide me with a car. The only stipulations were that I pay for my own gas, repairs, and maintenance, and that I give my younger brother Zach a ride to school, which I did gladly.

Me Scirocco

Sadly, the Scirocco was not long for this world: it had been in an accident some years earlier, and not repaired properly. The rust, to which all Volkswagens of the late 1970s were prone, attacked the left front corner of the unibody with a particular ferocity, and while I was busy fixing the exterior rust problems, the car was rotting away from the inside out. When it became unsafe to drive, and unrepairable, I had to send it to the junkyard. I may or may not have cried. Dad offered me his ‘85 VW Golf to use, and it took me on many adventures and misadventures during college. I’m not sure how much Dad knew about, but if he ever noticed the dings and scrapes, or how quickly it was accumulating miles, he never mentioned it.

From Small Economy Cars To Big Fast Sedans

Dad Challenger

Dad worked for Caterpillar for nearly four decades, first in the design department working on hydraulic systems and excavator linkages and bucket designs, and later as part of the Challenger farm tractor team, as a quality and reliability engineer. He even had a couple of patents to his name through Caterpillar. I would love to have had the chance to introduce him to David and Huibert; they would have had a grand old time nerding out together. I wouldn’t have understood more than a tenth of it, but it would have been an epic conversation to witness. His work on the Challenger tractors took him to Winnipeg, Manitoba for a few years, and then to Harsewinkel, Germany for a few more. During this time, Dad discovered the joys of horsepower.

Gold Audi

It all started with Audi. My mom, after finally getting her Master’s degree in psychotherapy and opening her own practice, treated herself to a new car – a bright red Audi 5000S (visible in the background of the Scirocco photo above). That car played a dark and disturbing role in my family’s history: it was in two serious wrecks, the second of which put Mom in a wheelchair. But the paramedics on the scene also said it saved her life, and Dad was sold: he replaced it with another Audi 5000, this one a turbo, and then another after that. The Audis were beautiful cars, but every bit as high-maintenance and trouble-prone then as they are today. Dad replaced the last one with a silver five-speed Ford Taurus SHO. That SHO remains to this day the car in which I have driven the fastest: 135 miles per hour, on the Kansas Turnpike. And yes, Dad was in the car with me.

When he lived in Germany, the SHO waited in storage, and he bought a 1990 BMW 730i to drive. He actually wanted to bring it back to the US with him, but sadly his assignment in Germany ended in 2001, and the big gray BMW was far too new to be imported.

In 2006, when he retired, he bought a new car: a mint-green Chrysler 300C, and from then on was a Hemi evangelist. It was replaced by a black 2013 300C, also with a Hemi, his last car. That car is now in my possession, and I intend to keep it and take care of it.

Toys And Models, From Pinewood Derby To Pocher And Beyond

Looking back, having a mechanical engineer for a father was probably an unfair advantage when it came to the Pinewood Derby. We didn’t just build a car; we blueprinted it: precisely aligning the axle slots so it rolled free and true, adding weight until it was just a hair under the five-ounce limit (“in case their scale isn’t as precise as ours,” he said), carefully shaping and painting the body to resemble my favorite racing livery at the time – Jim Clark’s green-and-yellow Lotus 49. It worked; we won by a country mile.

Me Slotcars

Dad wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become an engineer, I think, but I never had the math skills. (I am at best an engineering buff; I can appreciate good design and engineering, but I can’t do it myself.) But that didn’t stop him from supplying me with things to build: Lego and Erector sets, model car and airplane kits, Estes rockets, even those Radio Shack electronics kits with the spring-loaded terminals and bits of wire to connect everything. We built and flew control-line airplanes and raced slot cars and tackled a one-eighth scale Pocher model kit of a 1907 Fiat race car together. He was fascinated by my radio control cars as well, and even bought one of his own to chase Charly, his Pekingese, around the yard.

He Loved This Site, Too

Dad was so excited when I got the Shitbox Showdown gig. I’ve been writing since junior high, but this is my first real paid writing job, and he was thrilled. He visited this site every day, and not just to read my silly little column; he was a huge fan of Mercedes’s airplane articles, and Huibert’s deep technical dives as well. 

He would call me to discuss the cars I chose, give me his opinion or tell some story about someone who had a car just like it, or tell me about some technical tidbit about them. He’d also call to tell me about something he saw Jay Leno do on YouTube, or the auctions he was watching on Bring A Trailer (purely window-shopping, but he loved doing it as much as the rest of us). I’m really going to miss those phone calls.

Last September, he came up to visit, and we went to the Portland All-British Field Meet in my MG. He was already getting weak, and having trouble walking, so we sat him down in the Columbia Gorge MG Club tent and he held court all day, swapping stories with the older folks in the club (which is everyone but my wife and me), and had a grand time. It was the last really good visit we had, and I’m thankful we got to do it. 

So take a minute, if you will, to raise a glass (literal or metaphorical, your choice) to a guy who was, without a doubt, One Of Us – my dad, Joe Tucker. Goodbye, Dad. And thanks.

Me Dad Germany

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60 Responses

  1. Mark, so sorry to read about your father. Mine passed just five days prior to yours on the 8th. One day shy of his 76th birthday. He fought lung cancer as well for four long, hard years. So many parallels between our two dads that were interesting to read. Mine was a Volvo guy for a long time. He had a 100 series sedan that he drove well into the ’80’s as his work truck. In the early ’80’s he managed to find a P1800 that ran but needed work. It ran well enough to drive a little when he first got it but was resigned to the garage after a while. Sadly it never saw the road again and was donated a few months prior to his passing.
    While the P1800 awaited resurrection he acquired a 1957 Chevrolet Townsman wagon from his brother. He added electronic ignition, disk brakes and 3-point seat belts to it. That car became my younger sister’s first car. The ’57 received more restoration since then including a new seat, door cards, carpet & paint job, in the original factory white & blue.
    He took me to see Star Wars in ’77 as well. I remember playing Luke & Darth Vader with him in the backyard before my parents split up.
    Here’s to my dad, yours and all the good dads out there wrenching on cars with their kids.

  2. Hi Mark, thanks for the great story about your Dad, he sounds like a wonderful guy. I also lost my Dad this past December 13. He was a hot rodder when he was young, but let that go when he became a family man. I was able to buy him a 1951 Ford similar to the one he once had, and we worked on it together and went to cruise nights whenever his health allowed and I made the time to do it. I wish I had been able to buy it sooner, and made more time,but at least we had those 5 years in it.

    I’m told it’s a long process to grieve, and we’ll be on a similar timeline. Good luck on your trip.

  3. Mark,

    I may or may not have cried reading this. I’ve held true to believing that your writing is akin to a good steak. That is that the last bite is just as good as the first, where many are best served as tapas. I’m sorry for your loss yet happy that you were clearly each other’s heroes. I’m sure the quick jacks will lift more than cars whenever they’re used anymore.

  4. So sorry for your loss Mark. I lost my dad more than 25 years ago and not a week goes by that I don’t think of multiple things that I wish I could share with him. The memories such as the great ones you have shared here remain though.

  5. Mark, I worked with your Dad for several years at the Cat facility in Aurora (actually Montgomery!) I also owned the yellow Fiat. I think it may have changed hands a couple of times around the engineering dept. before I bought it for $500. The budget was tight then but we needed a second car. When the starter switch failed I cobbled a fix using a wall switch. No kidding! He was a great guy. So sorry for your loss. Greg Loebbaka.

    1. Hi Greg! I remember you. Thank you. Yeah, I remember the Fiat “making the rounds” for a while. I think Jake Cline bought it for his daughter first, but then she wanted something more reliable to take to college.

      There are hardly any of them left now, but someday, I want to find another 128 to fix up – yellow, of course, if I can.

  6. Sorry for your loss. Looks like we’re about the same age and my father just turned 79. I know I’ll be a complete wreck when he goes. He’s who got me into cars. My father was an engineer, but he was somewhat more irrational about cars than yours it appears, save for the 1983 Volvo we had. Completely a rational family car. Well over 200,000 miles before we traded it in.

  7. Great tribute to a true gearhead, Mark!
    My dad wasn’t a car guy (although he borrowed some interesting cars from his military buddies over the years), but I hope I’m making similar memories with my kids and I can only hope their stories about their old man are as poignant as yours when I pass away.
    Thanks.

  8. So sorry for your loss, but this is a great way to honor your father. He clearly meant a lot to you and this article does a great job expressing your feelings.

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