Tatra Cars

History of the Tatra

To American eyes, the 1935 Tatra 77A will look a little like the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows of the same period on the outside.
To American eyes, the 1935 Tatra 77A will look a little like the Chrysler and DeSoto Airflows of the same period on the outside.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

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.

The rear of a 77A. The rear of a 77A.
The rear of a 77A.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

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.

To read about the design of the Tatra, continue on to the next page.

For more information on cars, see: