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Tatra: A rare car that influenced many others

An obscure car you may have never heard of inspired the design of another vehicle that nearly everyone in the world recognizes by both sight and name.

Made in Czechoslovakia, the Tatra automobile pioneered air cooled rear engines and aerodynamic styling, influencing many other automotive designs around the globe. This is a Tatra T 77A.
Made in Czechoslovakia, the Tatra automobile pioneered air cooled rear engines and aerodynamic styling, influencing many other automotive designs around the globe. This is a Tatra T 77A.
Wikimedia Commons picture by Alfavan Beem

While virtually unknown in the U.S., the Czechoslovakian Tatra was a truly revolutionary car. First introduced in 1934, it had many features that were aircraft inspired, not a coincidence since one of its main engineers also designed Zepplins. The Tatra car used an aerodynamic, lightweight uni-body design with a flat floor pan. The small frontal area and low drag coefficient was achieved by having a rear-mounted engine. The engine, also designed by the Tatra Company, was an advanced air-cooled V-8, with hemispherical cylinder heads, overhead valves and a dry sump oil lubrication system. The rear suspension used swing axles coming out of a lightweight transaxle unit. The interiors of Tatras were comfortable, spacious and well appointed. Due to its aerodynamic design and light weight, the Tatra was also a very fuel efficient automobile, achieving 20 m.p.g. from a large vehicle. The first 1934 Tatra was called the Model 77, followed by Models 87 and the 97, both introduced in 1936.

The Tatra 77 and 87 were expensive, large cars, capable of stable and sustained speeds approaching 100 m.p.h. Both the 77 and 87 had three headlights, included a center “cyclops” headlight, which on the 87, turned with the steering wheel to better illuminate corners.

While similar in design to the 77 and 87, the Model 97 was a car designed to be affordable for the masses. It was smaller and more simply appointed than the preceding Tatras. Rather than a V-8, the 97 used a 1.8 liter pancake (flat) four cylinder air cooled engine.

During WWII, German officers started using Tatras as staff cars, which they praised for their superior performance on German Autobahns. Referring to Tatras, Adolph Hitler reportedly said it was the kind of car he wanted for German roads. Ferdinand Porsche knew and worked with Tatra’s designer Hans Ledwinka’s and admited looking over Han’s shoulder when Porsche was designing the “people’s car” for Germany.

Shortly after the introduction of the KdF-Wagon, which evolved into the VW Beetle, Tatra initiated a lawsuit over patent infringements. During WWII, this lawsuit became a mute point when Germany invaded and annexed Czechoslovakia and stopped production of the Tatra 97. Following WWII, Tatra reopened the lawsuit, which lingered on for years. Finally in 1967, an out of court settlement was reached, with Volkswagen paying Tatra three million deutsche marks. Tatra is still an operating company today, manufacturing heavy duty trucks in the Czech Republic.

The VW Beetle was not the only car influenced by Tatra. The American Tucker had a rear pancake air-cooled engine and cyclops center headlight, right out of the Tatra playbook. Early Saabs had a very similar aerodynamic silhouette. Arguably other vehicles such as the Chrysler Airflow and Lincoln Zephyr were also influenced by Tatra’s breakthrough aerodynamic design.

The largest collection of Tatra cars in the United States has been assembled by the Lane Motor Museum of Nashville, Tennessee. Watch the attached video of this amazing collection. View the attached slide show of Tatra models that were produced through 1998, when Tatra stopped producing automobiles.

Trivia Question: What famous car collector has a Tatra and what model is it?

Answer to last article’s Trivia Question: Kaiser-Frazier Corporation first produced automobiles in 1946, enjoying early sales success following WWII before other American car companies could retool with new post-war models.

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