is probably the most iconic and most unusual in design of all Eastern European
cars. In this article I want to concentrate on their most known, streamlined,
The early 1930’s saw a growing interest in aerodynamics coming from the rapid development of the aviation industry. Almost every car with a slightly inclined radiator or a sloping rear part of the body had the word ‘Aero’ attached to its name. Many tried to create a streamlined car, including, Rumpler, Burney, Dymaxion, Wikov, Maybach, Pierce Arrow and even Volvo, but it was the Tatra who first put the idea into reality in a production car.
The company’s management made a wise decision to place the new car at the top end of the market where the price of the final product is not a decisive factor. This allowed a complex approach to the engineering of the car, designing it from scratch rather than adopting an existing chassis and mounting a streamlined body on it. Under the direction of the genius minds of Erich Übelacker, Paul Jaray and Hans Ledvinka the new concept began to take shape. The construction was new from top to bottom and absolutely everything was dedicated to achieving low air-drag, low weight, exceptional comfort and outstanding performance.
To make the car as low as possible, Ledvinka designed an all new chassis with a flat floor, reducing air-drag under the car. This however caused a problem. There was no room for the propeller shaft and exhaust pipe so the engine, together with the transmission, had to be placed in the rear. Having all the weight concentrated over the rear axle affected the handling of the vehicle. To tackle that the engineers moved most of the auxiliaries, such as battery, spare wheel, oil cooler etc., to the front. There were no traditional rigid beam axles. The all independent suspension, with the transmission sitting between rear wheels rather than above them, allowed for a low centre of gravity. The engine had a ‘dry sump’ lubrication system with the advantage of reducing its total height by eliminating the need for an oil sump.
The absence of a traditional frame, axles, propeller shaft and exhaust resulted in a great reduction in weight, but Ledvinka did not stop there. He eliminated the radiator and about 20 litres of water by cooling the engine with air. He then made the crank case of the engine and the gearbox out of light magnesium alloy called Elektron. As a consequence, the 5 meter long car weighted-in at 1700 kilograms. By comparison, a Mercedes 290 of similar size was 2350kg.
Paul Jaray had designed some streamlined cars before and sketching the initial outline of the Tatra was an easy task for him. A scaled down model was tested in a wind tunnel resulting in a teardrop shape. Not having to deal with a tall engine and a radiator in the front of the car he lowered the bonnet and shaped the front into near perfect, round form. There was no air intake to distort the air flow and even the headlights were embedded in the bonnet. The rear of the body followed the teardrop principle, gradually bringing the roof line down to the rear bumper in a constant, unbroken line. The first prototype had a two-piece windscreen but that looked rather heavy and clumsy. In the next a single piece was tried, finally being split into three parts. The technology for curved glass was not yet there. The car was not only light but also exceptionally low. Only 1420 millimetres, compared to 1630 of the afore mentioned Mercedes 290. That is 21 centimetre (8.25 in.) difference!
The first public appearance took place on 5th of March, 1934 at Tatra headquarters in Prague. The initial road demonstration stunned the journalists. Having only a 60 h.p. engine, the car reached a speed of 145 km/h (90 mph). A similar 60 h.p. Mercedes 290’s top speed was only 108 km/h (67 mph). A few days later, on the 8th of March, the Internationale Automobil Ausstellung in Berlin opened and the World could see the prototype for the first time. In June Frantisek Chovanec and J. Holub drove the Tatra in the 1000 mile Ceskoslovenských race. It was the Czechoslovak equivalent of the famous Mille Miglia. They finished 4th in overall classification. The car was still a prototype with a flat rear and a stabilising fin in the middle. Presumably there must have been inadequate engine cooling, hence, the huge air scoops added on to the rear of the production car.
The official world premiere took place in October at the 28e Salon de l’Automobile in Paris. This time it was the final production version. The Tatra stood low and sleek, looking like no other car before, causing a stir and excitement in both the press and the public. Doubts were raised that the top speed of 140 km/h claimed by the factory was actually realistic, so a demonstration test drive was organised.
Five prototypes were built, followed by 95 cars manufactured in the first year. The 1936 year model saw an updated version, the T77a. The rear end of the body was widened and the headlights were moved onto the wings. The front gained its distinctive third, middle light. The engine capacity was increased from 3.0 to 3.4-litre, raising the power output to 75 h.p.
It was never intended to be a cheap car. In 1936 in Czechoslovakia it cost 101,000 Kč. By comparison the cheapest Tatra model, the 57A, was 26,500 Kč. The Tatra 77 stayed in the program until 1938 and 154 copies were made.
By 1937 Tatra offered two new streamlined models.
The 87 was a successor to the 77. It looked very similar with the same teardrop shape, three headlights, three-piece windscreen and large air scoops over the rear engine. Slightly shorter, with 285 vs 315 centimetre wheelbase, the car was even lighter. Hans Ledvinka managed to further reduce the weight down to only 1370 kilograms. This, along with a re-designed engine now giving 75 h.p., allowed the car to reach a top speed of nearly 160 km/h (100 mph). The Tatra became one of the fastest production cars in the world. No other car could equal its efficiency with fuel consumption of only 12.5 litres per 100 km (18.8 mpg). To drive that fast any other car of that time needed an engine twice as powerful using almost twice as much fuel.
The other new model was the 97. Designed on the same principles, it was much smaller, with a wheelbase of 260 centimetres, total length 427 cm and height 145 cm. Located in the back, the air cooled, 4-cylinder engine had a capacity of 1.8-litre and produced 40 h.p. Combined with the weight of only 1150 kilograms the car could reach the top speed of 130 km/h (81 mph).
The career of the Tatra 97 was cut short with the annexation of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany in 1938. In total 508 cars were produced.
Since its introduction in Berlin in 1934 Ledvinka’s design fascinated the German Reich chancellor, Adolf Hitler, whose role in the rapid development of the German motor industry in the 1930’s is hard to overestimate. The famous German peoples’ car, the Volkswagen, was Hitler’s own brainchild. While Ferdinand Porsche was the leading engineer for this project Hitler was keeping close eye on it, sometimes even making his own alterations to the plans and drawings. In my personal opinion Hitler wanted Porsche to create a German version of the Tatra. Similarities in design between the Czechoslovakian car and the German KdF-Wagen are indeed remarkable. In fact, Tatra sued Volkswagen, who in 1965 paid them 1,000,000 Deutche Mark in compensation. A mere 10 Pfennig for each of the 10 million Volkswagens already sold up to that year.
The outbreak of WW2 saw Czechoslovakia completely taken over by the German Reich. The Nazis were very keen to control modern, heavy industry and use it for their war effort. Car production in all factories gradually came to stop, apart for Hitler’s favourite; the Tatra. The 87 was manufactured in small quantities throughout war and were happily used by German officers who sometimes drove them beyond their capabilities. Many soldiers died in accidents, gaining the car the nickname ‘Czech Secret Weapon’.
After the war Hans Ledvinka was accused of collaboration with Nazi Germany and spent five years in prison. Released in 1951 he refused to work for Tatra. He died in Munich in 1967, a sad outcome considering that Porsche, who worked directly with Hitler, was freed and set-up a successful family business manufacturing sports cars. These two genius engineers were on the opposite sides of Iron Curtain.
Tatra factories were nationalised and in January 1946 renamed Tatra Národní Podnik. Production of pre-war models T57 and T87 continued. In 1947 the 87 underwent a facelift having its iconic, three headlights integrated deeper into the body. The first Czechoslovakian post-war motor show in Prague in October 1947 saw an all new model called T-600 Tatraplan. With its 4-cylinder engine it was, to some extent, a successor of the short-lived T97. This new car was, however, slightly larger with total length of 454 vs. 427 centimeters. The power unit was also enlarged to 2.0-litre, giving 48 and later 52 h.p.
Although under Soviet influence, the Czechoslovakian economy remined partly in private hands and Tatra were able to successfully export the new model into Western Europe. This unfortunately came to stop when communists took total control over the country in 1948. With Iron Curtain tightly shut, all industry sectors were nationalized and central planning rather than competitive economy was to dictate factories’ production. Under this new regime only Škoda was granted permission to manufacture cars while Tatra and Praga were designated to make trucks. In 1951, production of Tatraplan was moved to the Škoda plant in Mlada Boleslav. This decision was unpopular in both factories. By June 1952 manufacturing of the Tatraplan came to stop and never resumed. A total of 6,342 cars were built, 2,100 of them at AZNP in Mlada Boleslav.
To survive, Tatra had to cheat the wind again, but this time it was the wind of history.
Tatra engineers were not prepared to squander more than 50 years tradition of making remarkable cars. Ultimately, Tatra was among the oldest car manufacturers in the world. Against all odds a small team led by František Kardaus and Vladimír Popelář secretly began development of a new car, a successor of the great, pre-war T77 and T87. A rescue came from the least expected direction; the inefficiency of the Soviet Union economy. Dissatisfied with Russian made cars for the high rank officials, the Czechoslovak government turned to Tatra with an order for a new, luxury limousine. By that time the chassis was almost ready, but lacked an engine large enough for the project; the car was meant to have 3.5-litre V-eight motor. With the deadline approaching a temporary solution was proposed of adopting an existing V-eight cylinder, 2.5-litre unit. It was originally destined as a larger alternative for Tatraplan, and tested before in the experimental T87-603 and some Tatra race cars. Various body styles for the new model were tested in a wind tunnel. The first prototype was ready in 1955 with bodywork designed by František Kardause and an engine developed by Julius Mackerle.
The new Tatra 603 was shown to the public in September 1956 at Brno Trade Exhibition and stunned visiting audiences with its aerodynamic body. The general layout, with air cooled engine in the back and streamlined bodywork, followed the original Ledvinka’s concept and the three headlights paid tribute to the engineer’s great, pre-war creations. Apart for that, everything was new.
The nose of the car was almost spherical, mimicking the front of an airplane. The headlights were grouped in relatively narrow cluster, located in the middle and covered with transparent screen. Two large air scoops were placed on each side on rear wings, which were crowned by fashionable but tastefully restrained fins. The roof was gently sloping towards the rear, leaving unobstructed space for two large rear windows. Inside there was space for six, a large boot under front bonnet and additional luggage space behind the rear seats.
The well proven 2.5-litre V-8 engine was equipped with two dual carburettors, giving maximum power output of 95 h.p. It was very light, weighing just 160 kilograms (25 stone). A fuel tank, two batteries and spare wheel were placed in the front. This allowed near perfect weight distribution and as a consequence, good handling. The independent suspension had coil springs and hydraulic shock absorbers all around. With top speed of 150 km/h (93 mph) it was the fastest of all Eastern European cars.
By the end of the year nine cars were built and serial production began in 1957. In accordance with international agreements within the Eastern Blok, Tatra was allowed to produce only 300 cars per year, exclusively for use by high ranking officials. That figure was soon exceeded and eventually accepted by Czechoslovak’s allies.
The western world could see the new Tatra at the Expo World Exhibition in Brussels in 1958. The five cars were not part of the display, but were parked in front of the pavilion serving as transportation. Far from conventional, they aroused great interest, – and disappointment! They were not for sale!
The Tatra 603 was never destined for mass production, thus was not available for purchase nor for export outside of the Eastern Blok. Production was very limited: 354 in 1957, 576 in 1958, reaching its peak in 1961 with 1,332 cars being built.
Without presence in a competitive market the car was not making any profits and did not need any development. Despite that, at the end of 1962, it underwent its first small modernization. The most obvious difference was the front with four instead of three headlights. Further changes included different shape of the rear lights as well as a somewhat more ‘angular’ rear part of the body. The interior gained a new dashboard with a lockable storage compartment. Handling was improved by widening the front track by 55 millimetres and adding an anti-roll bar. Increased to 8.2:1, the compression ratio raised the engine output to 105 h.p. The car become known as 2-603. Autumn 1965 saw further changes: a new, flatter bonnet, re-shaped air intakes on the rear wings and a single side flash running along the whole length of the body. A booster was added into the brake system.During the period between 1963 and 1967, production dropped below 1,000 units per year.
The 3rd series was introduced in autumn 1967. The headlights were moved further apart, the front windscreen grew 60 millimetres taller, the rear lights become bigger and bumpers changed shape, gaining more angular overrides. Seatbelts for two front passengers were fitted as standard. For 1969, disc brakes on all wheels were added. In 1973 the 603 became the first Czechoslovak car equipped with a contactless electronic ignition system.
By that time the car was ageing badly, but artificially created demand lifted production figures to over 1,500 per year and reached its peak of 1,671 units in 1972. High ranking comrades had to drive what they were assigned, rather than what they wanted. Within a centrally planned economy there was no alternative. In August 1975, after 18 years, the Tatra 603 finally retired. In total 20,422 cars were built.
The official reason for producing Tatra passenger cars was to promote the heavy-duty products of the company. By the late-60’s engineers and management realised that such outdated design was not really fit for purpose. They desperately needed a new model but getting funds from the ministry was not an easy task. Two prototypes already built in 1962 and 1966 did not get a green light, but they paved the way for a new model.
The first news about the Tatra 613 appeared in the press in 1970. The body was designed by Vignale of Italy and first three prototypes were built there. Two saloons and one two-door coupe arrived in Kopřivnice in 1969, looking rather… angular. The idea of a streamlined, aerodynamic car, Tatra’s benchmark for the last 36 years, was abandoned.
Tests were carried out for another three years, until the design proved satisfactory. The first cars of the “trial” series left the factory in September 1973 and full capacity production began in 1975. During all that time the car kept appearing here and there, at various exhibitions and in the press. Because of this, it is difficult to point to the exact release date of the new Tatra.
Power for the new model came from much enlarged, air-cooled, V8-cylinder engine. Four over-head camshafts, dry sump lubrication, electronic ignition, two carburettors and 3.5-litre capacity resulted in 165 h.p. It was the engine that the old 603 waited for, for thirteen years! However, for 1975 expectations, the performance was less than average. The Mercedes 350 SE offered 200 h.p. and the BMW had 190 h.p. As before, driving the Tatra was a privilege, reserved only for high ranking officials. Until 1980 only 4,581 vehicles were built.
Commencement of the new decade saw the 613-2 with some improvements to the engine and the brakes. In 1984 this model underwent a major facelift with larger headlights, indicators integrated into front wings and large, plastic bumpers.
In the mid-1980s, Czechoslovak communist leaders eventually acknowledged the persisting weaknesses of the country’s economy and failure of the centrally planned economy. Factories and business were now allowed to sell and export their goods more freely, but for Tatra cars, this rescue came too late. Making virtually the same product for nearly 30 years is never good and with the rear-engine layout their car was more of curiosity than a serious competitor to Mercedes Benz, BMW or Jaguar.
Small changes to the car continued until 1996 with subsequent 613-3, -4 and -5 models. There was also an even more luxurious 613 Special. Some vehicles had an extended wheel base and sophisticated equipment, but sales were now down to about 100 cars per year.
The last Tatra car was the 700 – a heavily restyled 613 model. Only 75 of them were built between April 1996 and July 1999. The engine was the same, but equipped with electronic fuel injection and developing 201 h.p. However, with the motor industry now focusing on emissions, air-cooling was just a glimpse from the past. Ironically, with its rather bizarre facelift, the car was trying to look a bit more aerodynamic again.
Locked-up behind the Iron Curtain for five decades, Tatra cars had been forgotten on Western European markets and had no chance of succeeding. Tatra trucks are still produced today, but Hans Ledvinka’s legacy of building remarkable cars has gone with the winds of history.