1948 Tatra Type 87
1948 Tatra Type 87. Click image to enlarge

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By Bill Vance

The Tatra Car’s roots go back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1850 where Ignatz Schustala opened a wagon and carriage shop in the Moravian town of Nesselsdorf, Kingdom of Bohemia. Ignatz Schustala & Co. established a good reputation but had limited finances to expand. It found backing from wealthy industrialist Adolf Raschaka, who unfortunately died in 1877, causing Schustala to flounder until 1881 when financing came from a railway company. Schustala began manufacturing rolling stock.

When Ignatz Schustla died in 1891, management fell to the company’s technical director, engineer Hugo Fischer von Roslerstamm, who became interested in the emerging motor car. They bought a Benz car and engine for evaluation, and by 1897 the company, now Nesselsdorfer Wagenbau-Fabriks-Gesellschaft, built its first car.

At this time a brilliant young engineer named Hans Ledwinka joined the company’s railway division, soon moving to the automotive project. He helped design the first Nesselsdorf car, called the President, and Ledwinka would ultimately have a greater influence on Nesselsdorfer, later Tatra, than any other person.

After leaving Nesselsdorfer to help design a steam car, Ledwinka was lured back and led the company in building a series of successful cars and trucks prior to and during the First World War. When promised funding for a new factory was withdrawn, a disillusioned Ledwinka left again in 1916 and joined Austrian gun manufacturer Steyr who were starting a car division.

After the First World War, Nesselsdorfer found itself in the newly formed nation of Czechoslovakia, and the company was re-named Tatra after Czechoslovakia’s highest mountain range. The firm needed engineering talent and Ledwinka was enticed back from Steyr in 1921 to become chief engineer and technical director. It began his most significant period with Tatra.

In the 1920s, Ledwinka and an Austrian-born engineer, Ferdinand Porsche, were recognizing that Europe needed a light, sturdy, economical, affordable car like the American Ford Model T. Both were gifted engineers, although Porsche would gain the more lasting legacy with his Volkswagen “people’s car.”

Ledwinka’s concept, the technically advanced Type 11, emerged in 1923. Its flat-twin, air-cooled, 1.0-litre engine was in the front driving the rear wheels. The car’s most outstanding feature was a tube-type backbone chassis to which were attached the gearbox and four swing axles. The suspension was a masterpiece of simplicity with a single transverse leaf spring that was shackled directly to the brake drums, forming the upper control arms. The Type 11 distinguished itself in competition.

Several other models flowed from the talented Ledwinka. He began to envisage a rear-mounted engine for weight and space saving, and in 1934, after experiments in 1931 and ’33 with smaller rear-engined cars, his Type 77 Tatra appeared. It was aerodynamically efficient, had four wheel independent suspension, a 3,119 mm (122.8 in.) wheelbase and a 3.0-litre, air-cooled, overhead valve, alloy V8 engine behind the rear axle.

The Type 77’s layout was similar to the Volkswagen’s and many of Ledwinka’s engineering ideas such as the rear-mounted air-cooled engine, backbone chassis and four-wheel independent suspension (although using torsion bars, not Ledwinka’s leaf springs), would appear in the Volkswagen, then under development. This led to later legal battles which concluded in 1967 with Volkswagen paying Tatra an out-of-court settlement of three million marks for what were considered infringements of some Tatra patents.

The Type 77 was soon followed by more powerful Type 87 and 97 models with rear-mounted, air-cooled, overhead cam V8s. Their teardrop-shaped, aerodynamic bodies severely reduced rear vision, however, limiting it to the engine cooling louvres in the dorsal finned deck lid. The Type 87 would be built until 1950.

Unfortunately the swing axles and an “outboard” rear engine contributed to vehicle instability. What Porsche’s small, lightweight, low powered Volkswagen could tolerate was exaggerated in Ledwinka’s larger, more powerful Tatra. During the Second World War it was said that German officers occupying Czechoslovakia crashed them so often an order was issued forbidding the officers from driving Tatras.

Following the war Czechoslovakia ended up in the East Bloc where Tatra was nationalized. Ledwinka was jailed by the Soviets for his unwilling role as war-time manager of defence programs. During the war Ledwinka had conceived a smaller car called the Tatraplan powered by a horizontally-opposed, overhead valve, four-cylinder, air-cooled rear engine much like his pre-war Type 97 Tatra and the Volkswagen Beetle. After the war and during Ledwinka’s incarceration, it went into production under the direction of Julius Mackerlie. It was built into the early 1950s.

Following his release in 1951, Ledwinka was again invited back to Tatra, but declined, preferring to stay in West Germany. His successor at Tatra, Julius Mackerlie, designed more Tatra models beginning with the 1957 rear-engined Type 603.

Mackerlie’s rather round and bulbous designs were built for several years in limited numbers. Tatra cars went through several iterations, always retaining air-cooled rear engines until production ceased in 1998.

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