Tatra. An Austrian Affair
21 May 2023 5 min read 8 images
Photo credit: Gooding, RM Sotheby's, Wheelsage
Few car manufacturers have a history as rich and varied as Tatra, one full of real innovation, sophisticated technology, strongly characterized design, political complications related to the fate of Czechoslovakia from the late 1930s until the fall of Communism, and even a surprising case of the use of intellectual property rights, with none other than Ferdinand Porsche and the Volkswagen Group. Never before has the world of classic car collecting been so attracted to original stories and unknown or little-known models. We believe that this account can help arouse such temptations and, perhaps, inspire some of our readers to seek out an old, abandoned Tatra and restore it to the glory it deserves.
1934. Tatra presents the T77, a car that is futuristic in his concept that focuses on two main elements: economy given by aerodynamic shapes and the large interior space allowed by the use of the rear engine
Let’s put things in order: first and foremost, Tatra was one of the initiators of the history of the automobile, along with Daimler Benz and De Dion Buton, with its ‘President’ model from 1897. This alone deserves considerable merit. Then, in the 1930s, Tatra announced its manifesto, which it never abandoned – streamlined, air-cooled rear engine, load bearing platform chassis – and presented a very avant-garde model, the T77. Aerodynamics were unheard of on series production cars at that time, and the large luxury sedan, capable of a remarkable speed of over 150 km/h (93 mph), with its rear-mounted 2.97-litre air-cooled V8 engine, had a revolutionary sleek line. In addition to the centrally mounted steering wheel that housed the gear lever and three front seats, other unique details included three headlamps, with the central unit that followed the movements of the steering wheel to better illuminate the road at night.
Looking at the transparency of the Tatra T77, it's easy to see what will be the structure of the future Volkswagen Beetle: air-cooled boxer rear engine and shapes designed to improve air penetration
Before continuing with our story, it’s important to take a moment to look at the protagonists of this fascinating adventure. The designer and creator of the Tatras was a brilliant Austrian named Hans Ledwinka. Another Austrian, Adolf Hitler, was one of the most demanding customers of Tatra and owned more than one of their cars. Similarly, Ferdinand Porsche, also Austrian, was the engineer commissioned by the man who would later become the leader of Germany to create a car for everyone, which would become the famous Volkswagen Beetle. What follows, then, is a curious “Austrian Affair”…
The inventor of the Tatra concept, the brilliant Austrian engineer Hans Ledwinka
In 1936, Ledwinka presented the small Tatra T97: a rear-located, rear-wheel drive, air-cooled four-cylinder boxer engine car with a soft aerodynamic design, and a general structure that was very similar to the car of the people that Ferdinand Porsche would present to Hitler just two years later.
The new 1936 T97 model is smaller and more compact but identical in concept and approaches a lower and broader market segment
When the Type 1 was introduced - before the Volkswagen brand and the Beetle name had even been established – Tatra launched a lawsuit for patent infringement. Evidence suggested that Ledwinka and Porsche had been in contact, further supporting Tatra's claims. However, the legal proceedings were halted when Hitler’s army invaded Czechoslovakia and the onset of World War II shifted priorities away from the “affair”. But the issue did not go away entirely. After the war, Czechoslovakia came under Soviet control and nationalized Tatra. In 1961, Volkswagen agreed to provide fair compensation to Tatra. Given the commercial success of the Beetle, the out-of-court settlement probably had very little impact on VW's balance sheets.
1938. The little Beetle is proudly presented whose name Volkswagen - people's car - is in itself a message. Immediately recognizable is the small German car inspiration from the Tatra models
Even before the outbreak of World War II, Tatra had proposed a more compact and lightweight version of its flagship model, the T77A, featuring an aluminium engine and improved weight distribution. This idea was not abandoned in the post-war period, even though the company had shifted its focus to producing off-road trucks. Despite the lack of authorization from Moscow, Tatra remained determined to continue producing cars.
Tatra's top of the range, the T77 becomes the T77A and enjoys many improvements: lightened and more powerful with numerous accessories including the front center headlight that rotates left and right according to the rotation of the steering wheel
As luck would have it, the Russian cars intended for high-ranking officials were of such poor quality that Czechoslovakia was granted permission to create a new Tatra model: the T603. This serves as a testament to the importance of political power… Thank you! After various modifications and updates – note to collectors: the factory itself often updated the T603 and T2-603 models into the T3-603, with changes to both mechanics and finishes, no Concours d’Elegance judge can dispute this – just over 20,000 units of the model were produced until 1975. It is quite rare but not hard to find.
1956. Tatra introduces the T603. Modern and Americanized, it does not betray the company's style and mechanical setup with the rear engine. Its production will end in 1975
The history of Tatra could be much longer. However, we will conclude here by saying that getting to know all its models is an excellent way to explore and appreciate its rich legacy, and to know what to look for!