Missing Marks, Episode 29: Tatra

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Upheavals of sovereignty

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Discontinued Tatra brand

President of NesseldorferCredit photo – wikipedia

Comes from a factory of horse-drawn vehicles created around 1850 by a certain Ignaz Schustala, the one still called Nesseldorfer at the end of the 19th century, due to the company’s origins in Moravia, Nesseldorf, its first real car was released in 1897. “Präsident”, equipped with a 2.7-liter Benz two-cylinder engine, reached 82 km / h – incredible speed then – during a test drive by the boss, Baron Theodor Von Liebig. It signs the Tatras brand until World War II: elegant, efficient and innovative cars.

After the Great War, Czechoslovakia was born on the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Located in the western region of Moravia, Nesseldorf becomes the Tatra, with reference to the mountain range that today lies between Poland and Slovakia. In this powerful new state, created in part to stem Germanic expansionism in the southeast, the automotive industry is experiencing tremendous expansion: along with Skoda, Jawa, Praga and Aero, the Tatra will stand out with models out of the ordinary.

Talented engineers

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Discontinued Tatra brand

Type U and its revolutionary brakesCredit photo – Wikipedia

Tatra can count on a talented engineer born in Austria, Hans Ledwinka. The man whom the German press before the war designated as the greatest automotive engineer of his time, brought important innovations. Type U from 1915, for example, is the first car in the world to receive 4-wheel brakes. After a disagreement, he traveled to work in Steyr, where he crossed paths with another ingenious engineer of the same nationality as him, a certain Ferdinand Porsche. The two men become friends and their paths will soon cross. Ledwinka returned to the Tatra in 1921 and worked on the Model 11, which inaugurated another major technical innovation: the central tubular frame.

In the 1930s, Tatra also benefited from the knowledge of Ledwinka’s son, the German designer Erich Üblerlacker and especially Paul Jaray. This Hungarian-born engineer first made a name for himself in the aerodynamic design of Zeppelin airships before working for several car companies. A pioneer in automotive aerodynamics, Jaray produced revolutionary prototypes in the 1920s, but manufacturers remained wary of his non-conforming creations. He established himself on his own in Germany, but due to his Jewish origins, he fled the kingdom in 1933 and returned to Czechoslovakia.

Tatra and Porsche crossed destinies

Ledwinka and Jaray are collaborating on the V570 prototype, which features a motor- and rear-wheel-drive architecture and a “streamline” -type body that offers the benefit of reducing vibration and offering more interior space to passengers. The V570 was used as the basis for the Tatra T77, which created a sensation in 1934: low, streamlined line with a Cx of 0.21, “shark” type rear wing, tubular chassis, independent suspension, rear V8 engine in air-cooled light alloys, 4 seats and 160 km / h at top speed! The car was first presented in Prague and was the star of the Paris Motor Show. Many personalities bought the limousine, including Edouard Benès, future president of Czechoslovakia. Adolf Hitler himself, who owned a Tatra before coming to power, allegedly told Porsche, “these are cars for my highways.”

British director Maurice Elvey uses one for a science fiction film. Ledwinka immediately develops the T87, lighter than the 77, which surprises with its performance (85 horsepower but 160 km / h v-max) and its low consumption compared to competitors, as well as a smaller model, the T97 powered by a 4 cylinder. These models were launched in 1936

It was at this very moment that Ferdinand Porsche worked tirelessly on the prototypes of Kdf Wagen, a low-cost car wanted by Adolf Hitler to motorize the German people and make them the showcase of his regime. Aware of the work of his Czechoslovakian colleagues and under pressure from the demands of the kingdom, Porsche drew inspiration – which he would later admit – from several Tatra patents to develop the Beetle of the future. His code name “Power through joy” (strength through joy) evokes the “leisure” branch of German Labor Front (Labor Front), the Nazi organization that replaced the unions and put the world of work on a massive propaganda infusion. When the Porsche Kdf-Wagen was officially unveiled in 1938, it had striking similarities to the V570 prototype, the T87 and T97. Proof of this, Hitler orders that Tatra can not exhibit his models at the car show in Berlin in 1939 …

Tatra did not let it count and initiated several lawsuits against Porsche for plagiarism and theft of intellectual property, but the invasion of Bohemia-Moravia in March 1939 put an end to the case. The Czech car industry was absorbed into the Nazi military-industrial complex to produce vehicles for the Wehrmacht during World War II. However, the Tatra continues to produce its vehicles, which were very popular among Nazi dignitaries, such as Erwin Rommel, the “desert fox”. Finally, in 1965, after the procedure had been relaunched, an agreement was reached between Tatra and Volkswagen, which paid 3 million marks in compensation … Ledwinka fell into oblivion in history.

In the time of the Eastern Bloc and communism

After the war, Tatra had to continue without Hans Ledwinka, who was arrested for co-operation and never set foot in Czechoslovakia again. Nationalized, Tatra is oriented towards the production of trucks and must now adapt to the socialist planned economy, hence the name “Tatraplan” (a reference both to the word plane in Czech and … to the communist five-year plans!) 1947 T600 which is in line with its glorious older: 4 cylinders at the rear and air cooling. Faced with state requirements, the automotive industry is maintained with difficulty, especially since the T600 must be assembled at … Skoda, to enable the Tatra factories to optimize the production of trucks. Tatra’s auto production is written “luxury”, and remains low and difficult to access in an economic system where mass consumption is absent. On the contrary, it is Skoda that is gaining momentum in national car production, with economical models that are much more accessible and produced in larger series.

In 1957, the Czechoslovak government, frustrated by Russian production, nevertheless authorized Tatra to produce offspring for the T600: the T603 then emerged as an ORNI (unidentified rolling object) in the car landscape of the time.

Always sophisticated in a body with tapered shapes, it clashes with its very “vintage science fiction” front, adorned with three (then 4) cross-eyed headlights, protected by a glass, and its large, very “American” chrome. Considered a benchmark for communist production, the 603 developed continuously until 1975 and became a favorite among apparatchiks, administrations and taxis. Sports versions also stand out in rallies. But apart from a few exports to the GDR and Cuba – Fidel Castro has the right to his own with air conditioning – his career abroad is a disaster, despite his participation in several international fairs. In total, 603 are produced in more than 20,000 copies, which is a record for the brand.


In the 1970s, Tatra tried to modernize and adapt to Western brands. 1973 T613, powered by a 165 horsepower 3.5-liter V8, broke with the style of the house. Associated with Italian coachbuilder Vignale, it has a tight and angular line that takes in BMW’s false air. 11,000 copies were produced until 1995, with successive mechanical and design developments. The clientele remains the same: civil servants and businessmen. In the absence of a commercial network worthy of the name and very inadequate industrial capacity, Tatra cannot penetrate the already saturated Western markets.

The death blow sounds with the end of the iron curtain, which triggers the fall. The massive arrival of Western competition in the Eastern European markets will hurt the producer, whose production is suddenly becoming quite old. For Eastern European politicians and businessmen, power is now shown in German premium! Tatra does not differ and presents new versions of its old limousine: 613 Electronic with built-in computer and 200 horsepower as well as a luxury version with telephone, fax and television (!). In 1991, Tatra directly, in collaboration with MTX, announced a 300-horsepower V8 sports car, at 265 km / h. A pre-order of 200 cars was made, but a fire ravaged the assembly plant and hastened the completion of the project. . Only 5 prototype copies could see the light of day.

Tatra’s ultimate attempt is the T700, with little tricks but a lot of know-how and enthusiasm. Without a solid partner, Tatra is doomed. 700 is therefore the company’s last stand. It’s actually just an external development, for the base remains a now obsolete 613 with a 230 horsepower V8. A 300 horsepower GT version is even being developed, but the money is lacking to that extent to make this viable. Between 1996 and 1998, only 97 copies were produced. A competitive version, whose appearance did not have to be ashamed of the DTMs, prevailed for some years on the national circuits.

To summarize

Tatra, born during the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then the incarnation of a strong Czechoslovakia in the interwar period, suffered from the upheavals of 20th century history, and was boned in socialist autarchy before sinking with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the opening of Europe. Since 1999, the truck and industrial vehicles – including the military – division have survived, and certain models have participated in Dakar. A rumor provoked a return of Tatra in the car, but without follow-up at the moment.

Nicolas Anderbegani

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