We here at CarThrottle, like any other automotive site, are guilty of the "new" fetish. Even though that new version of the Gallardo is just like the last 32 "special editions" before it, only with a crazy paint scheme, we'll still report on it. It's typical, and I'm not saying it's a bad thing - news is new stuff, everyone loves new stuff.
But it's important to retain perspective on the historical aspect of the industry. Giving credit where credit is due. At this point in the auto industry, there aren't a whole lot of new, original ideas - they're just recycled ideas, perhaps with a new twist on them. But in the formative years of the automobile, there were pioneers, people who came up with actually new things. Some of these ideas went nowhere - the Amphicar, the Dymaxion, rotary engines, turbine power, etc.
But some ideas that were radical at the time became mainstream, accepted practice. And a lot of those ideas came from the Czech engineering and manufacturing firm Tatra. How radical and futuristic? Well, this is the Tatra T77. Fairly modern looking car, full enclosed body, rear mounted air-cooled engine, fully independent suspension, and a Coefficient of Drag of 0.212, which is considerably lower than almost all modern production cars.
This streamlined, funky car - which looks like a Germanic cousin to the Citroen DS - debuted in 1934. Just for reference, this is what American manufacturing giant Ford was making in 1934.
Tatra is one of the oldest remaining automobile and commercial vehicle manufacturers in the world, after Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot. So why is hardly anyone familiar with a brand that's been around longer, and pioneered more ideas than some big names? We'll get into that. First, some history.
Tatra was founded in 1850 as Schustala & Company, building horse-drawn carriages. Founder Ignác Šustala moved to railroad car manufacturing in 1891, renaming the company Nesseldorfer Wagenbau-Fabriksgesellschaft. The company produced the first central-European automobile in 1897, the Präsident, which was largely similar to the 1897 Benz. Well known engineer Hans Ledwinka was brought onboard in 1902 and helped to design the first independently engineered Tatra car, the Type A. (Although they were not called Tatras until after the first World War).
The Tatra story - and name - got much more interesting after WWI. The company itself was renamed Koprivnická vozovka a.s., and the range of cars were called Tatra, after the nearby Tatra mountain range (now you know!)
One of the major inventions of Tatra was the backbone chassis concept. Up till that point, most cars were constructed on a ladder-type chassis to which a body was attached. The Tatra idea was centered around a strong center section that connected the front and rear suspension (or subframes); in the original Tatras, swing axles were used on the rear end - giving it rudimentary independent suspension. This "backbone" was used on many subsequent cars - the VW Beetle and Skoda 420 for mass-production cars (more on the VW tie in later), as well as sports cars like the Lotus Elan, Esprit, Europa, and the Lotus-designed Delorean. The backbone chassis debuted in the 1924 Tatra 11, which used a 1,055cc rear mounted flat-twin. It was replaced with the similar Tatra 12, which included 4 wheel brakes(!), and stayed in production until 1936.
looks a lot like a Beetle. Hmm.
The far more interesting Tatra cars in the prewar period were the "streamliners." Engineering on the streamliners was led by Austrian Hans Ledwinka, who originally developed the V570 in 1931 as a mid-level car for the range. Tatra executives decided that the complex engineering and aerodynamic ideas in the V570 prototype would make more business sense in the luxury market, so development on the smaller V570 was stopped and the ideas were applied to the T77 (pictured earlier.)
The T77 was so far ahead of everything else available in that era, it was almost absurd - much like the Citroen DS twenty years later. Power came from a 2.9L air-cooled V8 mounted behind the rear axle, which produced 75 horsepower. The backbone chassis with swing-axle suspension was used, and the highly aerodynamic body meant the T77 could go much faster than it's small engine and low output would normally allow - around 140km/h (87mph) or 150km/h (93mph) for the later T77A.
The Third Reich in Nazi Germany loved Tatras. Hitler proclaimed at one point that the T77 was "The car for my roads." It's high-speed stability and quiet operation on the autobahn was endearing to Nazi officials, and it was said they frequently overestimated their own ability and wrecked them - earning the humorous nickname "The Czech Secret Weapon" during Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia from 1938-45.
Hmm. Looks a lot like a Tatra V570.
Any tale of Tatra would be incomplete without mentioning the connection between Tatra and Volkswagen. Ledwinka and Ferdinand Porsche met on many occasions to discuss the design of the VW, and the final product - the people's car - bore a more-than-striking resemblance to earlier Tatras such as the V570, and the production T97. Some things they had in common: the backbone chassis with rear swing axles, a rear-mounted air cooled horizontally-opposed four cylinder engine, storage in the front, even the general body style. Like any company that understands the concept of intellectual property (what I'm saying here is, the Beetle was basically a Xerox of the V570 and T97), Tatra sued Volkswagen. Then Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, and the lawsuit ended - as did production of the T97. If you can't beat the competition, invade their country!
Of course, after the end of WWII and the defeat of Nazi Germany, Tatra brought their lawsuit back up. Volkswagen ended up settling with Tatra for 3 Million DM out of court in the late 60's, which doesn't seem like a whole lot of money considering that the Beetle went on to be one of highest overall-production cars ever, and Tatra post WWII mostly faded into the background. Life isn't fair.
Back to the cars themselves, the T77 was replaced by the similar-looking T87 in 1936 (although production overlapped 2 years.) Like the 77, the T87 used a 2.9L air-cooled overhead cam rear mounted V8 engine, in what must be one of the most impressive-looking engine bays ever. Hard to believe this much engine porn only made 85 horsepower, which was still enough to push the T87 to a top speed of 161km/h - just over 100mph.
During the pre-war period, Tatra also produced a small number of T97's - the car that the Beetle copied - until the occupation in 1938. These were smaller than the T87, powered by a rear-mounted 1.8L flat four. Despite having only 40 horsepower carrying around a rather heavy 2,500 lbs, the T97 could still achieve speeds of around 80mph thanks to it's streamlined styling. The T97 briefly re-entered production in the postwar period, before being replaced by the T600 Tatraplan.
Tatra continued production of the T87 during Nazi occupation, because the German officers had to have something to drive. After WWII, with Czechoslovakia now under Soviet control, the factory was nationalized in 1945 and Tatra changed names again, to Tatra Národní Podnik. Development began on a new Tatra, the T600 Tatraplan, which I will discuss in Part II of this article - along with the rest of the post-war Tatra story. Stay tuned!