Though rarely seen in North America, the Tatra has packed a world of innovation under its distinctive bodywork for years. Much of that can be traced to the overshadowed genius that belonged to engineer Hans Ledwinka.
Tatra is not well known even among car enthusiasts. Neither is Hans Ledwinka, chief architect of these Czech automobiles for some 40 years. Both deserve far wider recognition. Ledwinka was an engineering genius to rival Ferdinand Porsche, and his Tatras were key milestones toward the automobile as we know it today.
The parallels between Ledwinka and Porsche are striking. Both were Austrian born, began their careers around the turn of the century and espoused many of the same advanced automotive ideas. Both were also needlessly imprisoned in 1945 as World War II "collaborators," Porsche by the French, Ledwinka by the Russians. But where Porsche's release was quickly ransomed by his family, Ledwinka had no such resources and thus served a long six-year sentence. He was a broken man upon his release in 1951, and he lived out his days quietly He died on March 2, 1967.
Tatra originated more than a century before in the Sustala Wagon Works, founded in 1850 by Ignac Sustala. The place was Nesseldorf, a village in the district of Moravia, kingdom of Bohemia, a small corner of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Successful from the first, Sustala eventually expanded into rail cars, and by the late 1890s, was doing business as Nesseldorfer Wagenbau Fabriks Gesell-schaft (roughly "Nesseldorf Car Body Construction Company").
In 1895, taking note of the growing horseless carriage phenomenon, Nesseldorf acquired a Benz automobile and spare engine as "instructors" for building its own car. Lessons were learned, and the first Nesseldorfer appeared within two years. Called "President," it was conventional down to its two-cylinder Benz engine, but it sprang from unconventional minds. Chief among them were Edward Rumpler, later famous for aerodynamic "tulip form" body designs, and a 19-year-old engineering student named Hans Ledwinka.
For various reasons, Ledwinka left Moravia in 1902 to work on a steam car in Vienna, though not before building a 70-mph racing Nesseldorfer that placed second in the 1900 Salzburg-Vienna endurance run. Rumpler departed too. Meanwhile, Nesseldorfer introduced two new models; the Type A, with eight taxable horsepower, and the 12-hp Type B. Both were built in small numbers, partly because their air-cooled flat-twin engines were anything but reliable. This prompted management to call in two engineers, Mssrs. Kronfeld and Lang, but neither could come up with acceptable substitutes. Desperate for help, the company persuaded Ledwinka to return in December 1905.
It didn't take him long to create the more salable car desired, and it was in production by 1910 as the Type S. This fairly large machine (122-inch wheelbase) was also conventional except for its engine: a 3.3-liter 90-degree V-4 with pair-cast cylinders, hemispherical combustion chambers, and overhead valves operated by rocker arms from a single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank. With a creditable 30 hp, the S was a critical success that earned considerable praise for Ledwinka and considerable money for Nesseldorfer.
Ledwinka next designed a straight-six S on a 136-inch chassis, followed by an equally advanced Type T with an inline four and a 133-inch wheelbase. A six-cylinder U-model entered production in 1914 with a monobloc engine and mechanical four-wheel brakes. Nesseldorfer was well established in trucks by then, having built its first around 1900, so the S and T were also sold as commercial vehicles.
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History of the Tatra
Then history intervened, and Ledwinka left Nesseldorfer again, not because World War I had started, but because of management decisions about auto versus railcar production. He hired on in May 1916 at the new automobile division of Steyr in Austria to design various vehicles for that nation's army. (Ferdinand Porsche did likewise for Germany.) Ledwinka remained with Steyr at war's end, when nothing remained of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Nesseldorf was within the borders of newly drawn Czechoslovakia, and had a new non-German name, Koprivnice. Commercial and political tact also dictated a new name for Nesseldorfer Wagenfabrik. The choice was Tatra, after a high mountain range in the eastern part of the new country.
Tatra began where Nesseldorfer left off by resuming production of the Type U (which continued to 1925). But something new was clearly needed for a vastly changed post-Great War Europe: a simple, light, but sturdy economy car, born of advanced thinking. Hans Ledwinka had been outlining such a car since right after the war. It might have been a Steyr had that firm been willing to gamble on a small car, but it wasn't. Then too, Tatra had a new general manager in Leopold Pasching, who respected Ledwinka and wanted him back. Lured by the title of chief engineer and technical director, plus a more receptive climate in Koprivnice, Ledwinka returned once more in 1921. With him came the first Tatra. It premiered in 1923 as the T11.
Offered in popular period body styles, it looked orthodox, with a certain resemblance to contemporary Renaults, but was fairly radical otherwise. In front was the air-cooled flat-twin Ledwinka favored for simplicity and lightness, albeit a new long-stroke unit making 13 hp from 1036 cubic centimeters. The 104-inch-wheelbase chassis was even more innovative, having a stout longitudinal tube that made a literal "backbone" for carrying the gearbox and an equally novel all-independent suspension. The latter employed twin transverse leaf springs at each end, plus rear swing axles. Cleverly, Ledwinka eliminated the need for costly constant-velocity joints with a pair of crown-wheel gears that pivoted around a set of differential spur gears on each halfshaft. The one disadvantage was that the halfshafts helped locate the wheels (springs were shackled to the brake drums) and thus absorbed all drive torque, which didn't bode well for durability.
But the T11 quickly silenced doubters (and there were plenty at first) with a skein of convincing competition performances in 1923-1924. More impressive still were its showings in two 1925 events. Despite little company experience in racing and with only young, non-professional drivers. T11s placed 1-2 in Sicily's Targa Florio road race; another Tatra outlasted 49 other survivors to win the equally gruelling Leningrad-Moscow-Tiflis-Moscow reliability trial. With all this, the T11 earned the affectionate nickname "Iron Dachshund" in Austria, and Tatra prospered all over.
Buoyed by such successes, Ledwinka quickly turned out a parade of new vehicles, including three cars in 1926 alone. Perhaps the most important was the T12, a T11 with four-wheel brakes and a slightly higher 50-mph top speed. It lasted through 1929 and about 25,000 examples. Next came a pair of four-cylinder evolutions, the 1.7-liter overhead-cam T30 and the 1.9-liter ohv T52. Also in 1926, Ledwinka issued a new six-cylinder water-cooled model, the T31. That gave way five years later to the T70 with 64 hp (versus 45) and standard hydraulic brakes. Last but not least was the imposing T80. Like the 70, it spanned a 149.6-inch wheelbase, but carried a massive 6.0-liter side-valve V-12 with 110 hp, good for 87 mph all out.
But the 80 would be the last water-cooled Tatra. With his professional star at its zenith, Ledwinka had no fear of focusing solely on air-cooled power by the early Thirties. Besides, liquid cooling was still too complex, costly, and unreliable to suit him. As for his backbone chassis and independent springing, they, too, were foregone conclusions for future Tatra cars and trucks.
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Design of the T57, V570 and Tatra 77
Ledwinka's next automotive success was the 100.3-inch-wheelbase T57, announced in 1931. Automobile Quarterly later termed it "a people's car -- and they liked it." That may be because its 22-hp 1.2-liter flat-four was almost indestructible. In a way so was the overall design, for it lived in production beyond World War II through evolved A- and B-models.
A forecast of the future arrived in a 1933 prototype, the V570. "Streamlining" was increasingly in vogue with industrial designers the world over, and this car had it: a compact two-door sedan with a 91.3-inch wheelbase, gently curved roofline, and a smoothly rounded nose with partly faired-in headlamps. For motive power, Ledwinka looked toward the future with a new 854-cc flat-twin, only here it was in the tail, announced by cooling louvers behind the rear side windows. The V570 clearly showed that Ledwinka was still striving toward an ideal "people's car." He was not alone. As British authors Ivan Margoulis and John G. Henry point out in Tatra: The Legacy of Hans Ledivinka, the V570 set the pattern for Adolf Hitler's Volkswagen. Hitler admired both Ledwinka and his air-cooled cars, and he met with the engineer on at least two occasions (in 1933 and 1934) for in-depth technical briefings on Tatra's latest models.
According to Hans's son, Erich, it was at one of those sessions that Der Fuhrer and Ledwinka formulated specific details of the coming VW, which Hitler then gave to Ferdinand Porsche. Visual confirmation comes from the Beetle's Porsche-designed precursors. In particular, the experimental Zundapp Type 12 looks remarkably like the V570.
But Ledwinka had bigger things in mind, and in 1934 he put 30 years of advanced thinking into one car, the Tatra 77. It was different to say the least. As Ray Thursby later observed in Road & Track, it "owed far more to aircraft practice than to existing automotive design.... The only clues to the engine location were the louvered rear deck lid and an air scoop on each side where quarter windows might have been." Streamlining was served by covered rear wheels, recessed door handles, and a startling dorsal fin running down the engine lid from roof to rear bumper. Otherwise, the 77 looked rather like the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows and the Peugeot 402 that appeared that same year.
Again striving for performance, Ledwinka and his son made the 77 the world's first rear V-8 production car, drawing up a 3.0-liter air-cooled "boxer" unit with one overhead camshaft per hemi-head cylinder bank. The cams operated the valves via rocker arms and also drove the cooling fan. The block and cylinder heads were all cast from light-weight alloys. A four-speed rear trans-axle mated with the engine to form a compact power pack designed for quick and easy removal or installation, a feature of Preston Tucker's car some 14 years later.
The 77 chassis was a strong box-section affair with Ledwinka's favored backbone, but was mostly integral with a new all-steel four-door body A sliding cloth sunroof replaced the old-fashioned fabric roof insert. The predictable all-independent suspension retained transverse leaf springs at each end, joined to swing axles in back and single keystone-type arms in front. Hydraulic shock absorbers were used all-around. Like the Airflow, the T77 cradled all occupants comfortably between the wheels, but a rangy 124-inch wheelbase combined with the rear-mounted powertrain for a truly vast interior. The aerodynamic styling paid dividends, too. Despite just 59 bhp, the T77 could breeze to nearly 94 mph.
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The Tatra T90 and T97
Yet for all its daring, the 77 was, in Thursby's words, "a flawed vision, and Ledwinka knew it." Thus, an improved T77A appeared barely a year later with a bored-out 3.4-liter V-8 making 74 bhp, plus structural upgrades and better cooling from the addition of large lateral louvers and roof air scoops. Also evident were a bigger dorsal fin, a three-piece windshield not unlike that of Raymond Loewy's contemporary Hupp Aerodynamic, rear vent windows, windshield defroster, and a third headlamp in the center of the nose (the future Tucker copied that idea, too). Leather upholstery became available, as did a division window and steel sunroof. With all this, Tatra had a truly world-class car, but one seldom seen outside its native land. The main reason was painfully slow production: just 105 for the 77 and 150 for the A-model.
The 77 was a sharp contrast to other mid-Thirties Tatras, all conventionally styled front-engine models. These included the last of the big T80s, the little 57s, and the 54-hp ohc four-cylinder T90, sold only in 1935. As usual, though, Hans Ledwinka was about to shake up things in his own unique fashion.
Ledwinka's revolution came in the form of two significant new Tatras in 1936. Though the T97 would be ultimately more important commercially, the companion T87 was "the ultimate Tatra achievement," to quote Margoulis and Henry. It was certainly Ledwinka's personal favorite. He had much of which to be proud.
Though derived from the 77a, the 87 was a vastly improved V-8 Tatra. Wheelbase shrunk to 112.2 inches, yet styling was sleeker than ever; it also brought larger windows and wider doors (still rear-hinged in front). The reduced size combined with a more fully stressed hull to shave 900 pounds from curb weight, yet interior space was hardly affected. The V-8 reverted to T77 displacement, yet made the same horsepower as the 77a engine thanks to twin overhead cams (driven by Duplex chain). Other improvements included twin cooling fans, a front-mounted oil cooler, and 16-inch wheels (versus 18s). The rear suspension was also improved, the single leaf spring giving way to separate transverse quarter-elliptics doubling as "trailing arms." But swin; axles on a rear-heavy car don't usually make for safe handling, and the 87 was prone to sudden severe oversteer and tail-first off-road excursions. Ironically, the inventive Ledwinka had no solution for this problem. In other respects, though, the 87 was remarkable: quiet, smooth-riding, and capable of nearly 100 mph. A slippery body helped performance, and it's worth noting that a 1979 wind-tunnel test confirmed its drag coefficient of 0.36, a good value even now. Unhappily, virtually non-existent rear vision was another inherent shortcoming that Ledwinka couldn't seem to solve.
The T97 was announced soon after the 87, but didn't enter production until late 1937. It was basically a scaled-down 87 with a 102.3-inch wheelbase and a new 1.7-liter single-cam flat-four developing 40 bhp. Suspension mimicked the 77's except for canted springs, and welded unibody construction was used as on the 87. Top speed? About 81 mph.
As a volume middle-class product, the T97 promised to do much for Tatra's fortunes, but it never got the chance as only 450 were built. The reason was the ceding of the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich in 1938. Suddenly Tatra was in German hands and Ledwinka was Hitler's Director of War Industry. A jealous German Transport Ministry demanded the T97 be killed for being too much like the new "Strength Through Joy" car, the budding VW. Tatra complied, but managed to build a few T87s during the war.
However, the Nazi occupiers quickly issued an order forbidding the German military to use 87s for any reason, this after a rash of one-car accidents killed several German officers. Disobedience carried a harsh punishment: guard duty at a prison camp.
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The post-war Tatras
Like most of Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia was isolated behind the Iron Curtain after World War II, and so, naturally, was Tatra. Though Czech automakers met to coordinate postwar plans soon after peace returned, the advent of Soviet political dominance and the nationalization of Czech industry dashed whatever hopes there might have been for exporting to the West. At least Tatra's plants escaped the war with little damage, and though its cars were now too extravagant for most East Bloc consumers (other than maybe Communist Party officials), even beleagured socialist economies would still need plenty of Tatra trucks. Tatra thus became a somewhat shadowy government-controlled builder of heavy trucks (over eight tons payload) and of passenger cars with engines over 1.5 liters. Lighter vehicles would be the province of compatriot survivor Skoda, in line with a government "typification" plan ordained in 1947.
Not surprisingly, Tatra's first postwar cars were mildly revised 97s and 87s, but they appeared under a new company chairman, Joseph Heske, and a new chief engineer, Julius Mackerle, a student of the now-imprisoned Ledwdnka. The 87 was built in small numbers from 1948 to 1950, then disappeared in the face of scant East European demand for eight-cylinder cars. Postwar changes were mainly cosmetic, with flush headlamps and a simulated front "grille" the most obvious.
The T97 was more thoroughly redesigned to become the 1947 T107, sold as the Tatraplan 600. An air-cooled flat-four returned, but heads reverted to ohv, displacement was increased to two liters, and horsepower rose to 52. Monocoque construction continued on a four-inch longer wheelbase, and styling was modernized via a flat, divided windshield, smaller dorsal fin, engine air scoops moved from roof sides to roof top, and a bulbous new front, again with a simulated grille and flush headlamps. The swing-axle rear suspension was further modified, gaining torque arms and transverse torsion bars. In all, the 600 was about as good as it could be under the circumstances. It lasted through 1951, the year of Ledwinka's release from prison.
Ledwinka might have returned to Tatra, but he declined all invitations to do so, instead settling in Vienna and later Munich. Meantime, management indecisiveness led Tatra to suspend car production for almost five years starting in 1952. But engineer Mackerle used the time well, creating a new ohv air-cooled V-8 for commercial vehicles and whatever Tatra's next car might be. A key feature was "ejector cooling." Instead of an engine fan driven by belt, which sapped power, Mackerle used exhaust gases, rather like a turbocharger.
Developed in a single-seat factory racing car, the 1950-51 T607, this system proved utterly reliable and continued through the late Sixties. A bonus was that ejector cooling eliminated the need for bulky external air intakes, thus allowing for a much larger rear window.
Finally, in autumn 1955, Tatra unveiled its next -- and only -- passenger car. Designated T603, it somewhat resembled the 1949-51 Nash Airflyte, but hewed to Tatra tradition with unitized construction (also a Nash hallmark), prominent engine air scoops (now on the rear fenders), and a vestigial fin on the back window. A new one-piece windshield was evident, as was a bulging nose with triple headlamps behind a large glass cover. Wheelbase measured 108.2 inches, but overall length was no less than 222.4. Underneath, a damped rear subframe carried Mackerle's new V-8 and the usual leaf-spring/swing-axle suspension. The front end was completely different, though, described as "independent wheel suspension by means of telescopic support and drawn swing arms, spring leafs and telescopic shock absorbers. Worldwide patent."
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The Tatra 603
The result was a far more balanced and readable Tatra, helped by extensive use of alloy that held engine weight to 381 pounds. Still, the 603 was rather heavy, and with only 90 bhp, it couldn't quite reach 100 mph. But the 603 did surprisingly well in competition, starting with an outright win in the 1957 International Alpine Rally Later 603s did even better, finishing third and fourth overall in the 1965 Marathon de la Route at Germany's Nurburgring. The following year they ran 1-2-3 in class and 4-5-6 overall.
These and other triumphs naturally came with specially prepared cars with up to 173 bhp, but every 603 was carefully built. Indeed, series production totaled only 5992 despite a long seven-year run (which wasn't begun until early 1957).
The reason was plain. The 603 was costly and difficult to buy even at home, and little sales effort was made in other markets. A few 603s were exported, however, mainly to Austria and Belgium through the state-run Motokov Company (established in 1949). Aside from Girling dual-circuit brakes from 1958, the 603 was little changed until late 1963, when an improved replacement arrived. This was the T603-2, distinguished by open quad headlamps (grouped in closely spaced pairs), a finless engine lid, minor exterior trim changes, and, from 1967, standard ATE power-assisted drum brakes. In 1968 came the extensively modified T603-3 with Girling front disc brakes, modified valve timing, a two-inch taller windshield, and a cowl ventilator to replace the hood scoop that had ducted air to the interior. That scoop became a dummy and was accompanied by other dubious front-end alterations. A poorly revised dashboard and a larger fuel tank completed a less than successful update.
After 20,422 units, the 603 finally stepped aside for a truly modern Tatra. This T613 was a long time coming, in development since the mid-Sixties, but not publicly shown until the 1974 Moscow Industrial Fair. Even so, it was a relatively giant leap forward. Stubbornly ignoring world industry practice, the 613 retained an air-cooled rear-engine layout, signalled by a grille-less front and only modest louvers on the rear "decklid." The engine, however, was a new 165-bhp 3.5-liter twincam V-8. It was positioned to put the car's center of gravity slightly ahead of the rear axleline -- almost a mid-engine design. The result was a reasonable front/rear weight balance of about 45/55 percent.
Suspension comprised rear halfshafts on slanted triangular arms, front MacPherson struts, all-round coil springs and telescopic shocks -- all quite modern. So was the styling: an airy four-door notchback drawn by none other than Italy's Vignale (to most everyone's surprise). Though undeniably boxy, the 613 was well proportioned, helped by a 117.3-inch wheelbase.
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The Tatra 613
The 613 was built -- still mostly by hand -- at the Pribor plant not far from Koprivnice, which took over Tatra car production in the mid-Fifties. Like its forebears, the 613 evolved quite slowly, first with the 613-3 of 1986, then the early-Nineties 613-5. There was also a lush 613 Special on a 123-inch wheelbase, built to order in tiny numbers beginning in 1976 as transport for state dignitaries. Luxury options proliferated down the years, fuel economy improved, and a five-speed gearbox became available.
Few Western journalists tested the 613, but those who did found much to like. Phil Llewellin, for example, writing for Britain's CAR in 1993, praised the 613-5's surprisingly good high-speed stability, as well as its ride, handling, interior comfort, even performance (0-60 mph in close to eight seconds). Complete Car, another UK journal, raved in 1995, "There's enough room to accommodate every conceivable gadget as well as hordes of people -- the 613-5 even has a central heating system you can programme up to a week in advance to warm the cabin before you set off for work on a winter's morning." The magazine was less enthusiastic about the "heavy and truck-like" five-speed gearshift, however.
Today, 100 years after the Nesseldorfer President first took to the roads of Moravia, the Tatra carries on as the 700. Fuel injection was added to the Tatra V-8 in 1993. Then, in April 1996, slight exterior styling revisions and interior modifications were accompanied by the new model designation. With its 9.3:1 compression ratio, the electronically injected 3.5-liter engine generates 200 horsepower at 5750 rpm. Tatra has yet to offer an automatic transmission, though. Like its predecessor, the 700 is built on two wheel-bases.
In his 613-5 review, Llewellin judged the Tatra "an impressive and interesting car made by a company whose heritage is fascinating." That's an apt summary of Tatra's entire history, a legacy of innovation owed largely to Hans Ledwinka. How nice to know that his pioneering work lives on long after him. Perhaps now with the fall of the Soviet empire and the rise of the Czech Republic, Ledwinka and Tatra will step out of the shadows to receive the wide appreciation they have always deserved.
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